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Racist ‘Willie Horton’-style fearmongering on crime may win midterms for GOP

Devoid of actual ideas, the GOP has ripped a racist page from a 1980s playbook to scare voters around crime. The polls suggest it's working.

Pennsylvania Lt. Governor and U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman (D) interacts with supporters after his rally at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pa., on Sept. 11.
Pennsylvania Lt. Governor and U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman (D) interacts with supporters after his rally at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pa., on Sept. 11.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

When the midterm election winds shifted direction this summer toward Democrats, powered by a gust of anger among young women voters over the Supreme Court and abortion rights, no incumbent GOP U.S. senator looked in worse shape than Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson.

Johnson had already broken a promise to retire in 2022 — which would have spared him from defending a cargo hold full of political baggage from dumb climate denial to his seeming love for Mother Russia — even before his name got dragged into the probe of the Jan. 6 insurrection. As the fall campaign loomed in a state that President Joe Biden won, albeit narrowly, in 2020, polls showed Johnson running several points behind his young, gifted, and Black Democratic opponent, Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.

But in an election year dominated by talk of 21st-century conspiracy craziness like QAnon and even worries over new incarnations of 1930s fascism, Johnson has instead righted his once-sinking electoral ship by instead summoning a different era: the 1980s, and the golden age of Republicans using a toxic mix of crime, fear, and straight-up racism to scare white middle-class voters about a rival who in this instance happens to be an African American.

Johnson’s attack dogs at the National Republican Senate Committee (NRSC), who are pouring millions of dollars into this make-or-break Badger State race, ran a TV ad calling the man seeking to become Wisconsin’s first Black senator “different” and “dangerous” and depicting him with three women of color in Congress nicknamed “The Squad” — even though Barnes has not campaigned with them. Even worse than that dishonest demagoguery, the state GOP then sent voters a mailer on crime and the election in which Barnes’ skin color was clearly darkened by several shades — lest any voters missed the not-so-subliminal connection.

The Johnson ads are the cutting edge of a sad and predictable return to form for a Republican Party that seemed lost in the wilderness a few weeks ago. When the party’s naïve hopes to win the 2022 midterms on inflation — an issue on which the GOP has offered no new ideas — inevitably faltered, someone dug out a faded, 40-year-old playbook and found their old box of racist dog whistles. The GOP is partying like it’s 1988 — the year that scary pictures of a felon they called Willie Horton and grainy images of Black crime saved a party equally devoid of actual policies.

Turn on your TV set — especially here in my home state of Pennsylvania, where a once seemingly dead-in-the-water Mehmet Oz has revitalized his Republican Senate campaign against Democrat John Fetterman — and suddenly the 2022 midterms are all crime, all the time.

But it hasn’t been enough for Oz and his deep-pocketed backers to summarize Fetterman’s work on much-needed criminal justice reform in two words — “pro-criminal.” Oz and his supporters like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have even gone after Fetterman’s trademark tattoos — ironically, since most mark his commitment as mayor of Braddock, Pa., to end murders there — and falsely implied that Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor was once in bed with a gang, the Crips.

If you lived through that 1988 presidential race when George H.W. Bush saved his White House bid by saturating the airways with the message that Democrat Michael Dukakis was “soft on crime,” or just know how the inertia of American white supremacy generally flows, you won’t be surprised to learn the new-but-really-old GOP strategy still works. The most recent polls show Oz — once trailing by double digits after a pounding from the Fetterman campaign as a New Jersey carpetbagger who doesn’t understand Pennsylvania — is back within striking distance while Johnson has regained a slight lead on Barnes in recent days.

And while the Pennsylvania and Wisconsin races — likely to determine which party runs the now 50-50 divided Senate in 2023 — are grabbing the most attention, GOP candidates from coast to coast have abandoned talk of no-longer-super-high gas prices to instead mischaracterize Democratic statements from 2020′s George Floyd protests and — falsely, in the vast majority of cases — claim their rivals want to “defund the police.”

Typical is an ad from New York’s underdog Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin that shows grainy images from shooting scenes of looting (one is from 3,000 miles away in Oakland) that warns voters: “Vote like your life depends on it. It just might.”

Two things are happening here. One, of course, is that crime is legitimately seen as a problem by millions of voters. The pandemic — which both seriously eroded the wider social fabric but also saw a surge in gun ownership — triggered a nationwide short-term spike in homicides and some other categories of violent crime, especially in cities like Philadelphia and Milwaukee. Although there are already signs that crime is subsiding in many locales, the public perception — aided by the reality of high-profile incidents like last week’s fatal shooting after a football scrimmage at Roxborough High School — for many is that law and order has broken down. My contacts who’ve canvassed voters in white working-class areas like older rowhouse streets in South Philly tell me crime is the only thing on some voters’ minds.

» READ MORE: Philly’s South Street massacre demands action on guns, but GOP isn’t having it

Yet hypocrisy abounds. There is the hypocrisy that — much like inflation — the Republicans (or most Democrats, for that matter) aren’t offering solutions beyond the continued insanity of hiring more cops, despite a lack of evidence that this actually reduces crime as opposed to the harder work of neighborhood intervention. There is the hypocrisy that a surge in gun ownership — with more than 20 million new firearms sold during the pandemic, many to first-time buyers — aided by GOP opposition to gun control was arguably a bigger factor in the murder spike than any Democratic policies. And there is the hypocrisy that candidates like Oz’s Pennsylvania running mate — gubernatorial hopeful Doug Mastriano, who aided Donald Trump’s fake-elector scheme — or Wisconsin’s Johnson, also tied to the Jan. 6 plotting now under federal investigation — are the actual “pro-criminal” candidates.

But these hypocrisies won’t stop Republican operatives because these racist dog whistles with their 40-year-old echoes still come in loud and clear for so many voters. Most don’t have time for arcane debates on inflation and monetary policy, but respond viscerally to emotional appeals — sometimes subtle and sometimes as blatant as darkening a Black candidate’s skin — that their traditions of white privilege are under assault. In 1988, voters were starting to tire of the “trickle-down economics” of Ronald Reagan and his handpicked successor in the elder Bush — until their lizard brains were manipulated by tying Dukakis to “Willie” (actually William, which apparently didn’t sound Black enough for Team Bush) Horton, a Massachusetts inmate who’d committed rape and murder on a weekend pass, and a revolving door of criminals who happened to be Black.

Bush 41′s chief strategist was the late, legendary Lee Atwater, who in a famous then-off-the-record 1981 interview explained how the GOP inherited the mantle of white supremacy and modernized it into a “Southern strategy” that shifted from overt N-word bigotry and “state’s rights” to more abstract appeals to whites: “Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a by-product of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

Honestly, the Republican approach in 2022 — the ridiculous loose talk about Fetterman’s tattoos or his supposed ties to the Crips, or the darkening of Barnes’ skin — seems less abstract and more openly crude some 34 years later. This probably reflects a generation and a half of America becoming more multicultural, more educated and — at least among younger folks — more tolerant, and a white supremacy hierarchy hanging on by its fingernails.

And yet the GOP still refuses to do anything for YOU — the middle-class American who struggles with things like stagnant wages, or incomprehensible college costs, or medical bankruptcies. They can only win elections in the 21st century by pitting you against THEM, by protecting you from “The Other.” That means the crudest dehumanization of people.

Migrants and their kids fleeing murder and despair in Central America are redefined as “illegals” whose humanity is stripped to the point where fascist politicians can dump them on an island as a political stunt. Or struggling human beings are rebranded as nothing more than “criminals” who can never be rehabilitated or get a second chance to redeem the worst day of their life, whose release from America’s overstuffed prisons demands that you vote Republican.

It’s a racist, immoral strategy — that, tragically but inevitably, is working all too well with an election little more than one month away. The frustrating part is we know that a majority of Americans want a nation that is welcoming to refugees and knows how to reduce crime without locking up entire neighborhoods. What we won’t know until Nov. 8 is whether these good hearts can outvote a nation’s overheated lizard brains.

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