Politics

The Villain in Trump’s Racist Campaign Ad Isn’t the Immigrant

And yes, it should scare you into voting.

Still of Luis Bracamontes from the campaign ad.
@realDonaldTrump/Twitter

On Halloween, President Trump and the Republican Party released a video to define the midterm elections. The minute-long video, essentially a campaign ad, features Luis Bracamontes, a Mexican drug dealer who came to the United States illegally and killed two cops. “Democrats let him into our country,” says the video. “Democrats let him stay.” Then the video shows hundreds of other migrants. It concludes: “Who else would Democrats let in?”

The video echoes the infamous Willie Horton ad of 1988, which used the face of a black rapist to scare voters. But some people question whether the new video is racist. They argue that its content is true (“There’s nothing racist about presenting the facts”); that concerns about crime are real and legitimate; and that Bracamontes, unlike Horton, is “rather pale.”

These arguments don’t stand up. The video, like Trump’s other demagogic ploys, is an appeal to prejudice. It’s a reminder that Trump himself is the central threat and that you should vote his party out of power.

The video’s statements about Democrats are false: Both parties were at fault in the Bracamontes case. As to ethnicity, the video doesn’t make statements. Instead, like the Horton ad, it sends cues. The audio features the villain’s heavy Mexican accent. Text atop the screen displays his name: “Luis Bracamontes.” In case that isn’t obvious enough, text below his face shows the same name.

You could argue that these are simply the facts: His name is Bracamontes, and he has an accent. But then you’d have to explain the text that dominates the screen for the ad’s first six seconds: “Illegal immigrant, Luis Bracamontes, killed our people!” Not “killed people.” Killed our people. The point isn’t the killing. The point is us and them.

The next character in the ad is a guy labeled “Deported Immigrant in Caravan.” This man says he’s hoping to get a pardon for attempted murder. He’s brown-skinned, and he speaks only Spanish.

Maybe you’d like to believe that the president is using this video to talk about illegal immigration, not ethnicity. That’s a comforting theory, but it doesn’t square with his record. Go back and read Trump’s words when he announced his candidacy in 2015:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

At no point in that speech did Trump specify that he was talking about “illegal” immigrants. He was smearing Mexican immigrants in general. In fact, he added, “It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America.” (His imputed correlation between immigrants and crime is false.)

You could argue that Trump was just criticizing the subset of Latin Americans who have come here. Perhaps, in that case, he’d be happy to welcome the region’s “best”? But then you’d have to explain why, during an Oval Office discussion about migrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa, the president asked: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Later, he groused on Twitter about having to accept “people from high crime countries which are doing badly.” So Trump seems less interested in welcoming “the best” than in judging people by their nationalities.

Well, you might say, that doesn’t sound very nice—but in this case, the president is talking about immigration, which every country is entitled to regulate. He’s not talking about dividing Americans by ethnicity, is he?

The distinction between Latinos who are American and Latinos who aren’t might be clear to you. But it isn’t so clear to Trump. Take the case of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was ordered in 2011 to stop using ethnic profiling to detain people in Arizona whom he suspected of being here illegally. Arpaio defied the court order and was convicted of contempt for doing so. Last year, Trump pardoned him.

OK, you might say, but Arpaio was an officer trying to enforce the law. Trump wouldn’t go around excusing random violence against Latinos, would he?

Actually, he has. Early in Trump’s presidential campaign, as he was calling for deportation of undocumented immigrants, two men in Boston severely beat a homeless Hispanic man. One of the assailants told police, “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.” When Trump was asked about the assault, he called it “a shame” but didn’t condemn the assailants. Instead, he boasted, “I will say that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country, and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate. I will say that.”

Perhaps you think that Trump’s reply, while callous, wasn’t explicitly anti-Latino. But dig through his record, and you’ll find comments that are more explicit. Consider this tweet from 2013: “Sadly, the overwhelming amount of violent crime in our major cities is committed by blacks and hispanics—a tough subject—must be discussed.”

Do you suppose that’s an innocent factual statement? How about Trump’s smears against individual Latinos? Do you think it’s an accident that when he was running for president, he told at least two crowds in Iowa—where evangelicals are crucial in the Republican caucuses—that “not a lot of evangelicals come out of Cuba”? Trump referred specifically to Ted Cruz. Seven times, Trump told an audience to “remember” the bit about evangelicals and Cuba.

How about Trump’s attack on Jeb Bush’s wife, Columba, a legal immigrant from Mexico who has been an American citizen for nearly 40 years? Early in his presidential campaign, Trump retweeted an allegation that Jeb Bush “has to like the Mexican illegals because of his wife.” Trump implied that anyone of Mexican ancestry would defend illegal immigration. He told CNN, “If my wife were from Mexico, I think I would have a soft spot for people from Mexico.”

And how do you explain Trump’s comments about Gonzalo Curiel, the Indiana-born federal judge who presided over a fraud lawsuit against Trump University? Trump accused Curiel of incorrigible bias—and said the judge should be disqualified from the case—based purely on ethnicity. “We’re building a wall. He’s a Mexican,” Trump explained to one interviewer. To another, Trump argued that Curiel’s “Mexican heritage” entailed “an inherent conflict of interest.”

When you review Trump’s record in its entirety, there’s no question what’s behind his new video. The pattern that runs through his political career isn’t national security, public safety, or respect for the rule of law. It’s exploitation of fear of Latinos. The exploitation goes beyond immigration. It extends to religious prejudice (in the case of Cruz) and dual loyalty (in the cases of Curiel and Columba Bush).

So don’t run away from this video. Watch it. It was designed to scare you into voting, and it should. It will show you a villain worthy of fear. But that villain isn’t Bracamontes, who’s locked up on death row. It’s the president who goes around our country stoking hatred and violence. Republicans let that president into our White House. Republicans let him stay. On Tuesday, you can vote them out.