When the winds of the midterm elections swung toward the Democrats this summer, fueled by a surge of anger among young female voters over the Supreme Court and abortion rights, no incumbent U.S. GOP senator seemed worse off than Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
Johnson had already broken his promise to retire in 2022 – which would have spared him from defending a cargo hold full of political baggage ranging from silly climate denial to his apparent love for Mother Russia – even before his name was dragged into the fray. January 1 survey. 6 insurrection. As the fall campaign loomed in a state that President Joe Biden won, albeit narrowly, in 2020, polls showed Johnson trailing his talented, young, black Democratic opponent, Lt. Wisconsin Governor Mandela Barnes.
But in an election year dominated by talk of 21st century conspiracy madness like QAnon and even concern over new incarnations of 1930s fascism, Johnson instead righted his once-sinking election ship by invoking to a different era: the 1980s and the golden age. Republicans using a toxic mix of crime, fear and outright racism to scare middle-class white voters about a rival who, in this case, happens to be an African American.
Johnson’s attack dogs at the Republican National Senate Committee (NRSC), which are pouring millions into this decisive Badger State race, aired a television ad calling the man seeking to become Wisconsin’s first black senator a “different” and “dangerous”. and the Rep with three women of color in Congress dubbed “The Squad” — even though Barnes didn’t campaign with them. Worse than this dishonest grandstanding, the state GOP then sent voters a crime and election letter in which Barnes’ skin color was clearly darkened by multiple shades — lest voters miss the not-so-subliminal connection.
Johnson’s ads are at the forefront 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 of winning the 2022 midterm elections on inflation — an issue the GOP offered no new ideas on — inevitably failed, someone dug up a faded playbook of 40 years old and found his old box of racist dog whistles. The GOP is celebrating like it’s 1988 — the year chilling footage of a criminal they called Willie Horton and gritty footage of black crimes saved a party equally devoid of real policies.
Turn on your TV — especially here in my home state of Pennsylvania, where Mehmet Oz, once seemingly dead in the water, reinvigorated his Republican Senate campaign against Democrat John Fetterman — and suddenly, the 2022 midterms are all crimes, all times.
But it wasn’t enough for Oz and his deep-pocketed backers to sum up Fetterman’s work on much-needed criminal justice reform in two words — “pro-criminal.” Oz and his supporters, like former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, have even taken aim at Fetterman’s trademark tattoos — ironically, since most mark his tenure as mayor of Braddock, Pa. stop the killings 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 HW Bush saved his White House bid by saturating your airways with the message that Democrat Michael Dukakis was “soft on crime,” or if you just know how the American white supremacist inertia generally flows, you won. Don’t be surprised to learn that the new but very old GOP strategy still works. The most recent polls show Oz – once trailing by double digits after a hammering from the Fetterman campaign as a New Jersey upholsterer who doesn’t understand Pennsylvania – is back within reach while Johnson has regained a slight lead over Barnes in recent days.
And while the Pennsylvania and Wisconsin races — likely to determine which party leads the now 50-50 split Senate in 2023 — are garnering the most attention, GOP candidates coast to coast have dropped the discussions of gas prices that are no longer so high to instead misrepresent Democratic statements from the 2020 George Floyd protests and – wrongly, in the vast majority of cases – claim that their rivals want to “defund the police”.
Typical is an ad by Republican New York gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin that shows grainy footage of filming looting scenes (including one 3,000 miles away in Oakland) that warns voters: “Vote as if your life depended on it. Maybe that’s right.
Two things are happening here. The first, of course, is that crime is legitimately seen as a problem by millions of voters. The pandemic – which has both seriously eroded the broader social fabric but also seen an increase in gun ownership – has triggered a short-term national spike in homicides and some other categories of violent crime. , especially in cities like Philadelphia and Milwaukee. While there are already signs that crime is decreasing in many places, 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, it is that law and order has broken down. My contacts who have surveyed voters in white working-class neighborhoods like South Philadelphia’s old townhouse streets tell me that crime is the only thing some voters care about.
READ MORE: Philadelphia’s South Street massacre demands action on guns, but the GOP hasn’t
Yet hypocrisy abounds. There’s the hypocrisy that – much like inflation – Republicans (or most Democrats, for that matter) don’t offer solutions beyond the insanity to keep hiring more cops, despite the lack of evidence that it actually reduces crime as opposed to more difficult outreach work. There is the hypocrisy that a rise in gun ownership — with more than 20 million new guns sold during the pandemic, many to first-time buyers — aided by GOP opposition to the Gun control was arguably a bigger factor in the spike in murders than any Democratic policy. And there’s the hypocrisy that candidates like Pennsylvania’s running mate from Oz — gubernatorial hopeful Doug Mastriano, who aided Donald Trump’s fake-voter scheme — or Wisconsin’s Johnson , also linked to the January 6 conspiracy currently under federal investigation – are the real “pro-criminal candidates”.
But these hypocrisies won’t stop Republican agents because those racist dog whistles with their echoes of 40 years still come back loud and clear for so many voters. Most don’t have time for arcane debates about inflation and monetary policy, but respond viscerally to the emotional appeals — sometimes subtle and sometimes as blatant as the darkening of a black candidate’s skin — that their traditions of white privilege are under attack. By 1988, voters were growing weary of the “chaotic economy” of Ronald Reagan and his hand-picked successor in old Bush – until their lizard brains were manipulated into linking Dukakis to “Willie (actually William, who apparently didn’t sound black enough for the Bush team) Horton, a Massachusetts inmate who had committed rape and murder while on a weekend pass, and a door rotation of criminals who happened to be black.
Bush 41’s chief strategist was the legendary late Lee Atwater, who in a famous then-confidential 1981 interview explained how the GOP inherited the mantle of white supremacy and modernized it into a “Southern strategy.” which went from overt N-word fanaticism and “state rights” to more abstract appeals to white people: “Now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a by-product of these is, blacks hurt more than whites.
Honestly, the Republican approach in 2022 — the ridiculously vague talk about Fetterman’s tattoos or his supposed connections to the Crips, or the darkening of Barnes’ skin — seems less abstract and more overtly crude some 34 years later. This likely reflects a generation and a half of America becoming more multicultural, more educated and – at least among the young – more tolerant, and a white supremacist hierarchy clinging to its fingernails.
And yet the GOP still refuses to do anything for YOU – the middle-class American struggling with issues like stagnant wages, incomprehensible college fees, or medical bankruptcies. They can only win elections in the 21st century by pitting you against THEM, by protecting you from “The Other”. It means the grossest dehumanization of people.
Migrants and their children 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 lives, whose release from America’s overcrowded prisons demands that you vote Republican.
It’s a racist and immoral strategy that tragically but inevitably works all too well with an election just over a month away. Frustratingly, we know that a majority of Americans want a nation that is welcoming to refugees and knows how to reduce crime without locking down entire neighborhoods. What we won’t know until November 8 is whether those good hearts can outdo a nation’s overheated lizard brains.
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