President Donald Trump may be on the verge on doing something that arguably no American leader has ever done:
Make racism boring.
When Trump released an ad Thursday demonizing Mexicans and blaming Democrats for allowing an undocumented immigrant who was convicted of killing police officers to stay in the United States, some called it Willie Horton 2.0.
Horton was an African American man who was the subject of a notorious campaign ad released by an independent group of supporters of George H. W. Bush in the 1988 presidential campaign. The scowling image of Horton, a convicted murderer and rapist, was shown all across America. The ad, which was shocking at the time, was credited with sinking the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.
But this is a different America and a different President. Will it have the same impact?
Maybe not, and here’s why.
President George H. W. Bush was a patrician politician who was never known as a racial demagogue. He was lampooned in Saturday Night Live sketches as a nerdy wimp. There was a shock element at the time that supporters of the Bush campaign would release such a blatantly racist ad.
Is anyone shocked that Trump would release such an ad?
“This has been Donald Trump’s playbook for so long,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez told CNN’s “Cuomo Prime Time.”
Trump’s ad comes a week before the midterm elections. Trump and the conservative media machine have been on a tear recently, warning Americans about the migrants headed north. They’ve implied that these migrants might have rabies and smallpox and they may be infiltrated with Middle Easterners and gang members.
If any other President said this, it could have ended their political career. But this is already a President who said African immigrants come from “shithole” countries, who once suggested that some Mexican immigrants were “rapists,” and who started his political career with a racist conspiracy theory that suggested that the nation’s first black President was actually born in Kenya and forged his birth certificate.
Does this new ad from Trump really shock anyone?
Trump has often been called the first “Reality TV” president. It’s long been noted that he knows how to say outrageous things and concoct colorful bad guys to keep his base and the media riled up.
But commentators have recently noted that his rallies are being held at smaller venues and have not drawn the crowds they once did; and he’s losing support in the Midwestern states that propelled him into the Oval Office. After Trump recently said he might revoke birthright citizenship, some commentators said all Trump has left to offer is “racial panic.”
Trump may now be on the verge of being that Reality TV star who is losing his ratings because he can no longer shock anymore.
There will probably always be a segment of Americans who respond to raw racial appeals. But racism has more impact when it’s cloaked.
Racism, of course, was never “boring” to many, such as the victims of lynchings. Yet there was a time when white supremacy was woven so deeply into the fabric of ordinary American life that it seemed almost mundane, just another part of ordinary life.
That’s part of the reason why the Horton ad was so effective – it was cloaked. It was positioned as a he’s-not-tough-enough-on-crime attack against a candidate, when it was really saying he’s a wussy liberal who won’t protect your family against the big bad black man.
Trump’s recent ad and his recent rhetoric take away that cloak.
But more than anything, through the sheer volume of repetition, it can cause people to tune Trump out. And when they tune you out, that is perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a man like Trump.
Racism works best when it’s cloaked. Make it too raw and repeat it too much and we may soon find out that what once worked in 1988 will no longer persuade most Americans.
We’ll find out next week if this is true.