Ed Gillespie Spits on Heather Heyer’s Grave

Has he put out an ad tying Ralph Northam to Sayfullo Saipov yet?

After this Tuesday, win or lose, Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie will go down in history as one of the worst race-baiting American politicians of the early-21st century, a George Wallace for the emoji age. Gillespie’s white-is-right campaign is, shall we say, beyond the pale.

Think about the maliciousness motivating the marketing wizard—a grand wizard, to be sure—who came up with Gillespie’s grotesque ads. The intent of the ads is not just to turn out every last Trump acolyte in the the state; a parallel goal is to scare centrist and center-left voters in the Commonwealth into associating the Democratic Party with danger and terror.

These ads are every bit as vile as George H. W. Bush’s bigoted broadcasts from nearly 30 years ago. We often forget that in the summer of 1988, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was 17 points ahead of the then-Vice President—and that Bush believed the only way he could make up the difference was by convincing Americans across the political spectrum that Dukakis was the proverbial bleeding-heart liberal more sympathetic to criminals than victims. It was a false image of Dukakis, but since when did lying ever stop a Republican?

Yesterday, I mentioned the ugly talk-radio rhetoric that surrounded the 2006 Massachusetts gubernatorial election. That election had its share of Gillespie-style race-baiting against the ultimately victorious Democratic nominee Deval Patrick—and when Patrick ran for re-election in 2010, things got even worse:

On Nov. 7 the [Boston] Globe ran a story describing Gov. Deval Patrick as angry that during the campaign Republicans had tried to blame him for a long-established system that provides some welfare recipients access to cash for unrestricted use. Patrick was angry, he said, because in fact Republicans were blocking him from fixing the system.

He had a right to be angry but at something far more sinister: the attack may have been racial.

The state’s policy, which allows some welfare recipients access to cash that might then be used for liquor, cigarettes, trips to Foxwoods, etc. certainly struck Massachusetts voters, and all the major candidates, as a dumb measure that ought to be changed. So why might the Republicans’ raising the issue involve racial codes? The answer comes from Shankar Vedantam’s book The Hidden Brain, which probes the effect our unconscious thoughts have on our judgments.

Vedantam describes a study in which Martin Gilens of Princeton University asked a number of white Americans their views on welfare. Gilens gave his subjects an example of a welfare mother in her thirties with a 10-year-old child – some were told the mother was black, others that she was white. The volunteers had about the same level of animosity toward both mothers, but negative views about the black mother were more important drivers of hostility to welfare generally than were views about the white mother. Most importantly for the hidden brain thesis, Gilens also found that if he did not identify the race of the mother the volunteers tended to assume the mother was a black woman.

What this means according to Vedantam is that for a political strategist wishing to tap racial bias “all you have to do is talk about welfare in general, and voters’ hidden brains will do the rest for you.” Remember Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen, the one with multiple fraudulent identities, collecting checks under each one and sporting about Chicago in her Cadillac? Reagan never identified her by color. Actually he never identified her at all – she didn’t exist. But as George Lakoff explains in The Political Mind, people saw Reagan’s welfare queen as a “lazy, uppity, sexually immoral black woman who was a cheater living off of taxpayers, driving a Cadillac paid for by taxpayers, having children just to get money for them.”

The right-wing effort to link the Democratic Party with terrorism and crime, like the right-wing effort to associate the party with welfare dependency, is born of the same impulse: Scaring centrist white voters. The right-wing strategy behind this is simple: centrist and even slightly left-wing whites are assumed to have grown up in areas without great racial diversity, and if these white voters can be convinced that there is an even one percent chance that a continued increase in racial diversity will result in physical or economic harm, they’ll have an incentive to vote Republican.

It may work this Tuesday. It may not. It is a dark vision, the sort of vision Heather Heyer was fighting against when she was murdered in Charlottesville in August. Ed Gillespie clearly doesn’t think her life mattered. He doesn’t think the lives of those who belong to any of the groups he is demonizing matters. What will it say about our society if he turns out, politically, to be right?

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.