What Bannon and Miller Learned From the Willie Horton Ad

Those of us who were around back in 1988 remember this ad:

It was successful in casting Dukakis as “soft on crime,” while sending a clear dog whistle about those dangerous Black men who murder and rape our women. But it also got a lot of blowback from the left for being so obviously racist.

I thought of that ad last night during Trump’s speech when he said this:

I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American Victims. The office is called VOICE — Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement. We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests.

Joining us in the audience tonight are four very brave Americans whose government failed them.

He went on to introduce four people who had lost loved ones due to violence from undocumented immigrants (read: Hispanics).

The contrast with the Willie Horton ad is that George Bush, Sr. and Roger Ailes had focused on showing America the face of the criminal they wanted to exploit. What Trump did on Tuesday night was to make the families of crime the focus. As we saw in the chamber last night, how do you NOT stand in support of the victims of such violence? But the underlying message was exactly the same: Americans must fear black/brown men. In this president’s world, black and brown men are criminals, while Muslims are terrorists.

That is the white nationalism being propagated by people like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller. Here is how Joshua Green described that in his expose on Miller:

“The media tends to cover immigration issues through the frame of how it impacts everybody but actual citizens of the United States,” Miller complains…

Miller and Bannon want Trump to undertake a radical recasting of U.S. policies, from immigration to trade to taxation, that would invert this frame by making the interests of [white] U.S. citizens (or what Miller and Bannon perceive to be their interests) predominant, almost to the point of exclusivity. This will entail confronting trade-offs most people prefer to ignore and making hard-headed decisions on emotionally charged issues, such as the status of refugees and Dreamers—decisions Miller, with Trump’s blessing, has begun tackling already.

The order temporarily banning refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries is a prime example. Miller contends that national security concerns warranted the move but adds that refugees compete with [white] U.S. workers (“Obviously, a smaller number of refugees will have some effects in terms of raising wages”) and burden [white] U.S. taxpayers (“because of how expensive American benefits programs are”)…

It is important to know that, much as Trump’s rhetoric about immigration and crime/terrorism is not based in fact, the truth is that small businesses are struggling to grow right now due to a lack of immigrant labor while refugees/immigrants are the one bright spot for many otherwise dying towns across this country. That is why, for white nationalism to succeed, it has to be based on fear-mongering lies.

Given the goal of Miller and Bannon to invert the frame, it is interesting to go back to Trump’s speech last night and notice all the ways this theme played out. One issue Dara Lind wrote about is the president’s desire to focus on “merit-based immigration.” She explains that, for the most part, our immigration policy has tended to attempt a balance between merit-based (high-skilled, employable) and family-based (reuniting relatives) immigrants. But rather than increasing the number of merit-based immigrants, Bannon’s focus is more likely an excuse to reduce (or eliminate) family-based immigrants. As part of her argument, she points out that for him, Asians are also part of the group that threatens white nationalism.

Bannon’s said on other occasions that he affirmatively wants immigrants who study science at US colleges to return to their home countries to start their careers — the opposite of a “merit-based” proposal to encourage such students to settle in the US. And he’s expressed concern about the number of tech CEOs who are “South Asian or from Asia,” because “a country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society” — implying that increased ethnic diversity and pluralism ruins America’s essential character.

In the end, George Bush exploited racism in order to get elected. But for Bannon and Miller this goes beyond simply using it to win an election. Their goals are to drastically change the face of this country and restore the old order of racial hierarchy. The combination of Donald Trump and the confederate insurgency that formed after the election of our first African American president are their vehicle for doing so.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.