August 10, 2022

The spirit of “Willie Horton” returns in new Trump campaign ads appealing to racist fears

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The Trump campaign may be relying on a dog-whistling racist playbook that often seems more like a fire alarm than any pet signaling device, but no one has ever accused Trump of originality in his race-baiting efforts.


In fact, Team Trump, as Donald Trump’s official campaign organization calls itself in its Twitter handle, has carefully studied the tactics of previous Republican campaigns that used the “Southern strategy” to attract votes from deplorable Confederate supporters since the death of the racist Democratic “Dixiecrat” faction in the wake of LBJ’s civil rights push in the 1960s.

Although the Southern strategy was initially developed by the last certifiably criminal president who managed to corrupt the executive branch, Richard Nixon, it reached its true apotheosis in the 1988 presidential campaign between George H. W. Bush and the then-Democratic governor of Massachusetts Michael Dukakis.

When initial polling showed Dukakis with a lead in the race, the Bush campaign broke out the racist ads featuring Willie Horton, a Massachusetts felon convicted of murder who failed to return from a weekend furlough program and went on to commit the additional crimes of assault, armed robbery, and rape before he was captured and returned to prison.

With Horton now a symbol for supposed Democratic weakness on crime and “law & order,” Bush conjured up enough fear of dark-skinned criminals to overtake Dukakis and win the election by nearly eight percentage points in the popular vote while carrying the electoral college with 40 states.

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With such a successful template already available and a propensity for stoking racial divisions, why would the Trump campaign bother developing any other tactics when they could simply recycle a tried and true winner of a propaganda blitz?

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Recycle they did, as these social media posts from Team Trump amply demonstrate.

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Not content to demonize just a single person with their fear-mongering ads, Team Trump decided to one-up the Bush campaign by producing a whole series of ads, each featuring a different perpetrator in each spot, to add some volume to their terror-inducing methods.

You’ll notice that graphics in these ads all list crimes with which these people have been charged, but not yet convicted, meaning that their bail was to allow them out of prison while awaiting a hopefully free and fair trial by a jury of their peers, a courtesy that anyone who isn’t poor has ready access to.

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It remains to be seen if the American public of 2020 will be as easily persuaded to vote for Trump by using a 32-year-old campaign tactic featuring people who haven’t even been found guilty of that with which they are charged.

However, Democrats, or perhaps those folks at The Lincoln Project, some of whom worked on the original George H.W. Bush campaign, should immediately prepare their counter-attack by making similar ads featuring people whom Donald Trump has either pardoned or worked to preclude punishment for including Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, war criminal Eddie Gallagher, and Michael Flynn, among others.

Fear-mongering can work both ways.

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Vinnie Longobardo

is the Managing Editor of Washington Press and a 35-year veteran of the TV, mobile, & internet industries, specializing in start-ups and the international media business. His passions are politics, music, and art.

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