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2020 AdWatch Report: Trump, GOP Use Dog-Whistle Politics To Stoke Fears, Divide Voters and Deflect from Trump’s Failures

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It is becoming clearer by the day that the Trump campaign and GOP candidates throughout the country are turning to dog-whistle ads as part of the divide-and-distract playbook. Expect it to be a core Republican strategy throughout the 2020 election season. 

Dog-Whistle Politics, Trump Version

On April 9, Donald Trump’s campaign dropped a new ad that showcases the dog-whistle xenophobia he is infamous for. The ad accuses presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden for being soft on China at a time when associating the pandemic with China has led to a hundred attacks every single day against Asian-Americans right here at home. 

In fact, the ad alludes to Biden’s supposed coziness with China by showing Biden with a Chinese man in front of Chinese flags, whom the ad implies is a Chinese official. It turns out the gentleman is Gary Locke, a former governor of Washington and former U.S. ambassador to China. The message is clear: Team Trump is signaling that those of Asian descent are connected to the global COVID-19 pandemic and should be treated with distrust — even when those individuals are American.

Trump, of course, is the same candidate who has called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus,” even changing his notes in order to include the epithet. Trump does this even though the FBI issued a warning to local law enforcement agencies that “hate crime incidents against Asian Americans likely will surge across the United States, due to the spread of coronavirus disease” and even though the World Health Organization specifically decided against attaching “locations or ethnicity…to avoid stigmatization.”

In response to the ad, Gary Locke wrote:

President Trump and his team are fanning hatred and it needs to stop now…Asian Americans are Americans, period. We defend our country in wars, build businesses and create jobs, serve in all levels of our government, and are treating patients on the front lines of this crisis as we speak. 

There is one priority that matters in America right now: stopping this virus and saving lives. So I have no tolerance for the same old politics of distraction and division.

This is not the first time Trump has used a racist dog-whistle message in pursuit of a campaign goal. In fact, this approach is arguably his most-deployed strategy. It started on Day One, when  he came down the Trump tower escalator in 2015 to demonize Mexicans as criminals and rapists. He doubled down in 2018, railing about caravans and criminals. Many Republicans candidates followed his lead. 

It turned out to be a loser, with the backlash effect larger than the base mobilization effect in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

Dog-Whistle Politics, GOP Candidate Version

Trump’s ad hardly exists in isolation when examined alongside the ads of other Republican candidates. The only difference this time is that, instead of cookie-cutter ads painting Latinos and migrants as criminals, Republicans are following Trump’s lead in using coronavirus to attack China, blame the Chinese and call for the border wall. The motivation for these ads seems clear: to divide our nation and distract voters from Trump’s abysmal leadership in response to the pandemic. 

Some recent examples:

  • On February 16, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton (R) gave life to a baseless conspiracy theory on Fox News by speculating that COVID-19 was a biological weapon made by China. The racial dog-whistles around COVID-19 began to take off in earnest after March 8, when Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ-04) tweeted that he might have been exposed to “the Wuhan virus” at the annual conservative gathering CPAC. Days later, on March 11, Cotton put out a slick attack ad fear-mongering against China and attacking Joe Biden as being “weak on China.” The ad did not mention COVID-19, but the following morning, Cotton issued a press release saying “we will hold accountable those who inflicted [the pandemic] on the world.”
  • Around the same time, anti-immigrant zealot and GOP candidate for Kansas’ open Senate seat Kris Kobach sent out an email to his supporters demonizing undocumented immigrants and claiming (falsely) that migrants have something to do with coronavirus. Kobach’s email warns that “now, as the coronavirus pandemic threatens Americans’ lives, I am more resolved than ever to secure our border. That means building the wall, and that means closing loopholes in immigration law. It also means ending sanctuary cities once and for all.” Kobach followed up with a video ad on March 25, with a similar dog-whistle. He claimed that the presence of undocumented Chinese migrants means “we cannot protect our county” and asserted that the border wall is the solution. In case his audience missed it, he followed up with an email, “President Trump’s border wall is ESSENTIAL to: Protecting the Health of the American People”.
  • Since March 13, Tennessee GOP Senate candidate Bill Hagerty has been running Facebook ads repeatedly referring to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan coronavirus.” In one ad, Hagerty falsely warns about “the virus they unleashed on the world.” Another ad quotes Donald Trump saying this “crisis has underscored just how critical it is to have strong borders.” In his latest Facebook ad Hagerty says “the Communist Chinese regime’s cover-up of the Wuhan virus” is the “crime of the century.” The same post promotes his appearance on the Lou Dobbs show, where Hagerty echoed the same message.
  • Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is in the Alabama GOP Senate runoff as he attempts to reclaim his Senate seat, has been running Facebook ads about the “Wuhan Virus”, some of which also claim that “China must pay for unleashing the virus upon the world.”
  • No stranger to xenophobic messaging, Texas’ 22nd Congressional District candidate Kathaleen Wall (R) published an ad on April 1 which says, “China poisoned our people,” and praises Trump for having “the courage” to call COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” The ad includes an image of arrows labeled “Chinese virus” shooting at the U.S
  • In North Carolina, 11th Congressional District candidate Lynda Bennett (R) ran an ad saying that “in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Lynda stands with President Trump to beat this sickness and in Congress. Lynda will work with Trump to hold China accountable.” 

Many, many other Republican candidates across the nation are running variations of this same anti-immigrant, anti-China messaging. 

  • U.S. House candidates Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA-14), Matt Laughridge (R-GA-14), Renee Swann (R-TX-17), and Tom Norton (R-MI-03) have all run Facebook ads demonizing the “Chinese Virus” or “Wuhan Virus.” 
  • Retiring Rep. Pete King (R-NY- 02) ran ads saying this “killer virus originated in the Third World-like ‘wet markets’ of Wuhan, China” and accusing China of failing to “act like a civilized member of the community of nations.” Another of King’s ads include an image that lays “the blame for the plague at China’s feet.” 
  • Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), Senator Steve Daines (R-MT), and GA-07 candidate Mark Gonsalves have run ads blaming the pandemic on China and demanding they be “held accountable” for the virus.
  • Republican Senators Lindsey Graham (SC) and John Cornyn (TX), who are both up for reelection in November, have both also made deeply concerning racist comments, though not in ad form. Talking to The Hill, Sen. Cornyn went full bigot against China and Chinese people: “China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats & snakes & dogs & things like that, these viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people and that’s why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses like SARS, like MERS, the Swine Flu.” Meanwhile, Sen. Graham made it clear that he only held one party responsible for the spread of COVID-19: China. Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) also made a very Cornyn-like statement, blaming China for starting the pandemic “with their disgusting and inhumane and deadly practices in these wet markets, where they have live and dead animals gutted and it’s just disgusting, their practices.”

Dog-Whistle Politics, GOP PACs Version

  • Great America PAC, a pro-Trump super PAC run by Republican strategist Ed Rollins, is running Facebook ads using the dog-whistle term “Chinese Virus.”
  • The Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), a major super PAC with ties to Republican House leadership, put out a tweet attacking Rep. Lucy McBath (D-GA-07) over her efforts to prevent coronavirus from sweeping through America’s prisons. This tweet might be a preview of the dog-whistle attack ads that might be deployed via the $3.2 million war chest the CLF has indicated it will deploy against McBath. The $3.2 million is part of a larger $43 million nationwide ad buy targeting Democratic House seats. The CLF’s tweet against McBath is a key example of the GOP’s intention to paint Democrats as weak in their response to COVID-19, when it is Trump and his party that needs to be held responsible for their lack of pandemic preparedness.
  • America First Action PAC, a pro-Trump super PAC, announced they were going to spend $10 million in ads attacking Joe Biden in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The ads themselves are forthcoming, but their recent tweets might give us some indication of content. “Remember. This is China’s fault,” said one tweet. Said another: “Don’t let Democrats or the #FakeNewsMedia tell you otherwise: 10 million Americans are unemployed because of China.”
  • The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has not yet announced large ad buys, but their Twitter account already posted xenophobic messages relating to COVID-19. Like CLF, the NRCC spent millions of dollars on dog-whistle attack ads in the 2018 midterm elections as well as a special election in 2019

What to Expect Going Forward

These ads and comments are merely early signs of what is to come from Trump and Republican candidates across the country this summer and fall. These candidates seem to be betting that the COVID-19 pandemic will make voters more responsive to racist messages and attempts at division. Recent history, however, has shown that these messages don’t lead to Election Night victory. The GOP divide-and-distract strategy using similar anti-immigrant messaging backfired in 2017, 2018, and 2019

Americans need to come together and work together to conquer the coronavirus. And dog-whistles that mark fellow Americans for hate crimes and verbal abuse are dangerous and detestable. Unfortunately, our experience with Trump and the GOP over the past few years has us bracing for the next few months. There is no bottom. After all, it seems that clinging to power by dividing us is more important to Trump and the GOP than protecting our health by uniting us.