Racist cam­paign ads no longer po­lit­i­cally costly

Can­di­dates aban­don old norms – and suc­ceed

USA TODAY International Edition - - ELECTION 2018 - Mon­ica Rhor

The bar­rage of racist mes­sag­ing in the 2018 midterm elec­tion cy­cle was in­escapable.

Mail­ers de­picted Jewish can­di­dates clutch­ing wads of cash. Robo­calls in Ge­or­gia fea­tured a per­son im­per­son­at­ing Oprah Win­frey, who de­scribed Stacey Abrams, run­ning to be the first black fe­male gov­er­nor, as “a poor man’s Aunt Jemima.” At­tack ads in a New York con­gres­sional race cast an African-Amer­i­can can­di­date and Rhodes scholar as a “big-city rap­per.”

Less than a week be­fore Elec­tion Day, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump tweeted a 53sec­ond video that por­trayed a car­a­van of asy­lum-seek­ing im­mi­grants as an in­vad­ing horde – a spot de­cried as racist. Dur­ing his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, he called Mex­i­cans rapists and crim­i­nals.

The num­ber of racially di­vi­sive ads was jar­ring, said po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists and re­searchers who track ad­ver­tis­ing.

“The new surge in nakedly racist ap­peals shows that, for a seg­ment of the coun­try at least, racism is no longer any­thing to be ashamed of,” said Kevin Kruse, a his­tory pro­fes­sor at Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity in New Jersey. “While th­ese at­tacks would have been seen as huge mis­takes in pre­vi­ous decades, they’re now seen by some strate­gists as a savvy move to mo­bi­lize a cer­tain seg­ment of white con­ser­va­tives.”

That can be at­trib­uted, in part, to the di­ver­sity of this year’s Demo­cratic can­di­dates, who in­cluded a num­ber of African-Amer­i­can, Latino, Mus­lim and Na­tive Amer­i­can con­tenders, Kruse said.

Kruse said the turn to more overtly racist cam­paign mes­sages can be traced to the Repub­li­can Party leader.

“Repub­li­can can­di­dates do seem to be fol­low­ing the proven Trump blue­print of ap­peal­ing to the fears and prej­u­dices of white vot­ers to a con­sid­er­able de­gree,” Kruse said.

Jamila Mich­ener, a Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor who stud­ies the in­ter­sec­tion of race and pol­i­tics, said Trump’s rhetoric en­abled other Repub­li­cans to use lan­guage and race-bait­ing strate­gies once con­sid­ered out of bounds.

“Look, if the com­man­der in chief can open up his cam­paign by stig­ma­tiz­ing peo­ple who are im­mi­grants and de­pict­ing them as rapists and that his cam­paign, con­tin­ued at that pitch, with that level of racism, ends up be­ing suc­cess­ful,” Mich­ener said, “that’s a sig­nal to his coun­ter­parts across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum that our vot­ers are open to this – and that at the very least, they will not dole out sharp con­se­quences for it.”

In the Florida gu­ber­na­to­rial race, for­mer U.S. Rep. Ron DeSan­tis de­feated Tal­la­has­see Mayor An­drew Gil­lum, who is black. Gil­lum was tar­geted by robo­calls us­ing offen­sive min­strel di­alect and jun­gle mu­sic. DeSan­tis called the at­tacks “ap­palling and dis­gust­ing,” but also made what many con­sid­ered racially coded re­marks di­rected at Gil­lum and has a his­tory of as­so­ci­at­ing with white na­tion­al­ists.

“I’m not call­ing Mr. DeSan­tis a racist,” Gil­lum said in a widely-viewed de­bate mo­ment. “I’m sim­ply say­ing the racists be­lieve he’s a racist.”

In Cal­i­for­nia, Repub­li­can Rep. Dun­can Hunter was re-elected de­spite be­ing in­dicted in Au­gust on charges of mis­us­ing cam­paign funds. His cam­paign was crit­i­cized for ads that tried to tie his op­po­nent, Demo­crat Am­mar Campa-Na­j­jar, who is of Pales­tinian-Mex­i­can her­itage, to rad­i­cal Mus­lims and de­scribed him as a “na­tional se­cu­rity risk” who is try­ing to “infiltrate Congress.”

“We stand by the ad,” Michael Har­ri­son, a spokesman for the Hunter cam­paign, said Tues­day. “There’s noth­ing fac­tu­ally in­cor­rect, and it’s im­por­tant for peo­ple to know.” Fact-check­ers have de­bunked the charges in the ads.

In Iowa, GOP Rep. Steve King was re­elected as he faced crit­i­cism for his ties to white na­tion­al­ists, his­tory of anti-im­mi­grant and racist re­marks, and his sup­port of a neo-Nazi party in Europe.

The Repub­li­can vic­to­ries – and vot­ers who seem to look past or wel­come the race-bait­ing – may clear the path for more openly racially-charged rhetoric in fu­ture cam­paigns, Mich­ener said.

“It sig­nals some­thing to the other folks who are run­ning about what the pos­si­bil­i­ties now are,” she said. “Un­less it’s alien­at­ing your own base in some way, or some part of your di­rect con­stituency, I don’t think we’re go­ing to see as much dis­in­cen­tiviza­tion this year of this be­hav­ior as we might once have.”

That would sig­nal a change from the past, when main­stream can­di­dates used coded lan­guage or tried to dis­tance them­selves from par­tic­u­larly egre­gious ad­ver­tis­ing, such as the in­fa­mous Wil­lie Hor­ton cam­paign ad.

The ad, put out by a con­ser­va­tive PAC in sup­port of Ge­orge H.W. Bush’s 1988 pres­i­den­tial bid, fo­cused on Hor­ton, a con­victed mur­derer who com­mit­ted a vi­o­lent rape while out of prison on a fur­lough pro­gram sup­ported by Demo­cratic nom­i­nee Michael Dukakis. Lee At­wa­ter, the Bush cam­paign man­ager, later apol­o­gized for the “naked cru­elty” of us­ing Hor­ton as po­lit­i­cal tin­der.

By con­trast, Kruse noted, Trump seems to rel­ish us­ing charged rhetoric and him­self tweeted the anti-im­mi­grant ad, which was re­jected as racist by CNN, Fox News and NBC.

“Bush never would’ve pushed the mugshot ad un­der his own name, and cer­tainly not per­son­ally, as all sides knew it would’ve killed his cam­paign,” Kruse said. “Trump put this out per­son­ally and proudly.”

While it is difficult to sep­a­rate the im­pact of cam­paign ads from other fac­tors in elec­tion out­comes and on vot­ers, many peo­ple in­ter­viewed on Tues­day were of two camps: They were ei­ther re­pulsed by the bla­tant racist ap­peals or they did not pay at­ten­tion to the ads.

Doris Flores shrugged off the tac­tics. “I haven’t re­ally paid at­ten­tion to them,” said the 53-year-old nurse and Trump sup­porter, who is orig­i­nally from the Philip­pines. While she called the words com­ing out of the pres­i­dent’s mouth “hor­ri­ble,” Flores likes his poli­cies.

On the other hand, Tammy Brack­ens, 48, a nurse who lives in a Hous­ton sub­urb, con­demned the ads as “mud-sling­ing and scare tac­tics.” But she ac­knowl­edged that they can be effec­tive in driv­ing peo­ple to the polls out of fear.

Mich­ener says that trend of stok­ing racial di­vi­sions is a con­tin­u­a­tion of dy­nam­ics long at play in U.S. pol­i­tics.

“Pres­i­dent Trump has cer­tainly sparked that. He’s am­plified it and ex­ac­er­bated it, but he’s work­ing with what was al­ready there,” Mich­ener said. “A lot of that stuff has been em­bed­ded in our polity from be­fore the be­gin­ning, be­fore we were even the United States. It never goes away.”

JACK GRU­BER/USA TO­DAY

Stacey Abrams was the sub­ject of racist robo­calls as she cam­paigned to be gov­er­nor of Ge­or­gia.

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