Former U.S. senator Scott Brown, whose victory in a 2010 special election wreaked all sorts of havoc with Barack Obama’s agenda by taking away a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate, wasn’t given much of a chance against popular incumbent Jeanne Shaheen in his 2014 comeback effort in the neighboring state of New Hampshire. But late in that campaign, Brown showed surprising strength after adopting as his central message the novel claim that poor border enforcement was exposing Americans to both ISIS terrorists and Ebola.
Here’s how The Guardian’s Jon Swain summed up Brown’s demagogic appeal just before Election Day:
“I think it’s all connected,” said Brown, when asked during a radio interview last month whether the US should place restrictions on travellers from west Africa. “We have a border that’s so porous that anyone can walk across it. I think it’s naive to think that people aren’t going to be walking through here who have those types of diseases and/or other types of intent – criminal or terrorist.”
But the Republican is unapologetic. “With respect,” he said, in a brief interview between the snowmobiles on the floor of a powersports store during a campaign stop, “I’ve been holding open town halls, I’ve been travelling to businesses like this. People are bringing these things up.”
Indeed they did, and Brown ultimately came within 15,000 votes of upsetting Shaheen. Another Republican candidate who routinely made the immigration/terrorism connection (he added the lurid claim that Mexican drug cartels were collaborating with ISIS), U.S. Representative Tom Cotton of Arkansas crushed incumbent senator Mark Pryor by an astonishing 57 percent–39 percent margin. There was a lot going on in that race, and in the country as a whole in 2014, but no one suggested Brown or Cotton lost any votes by making wild accusations about confluent threats to Americans from dusky infiltrators across the southern borders.
I don’t know if he went to school on the Brown and Cotton campaigns, but the new master of xenophobic demagoguery, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, is mining the same vein with his usual lack of self-restraint in his first TV ad of the 2016 cycle, according to a preview from the Washington Post’s Robert Costa and Philip Rucker:
Donald Trump’s ad begins with a shot of President Obama and Hillary Clinton. Then comes a U.S. battleship launching a cruise-missile strike. It moves swiftly through an explosive montage: The suspects in the recent California terrorist attack. Shadowy figures racing across the U.S.-Mexico border. Islamic State militants.
The narrator, a deep-voiced man, speaks ominously: “That’s why he’s calling for a temporary shutdown of Muslims entering the United States, until we can figure out what’s going on. He’ll quickly cut the head off ISIS and take their oil. And he’ll stop illegal immigration by building a wall on our southern border that Mexico will pay for.”
The spot closes with the image of Trump thundering at one of his rallies, “We will make America great again!”
The Republican presidential candidate’s long-awaited and hotly anticipated first ad, which was shared exclusively with The Washington Post, is set to launch Monday as part of a series that will air in the final month before the Iowa caucuses. Trump has vowed to spend at least $2 million a week on the ads — an amount that will be amplified by the countless times they are likely to be played on cable news and across social media.
By simultaneously appealing to white working-class fury at supposedly lax immigration enforcement and to growing fears of terrorism that are affecting the entire electorate, Trump, like Brown and Cotton before him, is concocting an emotional speedball of considerable potency. He could once again wrong-foot his Republican rivals who are a step behind in tying together much-perceived threats to the secure and homogeneous America of the conservative imagination.