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Who’s behind those vile, right-wing political TV ads during the baseball playoffs?

Fans enjoying Phillies playoff games have been jarred by violent, vile political ads from Citizens for Sanity. Here's who's behind them.

Screenshot from a Citizens for Sanity political TV ad that ran Saturday during the Phillies' playoff game against the Atlanta Braves.
Screenshot from a Citizens for Sanity political TV ad that ran Saturday during the Phillies' playoff game against the Atlanta Braves.Read moreWill Bunch

If you live in Philadelphia or thereabouts, the October baseball playoffs have brought almost unbridled joy from a Phillies hot streak, punctuated by an epic bat flip and an inside-the-park home run — and marred only by jarring interruptions from the most shockingly crude and, arguably, racist political ads since Willie Horton hit the small screen in 1988.

Every few innings, the dark, grainy TV spots — with a flood of unsettling images of urban crime and civic unrest, or large migrant caravans streaming toward the U.S. border — broke up the stream of otherwise cheerful spots for iPhones or car insurance. One says “illegal immigration is draining our paychecks, wrecking our schools, ruining our hospitals and threatening your family” — blaming President Biden, and telling Democrats to “stop hurting our children,” against an ominous, empty playground swing. The crime spot blames liberals for a wave of “violence, bloodshed and death” as men with machine guns roam an urban wasteland.

You won’t be shocked to learn that the ads are deliberately dishonest, conflating Democratic immigration policies, for example, with the horrific case of one undocumented immigrant named Christopher Puente accused of raping a toddler at a fast-food restaurant in Chicago (”She was 3 ... years ... old,” the narrator intones, milking the pathos). What’s not said is that the alleged assault occurred in February 2020, more than three years into the presidency of Republican Donald Trump, well before Biden took office.

That’s appalling, but that’s not what’s most upsetting about these ads, which, according to social media, have been broadcast nationally during the baseball telecasts on Fox Sports 1. There is absolutely no filter of jarring and often violent imagery, the racist overtones and the xenophobic innuendo, and the unrelenting darkness of the “American carnage” vibe. No one cares that this is afternoon baseball and little girls and boys are watching. This is America now.

In fact, the comparison to that infamous “Willie” (really William) Horton ad isn’t even fair. That spot — which attempted to stir up racial panic by (misleadingly, of course) linking Democrat Michael Dukakis to a Black inmate who committed a rape and murder after a weekend pass — only aired on TV one time, because just 34 years ago even most Republicans found it too crude, and over the edge. Listen to that 1980s spot and the tone that offended many folks back then seems calm and measured compared to the Natural-Born-Killers-on-acid vibe of the 2022 attack ads. Today, any and all guardrails have been taken down.

One other thing that won’t surprise you about the new attack ads is that the people behind them aren’t eager for you to know exactly who they are.

The required tagline lists the sponsor as a new group calling itself Citizens for Sanity. On one level, thanks to some excellent research by the campaign-finance watchdog Open Secrets, we know a lot about who these Citizens for Sanity are: the very worst, xenophobic remnants of Team Trump, offering America not just a new low for the 2022 midterms but a sneak preview of the nightmare that the 45th president’s 2024 comeback crusade is likely to be.

Open Secrets reports a close overlap between the trustees of Citizens for Sanity — as identified to the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC — and the pro-Trump America First Legal Foundation, which is spearheaded by Stephen Miller, the former Trump White House official behind harsh immigration policies such as family separation at the southern border.

It says three political operatives involved with the Miller-founded legal group — Gene Hamilton, John Zadrozny and Ian Prior — are also listed as involved with Citizens for Sanity. Zadrozny’s path, for example, has taken him from the fiercely anti-migrant Federation for American Immigration Reform — which the Southern Poverty Law Center has listed as a hate group — to the Trump administration, including a stint as a top U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service official, to the vile ads you’re seeing on TV now. Citizens for Sanity treasurer Hamilton was point man on Trump’s efforts to kill the program seeking legal status for young migrant “Dreamers.”

That’s all important to know, but the most important thing about Citizens for Sanity remains secret: Just who is providing the evidently millions of dollars to pay for all of this, including now ads on national baseball telecasts. That’s because Citizens for Sanity is a dark-money group of the kind that have flourished in more than a decade since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling opened the floodgates of untraceable billionaire, or corporate, cash.

In the end, the radical new thing that may tip the scales in November’s election — in which both control of the House and the Senate appear to be up for grabs — may be one of the oldest stories around: very rich people buying the outcome, thanks to their ability to spend millions of dollars on emotionally manipulative attack ads. But while the concept — billionaires using their wealth to bail out reactionary politicians who’ll keep their taxes low and defend corporate power — has been around, 2022 is standing out for the far-right extremism that the 1 Percent is now willing to fund.

» READ MORE: Racist ‘Willie Horton’-style fearmongering on crime may win midterms for GOP

Indeed, among those wealthy donors that we can identify, Exhibit A is now a key player in this year’s fraught Pennsylvania governor’s race: Wisconsin Schlitz beer heir and packaging industrialist Dick Uihlein and his wife, Liz. They have pumped a staggering $26 million into 2022′s federal elections as well as the largest donation to Pennsylvania’s far-right GOP gubernatorial candidate, Doug Mastriano, of some $900,000.

A recent New York Times profile of the Uihleins, as the most influential Republican donors that you’ve never heard of, chronicles their penchant for backing some of that party’s most extreme candidates, from the Alabama 2017 Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was accused of sexual misconduct involving teen girls, down to local school board candidates who vehemently oppose transgender rights.

But the Uihleins are hardly unique at a time when people who’ve accumulated wealth in America’s so-called knowledge economy are now spending their fortunes on candidates who support Trump’s Big Lie and other dangerous assaults on actual knowledge. Silicon Valley billionaire and Trump supporter Peter Thiel — said to have invested more than $30 million in conservative candidates this cycle — almost single-handedly saved the U.S. Senate campaigns of Arizona’s Blake Masters, who has blamed America’s gun-violence crisis on “Black people, frankly,” and Ohio’s J.D. Vance, who thinks women should stay in violent marriages for the sake of the children. Ditto Oregon’s Nike sneaker mogul Phil Knight, who has spent $4.75 million on not one but two candidates in an effort to make sure that his normally progressive state rejects a Democratic gubernatorial candidate he doesn’t like.

The world has seen this before. When fascism and other forms of right-wing extremism rose across Europe in the 1930s, large corporations and their rich investors who one might have hoped would have been revulsed by the ugliness, violence and racism of such movements instead hopped on the bandwagon, supporting some of the worst dictators. It took decades for corporations like Volkswagen, Siemens, and IG Farben successor Bayer to apologize for supporting Germany’s Nazi government. In 2020s America, it feels like the cycle is just starting.

Some might find that comparison extreme, but this fall’s rise of Citizens for Sanity shows that some secret billionaires are willing to fund commercials that feel like the modern heirs to Goebbels-inspired propaganda. Before this weekend’s ad blitz, Citizens for Sanity was engaged in coast-to-coast political trolling in the crude, “owning the libs” style that Trumpism has brought into the mainstream. Many are sarcastic broadsides that Democrats are “pro-criminal.”

It placed an ad in Philadelphia’s oldest African American newspaper, the Philadelphia Tribune, sarcastically applauding Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman for “the courage to wear a hoodie in even the most formal settings. The courage to grow a ratty goatee and wear it proudly. The courage to demand cold-blooded killers — murderers — be freed from prison.” Giant billboards in a similar, hyper-ironic style attacking prominent Democrats have gone up from California to Massachusetts.

The common theme is demonizing “out groups,” or The Other — alternating between transgender youth, refugees crossing America’ southern border, or images that play to stereotypes about Black criminality. Students of history have seen this ugliness before, and things usually get worse. Tomorrow’s textbooks about this momentous midterm election of 2022 are being written today, and we will look back on this moment when secret billionaires worked to make white supremacy and political hate as all-American as baseball and cherry pie.

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