The “Willie Horton ad” is among the most infamous campaign commercials in American history. Developed by allies of George H.W. Bush in 1988, the ad accused the Democratic presidential nominee of supporting a policy that allowed convicted murderers to leave prison on weekend furloughs — and claimed that said policy had enabled an African-American convicted killer named William Horton Jr. to rape a woman, and stab her boyfriend.
These claims were all technically accurate (Massachusetts’s furlough program had been established by a Republican governor, who had modeled it on the policy of an obscure California governor named Ronald Reagan, but Michael Dukakis had supported it). But the fact that the commercial appealed so nakedly to fears of African-American criminality (and called Horton “Willie,” when he went by William) led most contemporary observers to see it as shamefully racist and unethical. Bush’s own campaign viewed the attack as too beyond the pale to directly endorse, and thus, outsourced it to a putatively independent organization.
Thirty years later, the United States has grown far more tolerant — of wildly racist and unethical campaign advertisements.
On Wednesday, the president of the United States released a web video that accuses “Democrats” of trying to flood America with psychopathic cop killers. Specifically, the ad recounts the story of Luis Bracamontes, an undocumented immigrant who was deported twice before reentering the U.S. and killing two sheriff’s deputies in Sacramento, California, in 2014. In the video, Bracamontes brags about his crime, and vows to kill more cops if he’s ever let out of prison. Viewers are then treated to footage of (ostensibly) Central American asylum-seekers who are headed to the U.S. border, and implies that there are many men like Bracamontes among them.
In 1988, the Republican presidential nominee felt compelled to distance himself from an advertisement that accurately described a controversial policy that his rival had endorsed — and an adverse consequence of said policy — because the commercial cultivated racialized fears.
In 2018, the Republican president felt comfortable tweeting out a video that baselessly accuses the entire Democratic Party of allowing a Mexican criminal into the United States, and then suggests that, because one undocumented Mexican immigrant commited a horrific crime, we should presume that a caravan of Central American families — who are traveling to the U.S. border to seek legal admission to our country through the asylum process — is a major threat to American national security.
Trump’s video has been met with justified outrage. Even (some) conservative commentators have denounced it as racist, while CNN describes it as “the most racially charged national political ad in 30 years” and “the latest example of the president’s willingness to lie and fearmonger in order to tear at racial and societal divides.” Countless other news outlets and pundits have described it as Trump’s “Willie Horton” ad.
But the suggestion that Trump is reviving a brand of racial demagoguery that his party abandoned in 1988 is plainly untrue. In reality, the president’s web video probably isn’t the most “racially charged” Republican ad of the last three months, let alone the past three decades.
In September, Republican congressman Duncan Hunter released an ad that claims his Democratic rival is working to “infiltrate Congress” on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood, and is, therefore, a “security risk.” The entire basis for this claim is that Ammar Campa-Najjar, a former Labor Department official (and practicing Christian), is the grandson of a Palestinian man who was involved in the terrorist attack at the 1972 Summer Olympics.
Meanwhile, in upstate New York, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has aired multiple commercials attacking an African-American House candidate for having once been a rap musician. Antonio Delgado is Rhodes scholar and a Harvard Law grad — but according to the NRCC, his inoffensive, erudite persona masks his true, hip-hop self.
In its first ad, the committee juxtaposes Delgado’s current messaging with excerpts from a music video in which he uses curse words.
In the second, a series of conspicuously white, upstate New Yorkers express their concern about the rap lyrics, saying, among other things, “Antonio Delgado would be fine in Los Angeles, maybe New York City,” but “nobody talks like that around here.”
Elsewhere in the Empire State, (indicted) Republican congressman Chris Collins is airing an ad that simply features his Democratic rival Nate McMurray speaking Korean for 30 seconds, while bars of text make unsubstantiated claims insinuating that McMurray’s first loyalty is to China.
In many respects, the United States is a less racially intolerant country than it was 30 years ago. While our country has made scant progress on redressing the structural disadvantages that plague nonwhite communities (among them, residential segregation, employment discrimination, and the racial wealth gap), its attachment to ideological racism has loosened. In 1990, 63 percent of nonblack Americans said they would be opposed to a close relative marrying a dark-skinned individual, according to polling from Pew Research; by 2016, that figure had fallen to 14 percent. And when Americans are asked to contemplate interracial marriage as a general concept, roughly 87 percent approve, according to Gallup — up from 48 percent in 1995, and 4 percent in 1959. Meanwhile, racially and ethnically motivated hate crimes fell by nearly 50 percent between 1994 and 2015, according to FBI data.
But America is not governed by national opinion polls. It is (for now) governed by the Republican Party. And over the past three decades, the arc of the GOP’s history has bent toward unashamed racist fearmongering. The dog whistles have become foghorns — and the foghorns are becoming human rights violations.