Donald Trump's Willie Horton moment: Using an old tactic to smear Hillary Clinton

Sound familiar? Trump's latest strategy is to blame Clinton for murders committed by immigrants

By Heather Digby Parton


Published September 2, 2016 12:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

The big news Thursday evening was that Donald Trump had hired David Bossie, the former head of a political organization called Citizens United (yes that Citizens United) as deputy campaign manager.

Beltway reporters seemed surprised by this although they shouldn't have been. Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway had already brought him aboard the Defeat Crooked Hillary PAC, when she left to join the campaign and for good reason. He is probably the most vicious Clinton character assassin in America, having been perfecting his craft since the early 1990s.

As it happens, I wrote about Bossie a couple of years ago for Salon, just because he's a Zelig-like character who always seems to turn up when someone needs a hit man. In that piece I quoted liberally from the original reporting by Columbia Journalism Review's Trudy Lieberman from 1994 that exposed the pathetic eagerness of the political press to gobble up any tidbit the right offered up as evidence of Clintonian corruption.  Here's a sample of what she observed:

In a cluttered office tucked away in one of the many red-brick office condominiums that ring Washington, D.C., David Bossie, source par excellence to journalists dredging the Whitewater swamp, handles one of the eighteen calls he says he gets each hour. This one is from Bruce Ingersoll, a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal. The discussion centers on bonds. “I have a whole file on bond transactions,” Bossie tells Ingersoll. “I will get a report on what I find. I know you are trying to move quickly on this. You want to come out before they come out.” A few minutes later Bossie says, “I don’t know what I have to give you,” but promises to spend the next couple of hours going through materials. “You’re on deadline, I understand that.” He then points Ingersoll in another direction. “Have you done anything on Beverly? [Presumably that is Beverly Bassett Schaffer, former Arkansas Securities Commissioner.] You guys ought to look into that. There will be lawsuits against the Rose law firm,” he adds.

Bossie led them down hundreds of blind alleys through those years which culminated in tens of millions of wasted taxpayer dollars, ruined lives and no criminal wrongdoing on the part of the Clintons. It did succeed in forever marking them as "not passing the smell test" in the eyes of the press and creating an presumption of guilt that applies to no one else in politics to this day. Citizens United and some of the other players like Judicial Watch are offering the same "service" to the media as they did 20 years ago and the media are eagerly lapping up the stories once again.

We actually should have suspected that Bossie was coming on board the campaign when we heard Trump's latest xenophobic rant in Arizona this week. One of the subliminal themes came out of a playbook written by Bossie's old boss at Citizens United, a man by the name of Floyd Brown. Brown spent many years disseminating smears against the Clintons and in the run-up to the 2008 election he and Bossie produced the psuedo-documentary "Hillary: The Movie". That project ended up fundamentally altering American politics when the Supreme Court took the Citizens United case challenging the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold law which had regulated distribution of the film. You know the rest.

Brown spent the Obama administration pushing the birther lies and accusations that the president is a secret Muslim. However, he is best known for something unrelated to Hillary Clinton. His most infamous contribution to our politics was producing one of the most notorious racist presidential campaign ads in history: the "Willie Horton" ad in 1988.

The ad started off by pointing out that Michael Dukakis was against the death penalty while George H. W. Bush was for it. The voice-over then said “Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison — one was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times" over a menacing looking mug shot of Horton, who is African-American. The voice-over continues,  “Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend." Then there's a picture of Horton being arrested with the words  “Kidnapping, Stabbing, Raping" superimposed over the image. The narrator concludes with: “Weekend prison passes. Dukakis on crime.”

There wasn't much of an ad buy but it created a firestorm in the media which meant that millions of people saw it on the TV news. Most of those connected with the campaign said they had nothing to do with it although the notorious GOP campaign strategist Lee Atwater was quoted saying: “by the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.” And as Adele Stan points out in this article for Alternet, the man who wrote speeches for Bush taking advantage of the brouhaha that accompanied the ad was none other than Trump's good friend and adviser Roger Ailes, who also denies any involvement (but who nobody has ever believed was telling the truth about that.)

So it should not come as a surprise that with Bossie and Ailes on board we are seeing Trump go back to delivering speeches full of lurid, bloody images of immigrants maiming, raping and killing Americans with impunity — and blaming Hillary Clinton for it as he did in his speech on Wednesday night:

“Countless Americans who have died in recent years would be alive today if not for the open-border policies of this administration and the administration that causes this horrible, horrible thought process called Hillary Clinton.”

If they can find someone named Guillermo Huerta, you can be sure they'll make an ad out of it.  This small group of right-wing hit men have been ginning up racial hatred and using it to get their men elected for decades. Now they are joined with the modern alt-right iteration of their ouvre and a candidate who is perfectly willing to forthrightly make the case himself. 1988 was almost 30 years ago. But right now it seems like it was yesterday.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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