The Racist Trump Ad Is Based on a Lie, but That Doesn't Matter
Fact-checking the president's demagoguery won't be what defeats it.
Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty
On Wednesday, as part of a last-minute midterm election push based primarily in racism, Donald Trump dropped a web ad produced by his campaign team that portrayed illegal immigration as a wave coming to overwhelm the US border and kill Americans. It centered on Luis Bracamontes, an undocumented man from Mexico who had entered the US illegally multiple times and killed two Sacramento cops in 2014, a crime for which he received the death penalty. "DEMOCRATS LET HIM INTO OUR COUNTRY," the on-screen text intones. "DEMOCRATS LET HIM STAY." Then comes footage of large groups of brown people pushing their way past fences, obviously meant to represent immigrants coming across the US border illegally.
"WHO ELSE WOULD DEMOCRATS LET IN?" concludes the video.
Shockingly, this commercial portraying immigrants as hordes intent on coming to America to kill cops and painting Democrats as their accomplices was not factually accurate. As fact-checkers from the Sacramento Bee, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and elsewhere dutifully pointed out, Bracamontes was not "let in" to the country by Democrats, but rather crossed the border illegally and was deported under Republican and Democratic administrations. He illegally entered the country in 1996, was deported in 1997, re-entered, got arrested and released by far-right Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, was deported again in 2001, and came back into the country again during the George W. Bush administration before going on his killing spree in 2014. The video's attribution of blame onto Democrats for Bracamontes being in the country was completely false: "There is no evidence that any Democrat—or anyone, for that matter—allowed Bracamontes to stay," wrote the AP.
Identifying the nature of the falsehoods in political rhetoric is a core function of journalism, of course, but in this case this sort of fact-checking feels pathetically inadequate. The Venn diagram of "people whose anger and fear is stoked by this clip" and "people who will be convinced by fact-checks" is essentially just two circles that don't touch. Partly this is because of Trump and the GOP's long campaign against the press, making even utterly nonpartisan outlets like the AP suspect in Republicans' eyes.
But it's also because the video eschews literal truth in favor of a narrative that the GOP hopes will feel emotionally true to Americans.
While we're scrutinizing the video, we should go beyond the facts of Bracamontes's life and note the deeper falsehoods that undergird its narrative. Despite what Trump and other conservatives have claimed, illegal crossings on the southern border have been trending downward for years. Furthermore, undocumented people may actually be less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. Trump and his allies on the anti-immigration right love to point to heinous crimes committed by non-citizens because their argument is that immigrants of all sorts, including those who arrive legally, and even refugees, are potential criminals.
That this argument is nonsense doesn't stop it from being potent—voters nervous about what they see as cultural change brought on by immigration, or who tie their own economic woes to immigrants taking their jobs (another dubious idea pushed by Trump), may also be receptive to the idea that immigrants are criminal monsters. Regardless of statistics, it just feels to some people like their world is less safe, and that danger is being brought from afar by nefarious newcomers. Trump has been playing on those fears for years, and the ad is just the latest continuation of that. Fact-checking it to note that actually it's not technically Democrats who "allowed" an immigrant cop-killer into the country is an unbelievably weak rebuttal to a powerful, emotionally-charged narrative. Who cares who let him in when? The point of the video is that Trump and the Republicans want to keep people like Bracamontes out.
And citing statistics about illegal immigration and crime may not do a whole lot of good either when it comes to winning over anti-immigration voters. This spot has been compared repeatedly to the notorious Willie Horton ad, which blamed 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis for a rape committed by a murderer who was out of prison on a furlough, because Dukakis had been governor of Massachusetts at the time. As the New York Times noted during the 1988 campaign, Dukakis hadn't started his state's furlough programs, such programs were widespread throughout the country, and crimes committed by furloughed inmates were rare—but none of that helped Dukakis shake the idea that he was soft on crime. (His weakness on the issue and media coverage of the spot, not the Horton ad itself, is what likely hurt his chances against George H. W. Bush.)
The good news for those hoping to push back against Trump's racism is that there's evidence it's not all that popular in the first place. Polling on immigration issues often yields unclear results, but there's been a backlash to recent mass deportations, with churches and communities coming together to support undocumented immigrants. Some Americans may fear immigration in the abstract, but it's hard to fear your neighbors if you know them, and in many places undocumented people are just that. It's also worthwhile to remember that the Republicans had a similar fear-based message in last year's elections in Virginia, tying crime to immigration and immigration to Democrats—and the GOP lost badly. Just because a political ad appeals nakedly to racism doesn't mean it will work.
But if the video (and ensuing coverage) proves unhelpful to Trump and Republicans, it will be because Americans resisted its toxic message—not because the fact-checkers caught a lie.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.