Donald Trump’s first campaign ad has taken heat in the press over its scaremongering about the supposed threats to America from the more dark-skinned populations of other countries. From imagery of hijab-wearing Muslim terrorists to shots of illegals flooding America’s border with Mexico – er, excuse me, I meant Morocco – the ad was a compilation of some of Trump’s greatest, most racist hits.
We’ll see whether the voters react positively to the ad. The history of such blatant pandering to fears of a dark planet is somewhat unmeasurable. One can’t really say, for example, that the infamous “Willie Horton” ad swung the 1988 presidential election for George H.W. Bush – he crushed Michael Dukakis for plenty of reasons – but it is one of the two most memorable moments from that campaign.
What’s interesting is the ad’s release amidst ongoing efforts of conservatives to blame everyone but themselves for Trump’s rise to the top of the Republican primary field. What these conservatives ignore is that their ideological brethren have a long history of pushing the illegal immigration button to scare voters into pulling the lever for Republicans on Election Day. Here are just a few such ads I found dating back to the 1990s:
Remember Sharron Angle? The Tea Party darling ran to replace Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada in 2010. During the campaign, Angle released this charmer of an ad that slammed Reid for his alleged support of amnesty for illegal aliens. The ad featured footage of Hispanic men sneaking at night through holes in a fence (which will never happen after President Trump builds that beautiful wall) and strolling menacingly through the shadows of a dark alley. Nope, no dog-whistling there!
Maybe the ad pushed some votes into Angle’s column, but in the historic Tea Party wave of 2010, Reid still stomped her like a Terminator robot crushing a human skull. Reid is retiring in 2016, but the Nevada GOP won’t be asking Angle back to make another run at his seat.
Another Angle ad got called out for smearing the words “Illegal Immigrants” across a still photograph of three Mexican farmers. The problem was that the picture was taken in Mexico, and therefore the three men were not actually immigrants, let alone illegal ones. She had to pull the ad over a copyright claim because the picture belonged to the Getty archive and her campaign didn’t get permission to use it. Chalk up “copyright law” as one more issue Sharron Angle didn’t understand.
Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) used the same image in one of his re-election campaign ads that year, though his ad maker put the words “Benefits for illegals” across the picture. Another of his ads used the same “Scary Hispanic-looking men pouring through a flimsy border fence” motif, for which he was roundly condemned. Though he took plenty of criticism for his blatant racism, it didn’t hurt him enough; Vitter easily defeated his Democratic challenger to win a second Senate term.
The 2004 election for senator in Illinois was notable for sending Barack Obama to Washington when he defeated Alan Keyes by the largest margin ever in an Illinois Senate election. During the Republican primaries, though, it was businessman Jim Oberweis who gained a brief moment of notoriety for this spot. Shot in a helicopter for some reason, the ad featured Oberweis telling his potential constituents that enough illegal immigrants were flooding the country every week to fill up Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears. Thus did Oberweis pander to two sad, long-suffering constituencies: fearful racists and Bears fans.
Oberweis finished second in the primary.
The 1996 presidential campaign also saw some Republican fearmongering on illegal aliens in the form of this spot from GOP candidate Bob Dole. Despite Bill Clinton and Democrats having moved to the right a bit on the issue during Clinton’s first term, the Dole ad still hit him for fighting California in court over the state’s notorious Proposition 187 and cutting the number of agents policing the border. The commercial featured footage of white people looking angry, white children looking sad, and paramedics loading a stretcher into an ambulance while a narrator intoned that “We pay the taxes, we are the victims, and our children get short-changed” in a way that left no doubt who “we” were.
The ad was targeted at California. Clinton won the state’s 54 electoral votes by nearly 13 percent, a victory fueled in part by a voter backlash to Proposition 187, which had quickly become an embarrassment after it was enacted in 1994.
To his very marginal credit, after securing the nomination Dole repudiated a plank of his party’s national platform that called for a constitutional amendment denying automatic citizenship to children born to illegal immigrants in America. Any candidate who does that in 2016 will likely invite calls for a do-over of the primaries.
Proposition 187 had been a major issue in California’s gubernatorial election of 1994. Republican governor Pete Wilson, who was running for a second term, was a vocal backer of the ballot initiative, which called for draconian punishments for illegal immigrants. As part of his re-election campaign, Wilson ran this ad featuring some of the same elements that Trump uses in his spot twenty years later. There is black-and-white security camera footage of migrants running across what is presumably the border while a narrator congratulates Wilson for having the courage to say “enough is enough” to the scourge of illegal immigration. This is intercut with footage of Wilson dramatically gesticulating as he makes a point and somber white people nodding along in agreement.
Wilson did win re-election, but Proposition 187 was found unconstitutional and never enacted. It did succeed in poisoning the state Republican Party’s image with California’s growing Hispanic population and likely played a role in the GOP’s long slide into near-irrelevance in the Golden State.
If the Republican Party and its voters were smart, they would consider that the country’s changing demographics make it resemble California more each day. But that’s a blind spot for the GOP that dates back at least twenty years. While the Democrats have swung back to the left on immigration reform, the Republicans remain the party of revanchists and xenophobes. One of whom is still clobbering all comers, at least in the polls, for the presidential nomination.