The political backlash from Virginia Republicans to an ad released by the Latino Victory Fund (LVF’s) was swift, and it was fierce, so much so that the advertisement was pulled only a day after it was released. The minute-long ad shows a menacing white man driving a pickup truck with a “Don’t tread on me” license plate and a Confederate flag flying. The man then proceeds to terrorize minority children in some nondescript suburban neighborhood. As the ad closes, it is revealed that the children are only dreaming, as a voice-over monotonously states, “Is this what Donald Trump and Ed Gillespie mean by the American Dream?” Images of Nazis marching through the streets of Charlottesville play on the television as the ad closes.
There is so much to unpack in all of this. Where does one even begin? Virginia’s governor’s election is now a race to the bottom, pandering to the worst excesses of both bases. Did this ad unfairly characterize all Gillespie supporters? Probably. But only because contemporary politics is a zero-sum game and an exercise in mutually assured destruction. Was the Democratic mailer linking Gillespie to Trump and the white supremacists in Charlottesville a little bit over-dramatic? Probably. But only because modern political campaigns are more likely to draw from the scorched earth tactics of Genghis Khan than be an honest articulation of policy positions.
All politics is theatre, and in the US, that theatre is a non-stop reality show we are all forced to participate in – willing or unwillingly. Nonetheless, Republicans have excelled at fear-mongering in this election by taking a page out of President Trump’s playbook and keeping the rank and file’s gaze averted from the critical issues plaguing the Commonwealth. Instead of focusing on sea level rise, infrastructure development, Medicaid expansion, and criminal justice reform, we have MS-13, saving Confederate heritage, and giving fright over Governor Terry McAuliffe’s felon rights restoration program – widely considered to be a model for other states to follow.
A Washington Post Scholar-School Poll released yesterday found that 51 percent of all Virginias believe Gillespie is running a negative campaign compared to the 37 percent who believe the same of Northam. This is what makes Republican outrage over the LVF’s ad such an obvious sham. In a statement, the LVF has said, “We held a mirror up to the Republican Party, and they don’t like what they see.”
It is hard to argue the LVF’s sentiment when Ed Gillespie’s flagship political ad was designed to scare white suburbanites and voters in rural spaces by parading images of Latin gang members’ tattooed faces with the words “rape, kill, control” plastered over them. Nor is the messaging the LVF ad brings to bear particularly missing the mark. Not when UCLA just published a report finding that stress, anxiety, and hostility is peaking in public schools throughout the US due to the political environment fostered by Trump and, by default, the Republican Party. The study, titled: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Trump: Increasing Stress and Hostility in America’s High Schools, has, among other things, found that 80 percent of all students were frightened for their well-being due to concerns over immigration, travel-bans, LGBTQ rights, and the environment. An additional 40 percent also said these concerns made it hard for them to focus on their education and even harder for them to go to school.
According to the Washington Post, the report cited a teacher from Ohio who said, “I had students stand up in the middle of class and directly address their peers with racial slurs.” She went on to say, “This is not something I have seen before.”
The messaging execution of the LVF’s ad could have probably been more succinct and less ethereal, but the overall message is not wrong. Which is why pulling the ad was an ill-advised strategy. It surrendered the moral and ethical high ground of the message to the worst excesses of the Republican Party – excesses that have prioritized fear-mongering and racist dog whistles throughout this campaign season. Those excesses were on full display yesterday via Facebook, where the Virginia GOP condemned the ad as racist (against who?) and went so far as to get six minority members of the party to demonstrate their full outrage – a tried and true tactic that always appeases the conservative base. However, pushing a narrative that white people are somehow the victim of racism is the foundation by which white nationalists, supremacists, and the alt-right continue to grow their movement.
That this narrative has become an open mainstay of the Virginia GOP should deeply concern everyone. Yet in an election cycle where the violence perpetrated by white supremacists is on the forefront of everyone’s mind, being able to divert the conversation away from the root causes of hate and bigotry is how the Republican Party has been able to shirk their share of the responsibility for its growth. This is also how they have been able to hijack the conversation Democrats should have been leading for all Virginians.
Virginia is one week away from the election, and whatever the outcome the levels of rhetoric, divisiveness, and fear-mongering will have irreparably shaped the face of modern Commonwealth politics. Given the atmosphere which has been created by this election cycle, it is unlikely that Virginia will be able to reconcile overmuch. Everyone has now taken a side and as a result, entrenchment and intractability is the status quo everyone should expect for the next four years in Virginia.