On September 15 Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking House Republican, dropped more Facebook ads that warned of a coming “insurrection” that will “overthrow our current electorate.”
Did she mean the actual insurrectionists, instigated by Donald Trump, who attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6?
No, Stefanik is not concerned with actual insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol building as part of the white nationalist attack. Stefanik is instead worried about new, mostly non-white citizens of the United States. Her ads fret over Democrats’ support for a pathway to citizenship for immigrants, most of whom have lived in the U.S. for over a decade. This policy proposal that is supported by a wide majority of voters. Stefanik absurdly claims that bringing undocumented immigrants out of the shadows would create a “PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION.”
Stefanik’s claim is divorced from reality but the facts here are not the point. This is a soft version of the white nationalist ‘“replacement theory,” the racist fiction that migrants will destroy “western civilization” and democracy. In lauding this white nationalist lie, the third-ranking House Republican is repurposing the ideas around the “Big Lie” and combining them with active future-oriented xenophobic fear-mongering tropes. This combination is not entirely new, but Stefanik’s commitment to this dangerous politics should be a fluorescent warning sign.
Stefanik’s embrace of the racist “replacement theory” caught the attention of the Washington Post with Dave Weigel tweeting “Replacement theory, now in Elise Stefanik’s campaign ads”
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) September 16, 2021
This tweet generated some outraged commentary:
Someone went full white Nationalist. https://t.co/L8HaKmkZYO
— Molly Jong-Fast (@MollyJongFast) September 16, 2021
If the top 3 House Republicans are open white supremacists, why does our news media refuse to say the Republican Party leadership is white supremacist? https://t.co/MLJcZJZbem
— Matt Negrin, HOST OF HARDBALL AT 7PM ON MSNBC (@MattNegrin) September 16, 2021
Stefanik is not using these ads to communicate a message to voters in her district. Instead, she is targeting older Americans across the country who react positively to online racialized fear-mongering. From the limited data provided by Facebook, we know that Stefanik paid the site to show roughly 530,000 Facebook users over a two-day period a message that warned Democrats are planning to create a “PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION” and that their “plan to grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants will overthrow our current electorate.” All but 5% of these ads were delivered to Americans living outside New York where Stefanik’s district is located. The majority of these were targeted at Facebook users over the age of 55.
In similar ads, on September 15 Stefanik warned of attempts “to flood our voter rolls” with new formerly undocumented citizens and warned of a general “mass amnesty.” Some of these ads also included bold text in the graphic of the ad that called for stopping the “election insurrection.”
In total, Stefanik paid Facebook to show these xenophobic dog-whistle ads to over a million Facebook users, all but 5% of whom lived outside New York with the majority being over the age of 55. All of these ads redirected the user to a form list-building page that again employed the xenophobic fiction that “Democrats want citizenship for 11 MILLION illegal immigrants… so they can stuff the ballot box for socialism.” Stefanik then can continually return to this list these Facebook ads helped her build with appeals for donations and volunteers. These appeals will likely look to employ similar forms of inferential racism to maximize response rates.
The ads Stefanik dropped on September 15 were her third round of message testing on this particular xenophobic dog-whistle. Starting on August 27, Stefanik paid Facebook to push these same xenophobic dog-whistle ads to 40,000 Facebook users. Again, only 5-7% of these ads were shown to New Yorkers potentially in her district. These ads redirected Facebook users to a donation page with two pre-checked boxes. One of the pre-checked boxes automatically doubled the initial intended donation, and the other converted it into a monthly recurring donation.
In her first test of this message on August 12, Stefanik paid Facebook to deliver her ads to 342,000 voters. The same three text-based messages remain throughout the ad sets but Stefanik appears to have abandoned a second “mass amnesty” graphic depicting an image of a protest at the border wall.
In total, Stefanik has used Facebook ads to push this “Big Lie” of xenophobic dog-whistles to some 1,398,000 Facebook users over the last month.
Democrats and pundits can be disgusted, dismissive, or delusional about the hard-right shift and the new GOP, but the fact remains after Trump led his party to back-to-back losses Stefanik replaced a powerful legacy establishment leader to the third-ranking member. Stefanik assumed leadership precisely because she saw the shifting winds and turned towards a different Republican Party, one committed to limiting democracy by blaming the non-white other. We would do well to pay attention to messages she is refining in her Facebook ads to see where this boat is headed.
Attention must be paid here because Facebook ads are not passive like TV ads. They are active, operating as both messaging and organizing tools generating political action in the form of donors and campaign volunteers.
Stefanik, a leader of her party, is moving a strategic racist message with over a million Americans almost entirely outside of her district that repurposes the “Big Lie” in racialized and violent terms to help organize her party’s effort to win power in the 2022 midterms. Her replacement is paying to push white nationalist lies to hundreds of thousands of Americans. This is the new Republican Party The only question is will Democrats and pundits be honest and courageous to face this new reality head-on?