The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Willie Horton is alive, and shame is dead

The 1988 “Willie Horton” ad remains the most infamous political ad in modern American history. But no one was particularly proud of being associated with it. The ad was meant to help George H.W. Bush defeat Michael Dukakis, but it was run by a shady political action committee separate from the Bush campaign. The campaign itself treated the whole thing cautiously for weeks but eventually denounced the ad. The man behind the ad, notorious bare-knuckle political consultant Lee Atwater, initially denied any involvement and later expressed regrets when he was dying of cancer. Even Roger Stone, another bare-knuckler if there ever was one, says he told Atwater at the time that the ad was “racist” and that Atwater and Bush would “wear that to your grave.”

A new ad tweeted by President Trump on Wednesday night has quickly drawn very valid comparisons to the Horton ad. But what might be most noteworthy about it is how willingly Trump is attaching his name to the racially charged, Horton-esque message.

And it follows an increasing trend of rather shameless misrepresentations and even dog whistles that GOP candidates and the party as a whole seem only too happy to associate themselves with — as if they’ve recognized Trump’s success with this approach and have decided they might as well do it themselves and own it.

(The video below contains graphic language.)

The parallels between the two ads are pretty stark. The Horton ad blamed Dukakis for Horton, a convicted killer who was on furlough, going on to commit rape, assault and armed robbery. Pictures of the black man featured prominently, including a mug shot.

Trump’s ad features Luis Bracamontes, a twice-deported Mexican immigrant in the country illegally who murdered two law enforcement officers. In clips from his trial shown in the ad, Bracamontes says he aimed to kill more cops and wished he had. “Democrats let him stay,” reads the text in the middle of the screen after his courtroom outburst. It adds later, “Who else would Democrats let in?”

Just as the Horton ad seemed a blatant effort to play on racial fears of a black man being allowed by Democrats to go on a crime rampage, the Trump ad suggests that Democrats want to allow Hispanic immigrants in the country illegally to do the same. This is hardly a new tack for Trump — he made crime by those in the country illegally a central plank of his 2016 campaign and has recently said, baselessly, that Democrats “want to turn America into a giant sanctuary for criminal aliens and MS-13 thugs” — but the ad represents perhaps his most forceful dog whistle yet.

Like the Horton ad, it’s built on a rocky foundation. Dukakis’s state, Massachusetts, was hardly alone in employing a furlough program — even the federal government had one — and the program actually started under his GOP predecessor. The idea that Dukakis was personally responsible was a huge stretch. In the case of Bracamontes, the argument seems to be that Democrats are weaker on illegal immigration, and thus people like Bracamontes feel more comfortable reentering the country after being deported. But you can’t draw a specific line between any Democratic policy and what Bracamontes did.

The ad contributes to an increasing shamelessness in our political ads and strategies that started in 2016 and metastasized this year — mostly from Republicans. In recent days, mailers have featured a Jewish candidate in Connecticut gripping cash and grinning (eventually the GOP disavowed it). A number of ads have featured what many view as coded messages about race and gender, labeling a female candidate a “feminist,” saddling a black Rhodes Scholar with his former rap career, and suggesting a candidate of Indian and Tibetan descent was “selling out Americans.”

GOP candidates have blatantly misrepresented fact checks by The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, awarding “Four Pinnochios” to candidates who hadn’t actually received them. An outside group tweeted an ad just this week featuring a Democrat who served three tours with the CIA in Iraq saying she favored “party over country,” even though it was just a verbal slip-up and she had run her campaign on a “country first” message.

There seems to be a growing sense that accuracy and delicacy, particularly on sensitive issues of race and culture, are hindrances and that there is no real price to be paid for straddling or stepping over the line. While campaigns have usually hidden behind outside groups who run these kinds of ads — or rely upon anonymous ne’er-do-wells for their dirty tricks — it’s now out in the open.

And you can understand why, based upon Trump’s success with just such a message. But the fact that Republicans — a party that after the 2012 election talked a good game about diversifying their party and appealing to minorities — seem to have abandoned any pretense about these matters suggests our politics are only going to get uglier.