“Ralph Northam will take our statues down,” the narrator tells us as an image of a statue honoring Confederate General Robert E. Lee fills the screen. Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie then appears speaking directly to camera: “I’m for keeping them up and he’s for taking them down,” referring to his Democratic opponent, Ralph Northam. Gillespie adds, “And that’s a big difference in November.”
And that’s where we are in 2017 America—a Republican candidate for governor saying the “big difference” in the election is that he’s on side of those who glorify people who committed treason against the United States and fought and killed to defend slavery.
But in the time of Trump—a man who infamously declared that there were “very fine people” on the side of the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August—this comes as little surprise. In fact, the day after this ad was released, Trump cheered his protégé Gillespie as well as praised the Confederate statues as “great” with the tweet: “Ed Gillespie will turn the really bad Virginia economy #’s around, and fast. Strong on crime, he might even save our great statues/heritage!”
In reality, Trump had radicalized Gillespie long before that late October ad. In September, Gillespie unleashed a commercial that went after one of Trump’s go-to targets: Latino immigrants. In this ad, we see Latino men in prison as the street gang MS-13’s motto flashes across the screen: “Kill, Rape, Control.” The narrator tells us: “MS-13 is a menace, yet Ralph Northam voted in favor of sanctuary cities that let dangerous illegal immigrants back on the street, increasing the threat of MS-13.”
What might surprise some is that Gillespie was not the “mini-Trump” in the GOP primary for Virginia governor. Rather that was the person Gillespie beat, Corey Stewart, who had publicly defended Confederate statues while his supporters openly waved Confederate flags. In fact, it’s likely that most Trumpers would view Gillespie, a former RNC chair and a big-time Washington lobbyist, as part of the dreaded swamp they want Trump to drain.
Add to that, Gillespie in past years had been vocally critical of Republicans who were anti-immigrant. He even wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed in 2006 titled, “Populists Beware,” warning: “The Republican Party cannot become an anti-immigration party.” He added, “Our majority already rests too heavily on white voters, given that current demographic voting percentages will not allow us to hold our majority in the future.”
But that Gillespie is gone. Instead the Gillespie we see today has been radicalized by Trump to embrace bigotry and hate.
And Gillespie is not the only establishment Republican Trump has radicalized. We see another example in New Jersey, home to the only other gubernatorial race this year. The GOP nominee there is Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno.
Guadagno, too, recently ran an ad that tried to scare voters that Latino immigrants were coming to kill them and their families. Her ad opens with a Latino man in handcuffs, wearing an orange jumpsuit being led into court as we see the words “illegal alien and “child rapist.” We then hear, “Jose Carranza shot four New Jersey students in the head.” The ad claims in essence that if her Democratic opponent Phil Murphy wins, New Jersey will be filled with murderous Latino immigrants terrorizing residents. Guadagno’s ad closes with a split screen of a large photo of Murphy next to Carranza with the words “Murphy doesn’t have our backs, he has theirs.”
This last line of the ad is a vile example of racist dog whistle politics, telling white voters that Murphy is more concerned with Latinos than with them. Being a Jersey guy, I can tell you these are not the type of ads we’ve seen before from Republicans. And it’s not consistent with the Guadagno New Jersey has seen. As New Jersey political science professor Brigid Harrison of Montclair State University told Jersey based media outlet The Record about the ad, “I found it rather uncharacteristic of Kim [Guadagno].” Harrison added, “It was not how she’s played politics for the last eight years.”
But that was before Guadagno converted to Trumpism. And Trump’s trickle-down bigotry has now even seeped down to local races. We saw an example last week in a race for board of education in Edison, New Jersey, a racially and ethnically diverse city of about 100,000 people located less than an hour from New York City. There, a professionally made political flier was mailed anonymously to residents proclaiming in big letters: “Make Edison Great Again.” The large postcard featured photos of two board of education candidates, Asian-American Jerry Shi and Indian-American Falguni Patel, with the word “Deport” stamped on their photos in big red letters. The flier continued: “The Chinese and Indians are taking over our town. Chinese school! Indian school! Cricket fields! Enough is enough.” The postcard also featured the Trumpesque: “Let’s take back Edison and our schools!”
In 1981, the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater gave a famous interview where he explained the evolution of conservative politicians using racism to win over white voters: “You start out in 1954 by saying ni**er, ni**er, ni**er.” But Atwater noted that over time you needed to be subtler: “By 1968 you can’t say ni**er—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract.”
Well on this Atwater spectrum, in the time of Trump we are actually moving closer to Republicans openly using the N-word. And here’s the reality: If Gillespie, Guadagno, or others like them win in 2017 using these tactics, we can expect Trump to radicalize even more Republicans to copy his playbook of appealing to white supremacy and fearmongering in 2018.
Once the votes are tallied on Tuesday night, we will have a better sense which direction our nation is heading. I truly hope voters will send a clear message rejecting Trump’s trickle-down bigotry. Our nation’s soul depends on it.