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Trump revives ‘Willie Horton’ tactic with ad linking illegal immigrant killer to Democrats

Luis Bracamontes smiles at the courtroom audience as the verdict was read in the killing of two law enforcement officers, in Sacramento Superior Court, on Feb. 9, 2018. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Pinned at the top of President Trump’s Twitter feed Wednesday was a video. The man on the screen has a shaved head and a mustache and long chin hair. Smiling, he announces, “I killed f‐‐‐--- cops.”

The man is Luis Bracamontes, a twice-deported Mexican immigrant who was given the death penalty in April for killing two California law enforcement officers in 2014. At the time of the shootings, Bracamontes was in the United States illegally — and now, with the midterm election approaching, he’s the star of the GOP’s latest campaign ad.

“Illegal immigrant, Luis Bracamontes, killed our people!” reads text on the 53-second video, which is filled with audible expletives. “Democrats let him into our country. . . . Democrats let him stay.”

The text is superimposed over videos of Bracamontes appearing to show no remorse for his crimes, and even declaring, “I’m going to kill more cops soon.”

More footage follows: Throngs of unidentified people rioting in unidentified streets and pushing down fences in undisclosed locations. A Fox News Channel correspondent interviewing a man identified only as “deported immigrant in caravan,” who asks to be pardoned for attempted murder.

“Who else would Democrats let in?” the video asks. An image of Bracamontes smiling reappears before being replaced by text, “President Donald Trump and Republicans are making America safe again.”

Trump’s moves on immigration roil midterm campaign for both parties

The video, which the president promoted Wednesday afternoon to his 55.5 million Twitter followers, came with a message from Trump to “Vote Republican now!” As of early Thursday morning, the video had been viewed more than 1.8 million times, drawing widespread condemnation.

(Note: The following video posted by Trump contains graphic language.)

Trump and Republicans were criticized for “fearmongering,” and the ad has been decried as “racist,” with many likening it to the infamous “Willie Horton” ads supporting George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election. Only the video Trump shared, critics say, is “far worse.”

About 30 years ago, William Horton, a relatively unknown African American felon in Massachusetts, became “Willie Horton,” the focal point of attack ads from Bush’s campaign against Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee and governor of Massachusetts.

Horton, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence, was temporarily released from prison in June 1986 as part of Massachusetts’s weekend furlough program, which Dukakis supported. Horton escaped while on furlough and in April 1987, he raped a white woman and stabbed her white fiance.

The “Revolving Door” TV ad accusing Dukakis of being soft on crime showed convicts coming in and out of prison through a revolving door made of prison bars, and was meant to allude to Horton, Rolling Stone reported. The ad was largely masterminded by Roger Ailes, who founded Fox News Channel in 1996.

“The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand — or without it,” Ailes once told a reporter, according to Rolling Stone.

Another ad called “Weekend Passes,” run by the National Political Action Committee, took things a step further and included Horton’s mug shot. That ad was created by Larry McCarthy, who had worked under Ailes for six years during the 1980s, the New Yorker reported.

“This was a classic example of racial cuing,” Claire Jean Kim, a political-science professor at the University of California at Irvine, said in a 2012 PBS special. “The insinuation is, if you elect Governor Dukakis as president, we’re going to have black rapists running amok in the country. It’s playing to white fears about black crime.”

Whether it was simply an attempt to criticize Dukakis’s crime policies or if it was an appeal to racial fears, the “Willie Horton” ads worked. “Willie Horton was devastating to Mr. Dukakis,” the New York Times wrote in 1990.

Kim, who described the ad’s strategy as “incredibly effective” and “masterful,” said even decades later, it still “sets the bar for racial cuing.”

“Candidates talk about not wanting to be Willie Hortonized,” she said.

On Wednesday, critics slammed Trump and Republicans for promoting what was described as a “Willie Horton redux” by both CNN’s Chris Cuomo and the New Republic, a left-leaning magazine.

“This may be the most desperate and vile ad since Willie Horton,” tweeted former Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

One Twitter user wrote that the Bracamontes video made “the willie horton ad look sensitive.”

The ad was even criticized by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

“This is just a new low in campaigning” Flake said, according to a tweet from CNN’s Jake Tapper. “It’s sickening.”

Jamie Weinstein, host of a podcast at the conservative National Review Online, tweeted, “This is, without question, a racist ad.”

A number of people pushed back against characterizing the ad as “racist.”

“Not racist but definitely nationalist, and in the accurate sense of the word,” one Twitter user wrote in response to Weinstein, “not the hyped up new definition which conflates it with ethno-nationalism.”

Another person tweeted, “The ad is 100% truthful.”

The video was discussed at length by Cuomo and Don Lemon on CNN on Wednesday.

After pointing out that “much of the footage” in the ad “comes from Fox,” a network often praised by Trump and once helmed by Ailes, the “Willie Horton” ad creator, Cuomo called both ads “grossly distorted, bigoted, but also effective.”

“At a time when the president says he’s calling for unity, all he seems to be pushing for real is fear and division,” Cuomo said.

Trump, Cuomo said, is attempting to send the message that “Democrats are responsible for the atrocious act” Bracamontes committed.

Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, hit back at Trump during an appearance on “Cuomo Prime Time” on Wednesday.

“This is distracting, divisive Donald at his worst,” said Perez, who later noted that immigration is Trump’s “dog whistle of all dog whistles.” He added: “This is fearmongering.”

With only five days until the midterm election, Trump has returned to immigration with renewed gusto. His anti-immigration stance was critical to his success during the 2016 presidential campaign and “he is counting on similarly inflammatory words and images to help the GOP hold its congressional majorities,” The Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim reported. Just this week, Trump publicly vowed to end birthright citizenship and said he would deploy as many as 15,000 active-duty troops to the border.

Conservative commentator Scott Jennings told Cuomo that he wasn’t surprised by the ad.

“I don’t see anything in this video that I haven’t heard from the president consistently for the past couple of years,” Jennings said. But, he added, “it’s not the message I would be closing the campaign on.”

Lemon echoed his fellow anchor when rebuking the ad.

“It’s a naked appeal to fear and hate, and it is racist,” he said.

Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University, brought up Willie Horton on Lemon’s show, noting that although the 1988 ad was effective in the sense that Bush won the election, it did little to help the former president’s personal image.

“The Willie Horton ad gave George Herbert Walker Bush his one big black eye in history,” Brinkley said.

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