BY SUSAN ESTRICH
In 1988, Lee Atwater, George Bush’s campaign manager, vowed to make “Willie Horton” [real name, William Horton] Michael Dukakis’ running mate. And he did, with the help of Larry McCarthy and an ad that featured a terrifying mug shot of a black murderer who had been released from prison on a weekend furlough and gone to Maryland where he raped a white woman.
Horton was a story in Massachusetts long before Atwater [who apologized before his death] turned him into a household name. And the ugly history of rape and racism was one we knew painfully well. We in the Dukakis camp were not caught by surprise. But Dukakis was a good man who refused to play race politics even when it was being played against him. Wouldn’t do it. The irony was that his family had known first-hand the pain of violent crime. He had scruples.
Donald Trump is not troubled by such things.
Days after 11 Jews were murdered for their faith by a white supremacist, the president, who had refused to condemn white supremacists in Charlottesville and who was told to stay away by Pittsburgh’s Jewish leaders, took to Twitter and the airwaves to try to get some votes by running his own Willie Horton ad.
The time his name is Luis. Mexican, not black. An immigrant here illegally. One of those “bad hombres” Trump likes to threaten. He was deported twice and then re-entered the United States and killed two police officers. He is in prison for life. He brags about it in the video. “The Democrats let him into our country.” Cut to a supposed shot of the “caravan” full of men who look just like the ugly mug shot of Luis.
The Democrats didn’t pass any bill that allowed deported men to be re-admitted to the country to buy guns and shoot police officers. Need I add that 99.9% of all illegal immigrants do not kill cops? The analogy to terrorism – which the president has explicitly turned into an ugly race issue – doesn’t even work.
But when have facts mattered? The furlough program in Massachusetts was established under a Republican governor modeled on Ronald Reagan’s plan in California. Most rapes are intraracial, and it is black women who are the most vulnerable.
The way racism works in politics is that you scare people using the most powerful racial stereotypes you can: Black men raping white women; Mexican immigrants killing cops. The result is not just a shift in votes but also a deepening divide in our country, and an affirmation of the very stereotypes that justify and perpetuate conscious and unconscious discrimination.
After seeing Trump’s video, are you really going to hire the next Mexican immigrant who applies for a job? After seeing Willie Horton’s mug shot, will you treat the black man who comes to pick up your daughter for a date as a gentleman or a possible rapist?
The killing in Pittsburgh stirs us more than an 11-car pileup, tragic though both are, because hate undermines the trust that allows us to live together. It is not random.
An argument could be made that Trump’s coddling of white supremacists has encouraged attacks like the one in Pittsburgh, and explains why no one wanted him to show up there, notwithstanding that he is the first president with Jewish grandchildren. His hateful rhetoric doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Kill all Jews. Mexican men are bad people. Black men rape white women. Illegal immigrants kill cops. That’s what Trump wants you to think about when you go to the polls. He’s not even embarrassed enough to hide behind a supposedly “independent” ad maker, which is what George Bush did in 1988.
The question is not whether Donald Trump has any shame, but whether we do.
– Susan Estrich’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer