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With news cameras rolling in the White House Monday morning, President Donald Trump condemned a white nationalist “manifesto” that an alleged terrorist published just minutes before killing at least 22 people in an El Paso Walmart on Saturday.
But the president’s own messaging to his followers has repeatedly echoed the core theme of the alleged shooter’s racist, anti-immigrant screed. In thousands of ads plastered across Facebook and Google, Trump’s re-election campaign is regularly stoking fears of a Latino “invasion” of the United States.
“We have an INVASION!” one Facebook ad reads. “So we are BUILDING THE WALL to STOP IT. Dems will sue us. But we want a SAFE COUNTRY! It’s CRITICAL that we STOP THE INVASION.”
Many Facebook users will never see such inflammatory content, underscoring how campaigns can now target specific segments of voters with wildly divergent messages on a mass scale. And Trump has proven more than willing to take advantage of that capability through a digital media onslaught that has largely zeroed in on immigration.
“Trump is using digital advertising and social media to spread hate and misinformation about immigrants, his agenda, and our broader reality online,” said Jennifer Epps-Addison, network president and co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy Action, a progressive group. “His strategy attempts to both activate his base and depress participation from key communities that make up the Democrats’ base.”
Rep. Joaquin Castro, brother of Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro, went so far as to plead for Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign director, to halt its ad buys. “Will you stop describing Hispanic immigrants as ‘invaders’ as the terrorist did?” the Texas Democrat wrote on Twitter.
El Paso suspect Patrick Crusius, in his angry essay posted to the extremist forum 8chan Saturday morning, distanced himself from the president’s rhetoric. But the general thrust of his post channeled many on the far right who see immigration and globalization as existential threats to white America.
“This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” the screed’s second sentence reads. “Hispanics will take control of the local and state government of my beloved Texas, changing policy to better suit their needs.”
It also echoes many of the demographic fears fueled by Trump’s messaging. And the president’s re-election campaign has put big money into the issue as part of a well-financed digital operation that far outpaces any of its Democratic rivals in scale.
It funneled at least $1.1 million into immigration-focused Facebook ads between March 30 and July 27 alone, according to data crunched by the digital strategy firm Bully Pulpit Interactive. Around 2,200 of the ads that have appeared since May 2018, meanwhile, include some reference to an “invasion” on America’s southern border.
“The crisis at the Southern Border is even worse than most understand,” one version warns. “I have taken MULTIPLE trips to the border to show the true invasion happening, but the Democrats and the Fake News Media just won’t listen.”
At least one such ad, targeting users in Arizona and Florida, was so virulent that Facebook removed it last November. The tech giant explained that the content violated its “advertising policy against sensational content.”
It hasn’t stopped the president from taking a similar tack on Google and YouTube. During the first round of Democratic presidential debates, in June, Trump’s campaign purchased YouTube’s masthead — which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a day — to blast a xenophobic ad across the site’s homepage.
“Drugs, terrorists, violent criminals, and child traffickers trying to enter our country,” an ominous voice begins the video. “But Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer care more about the radical left than keeping us safe. The consequences? Drug deaths. Violent murder. Gang violence.”
Trump appears onscreen later. “Liberals care more about illegal immigrants than they do about our own citizens,” he says. “It’s time to put America first.”
In addition to paid media, Trump has also attacked migrants at campaign events and on Twitter, using “invasion” to describe the influx of migrants at least six times on the latter platform since October. Mainstream media outlets, many of which are averse to calling out bigotry, in turn amplify them.
“The problem is that Mexico is an ‘abuser’ of the United States, taking but never giving,” he tweeted in June. “It has been this way for decades. Either they stop the invasion of our Country by Drug Dealers, Cartels, Human Traffickers, Coyotes and Illegal Immigrants, which they can do very easily, or our many companies and jobs that have been foolishly allowed to move South of the Border, will be brought back into the United States through taxation (Tariffs). America has had enough!”
Cover: President Donald Trump arrives at a campaign rally at U.S. Bank Arena, Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)