Racist campaign commercials are so pervasive that they hardly get heavy news coverage anymore. Everyone harks back to the classic Willie Horton ad from the 1988 presidential campaign, as if that were the last time a conservative politician’s racial demagoguery blatantly hit the airwaves for 30 seconds.
You don’t have to go back 30 years for vintage political racism; we’ve got plenty of new items to choose from. In 2011, Turn Right PAC ran a commercial against a California Democrat accusing her of being soft on crime, which featured white strippers, black rappers, guns and the chorus “Gimme yo cash, bitch” (seriously, this happened). In 2012, a local Michigan Republican ran this anti-China, fearmongering commercial during the Super Bowl, featuring an Asian woman using the most racist “Me love you long time” accent since Sixteen Candles.
Usually, media analysts clutch their pearls and say these commercials are bad, campaigns pretend to deny them and then everyone moves on. But what happens when people don’t turn the other cheek? What happens in this wild, post-Citizens United world, when people of color can strike back against racist commercials with campaigns of their own? We’re seeing that right now in the Virginia governor’s race.
The race has been the latest battlefront on the post-Trump political landscape, with race, gender and money all swirling around to make the race predictably unpredictable. As we’ve been covering for months, Democrat Ralph Northam is leading Republican Ed Gillespie, but lately the polls have been all over the map, with surveys showing both candidates with double-digit leads.
The lieutenant governor’s race between Justin Fairfax, who could become only the second black man to serve as lieutenant governor in Virginia, and Republican Jill Vogel isn’t as close. Vogel basically has a meltdown whenever Fairfax opens his mouth, so she’s a bit of a nonfactor.
Gillespie, realizing a few weeks ago that he was facing a huge loss, pulled out the Republican campaign playbook and started running political ads that tapped into whatever racist Trumpist DNA he could find in Virginia’s voters.
Gillespie’s first ad rails against Northam’s support of “sanctuary cities,” claiming that they attract drugs and crime and dangerous Latino gangs like MS-13 into the state of Virginia. This is essentially a photocopy of President Donald Trump’s “Mexico sends its ... drugs and rapists” speech from back in 2015. It’s not a dog whistle—it’s a racist Klaxon. It’s worth pointing out that there are no sanctuary cities in Virginia, and literally nobody—not the cops, not the FBI, not even U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—actually knows how many MS-13 gang members are in Virginia, but it probably isn’t that many.
Then Gillespie ran another ad, and this one was even worse. In the wake of August’s terrorist attack by white nationalists and white supremacists groups in Charlottesville, Va., Gillespie ran an ad last week against Northam claiming that the Democrat would “take our statues down.”
Note the “our” part of that commercial. I don’t think Gillespie is talking about me, or the 20 percent of Virginia that is African American, or anybody else in the state who isn’t a white nationalist bigot. Joy-Ann Reid blasted the ad on MSNBC for pandering to terrorists, especially since the commercial prominently and intentionally features a statue very similar to the one that white nationalists marched to defend in Charlottesville.
Fortunately, the Latino Victory Fund wasn’t having it. The PAC ran an ad making it very clear that Gillespie’s brand of Confederate-flag-wearing, statue-loving bigots and terrorists would not be welcome in the Virginia governor’s mansion.
The ad begins with a pickup truck bearing a large, waving Confederate flag and brandishing an “Ed Gillespie for Governor” bumper sticker speeding down a suburban street chasing a Hispanic kid. The boy stops, catches his breath and runs to warn other kids—black, white, brown, Muslim—that they should run, too. The truck slows as the driver cases the neighborhood before speeding up, chasing the children into a back alley, where they’re all trapped and desperately trying to climb a fence to get away. The ad ends with children waking up from this racist nightmare and parents watching the Charlottesville attack on television, along with a dire warning that this isn’t the politics that voters want in Virginia.
As political theater, it’s shocking, only because we’re so used to seeing blatant ads appealing to bigotry and white fear, not the legitimate fears of anyone else in this country. The entire 30 seconds has the scary music from the Terminator 2 chase scene blaring through the background. The slow-moving truck following a child brings to mind George Zimmerman in his car stalking Trayvon Martin; a truck speeding after a group of people is a nod to the white nationalist who drove his car into a crowed of protesters in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer. Even the kids running are reminiscent of the viral “Trump is coming” challenge from last fall.
Of course, right-wingers are already mad about the commercial, with Mediaite claiming that the Virginia race has now turned ugly, which is funny. When Gillespie ran commercials pandering to the terrorist and anti-Hispanic vote, that was fine, but when he’s called out for that behavior, the race has turned “ugly.”
It’s important to remember that in white, right-wing America, calling out racism is a worse crime than racism itself. Fortunately, the Latino Victory Fund could not care less, and it’s running ads to win, not make friends with bigots and terrorist. I only wish more Democrats had the same courage.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this post misidentified anti-Hispanic commercials as coming from Ralph Northam.