By the standards of the Trump era, the Virginia governor’s race between Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam began on a surprisingly civil tone. The campaign was a throwback to a time when (legend has it) Republicans used to behave responsibly. This was before the party fully embraced racial demagoguery as the answer to uninspiring candidates failing to connect with voters with magical promises of trickle-down economic benefits.
That did not, however, last very long. After a dip in the polls, Ed Gillespie grabbed the Republican playbook and proceeded to abandon any pretense of civility. Attack ads began pouring vitriol onto Virginian’s screens.
The worst of Gillespie’s ads begins with a dark, hooded figure in somebody’s home holding up a baseball bat as the MS-13 motto “Kill, Rape, Control” flashes on the screen. A narrator warns of violent crime linked to the street gang in Virginia and accuses Northam of “putting Virginia families at risk”:
So what exactly does this unstoppable, Latin American murder gang that is gunning for your family have to do with Northam, a VMI graduate, and former U.S. army doctor? According to the narrator, “Northam cast the deciding vote in favor of sanctuary cities that let illegal immigrants who commit crimes back on the street, increasing the threat of MS-13.” The narrator fails to mention that there are no sanctuary cities in Virginia nor any plans to create any. There is, however, a deep-seated fear of “brown people” among certain segments of the electorate that this ad both dangerously stokes and attempts to exploit.
Even stranger than Gillespie’s attempt to tie MS-13 to Northam, is his recently discovered veneration of Confederate statues. On Thursday, President Trump noted in a Tweet that Gillespie will “save our great statues/heritage.” Without more context, this claim might seem harmless. However, for Virginia residents, it is a disturbing reminder of August’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, which ended with a murderous automotive rampage. The most surprising aspect of Gillespie’s newfound love of Confederate statues is that he is not from the South. Gillespie actually grew up in New Jersey and has spent most of his adult life as a lobbyist in Washington, DC.
Despite the obvious bankruptcy of Gillespie’s campaign, observers should not assume that these tactics will not prove effective. It is precisely because Republican voters are receptive to these kinds of attacks that the quality of our political discourse is in a continuous downward spiral.