defending the wrong people

I have a Twitter account that I completely neglect. I have friends, though, who sporadically alert me to Interesting Stuff That Happens On Twitter. It didn’t take long for them to inform me that the Republican National Committee tweeted this:

Exclusive: Republicans Launch Willie Horton-Style Attack on Kaine

Kaine, of course, is Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine. But there are probably a lot of folks who aren’t familiar with the name Willie Horton. He was featured in a racist campaign advertisement used by George H.W. Bush against Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election. Here’s the original ad:

This is unquestionably one of the most notorious political attack ads in US election history It was the brainchild of Bush campaign manager, Lee Atwater, one of the most vile and venomous political ratfuckers of modern political history. That’s not an exaggeration. You want proof? Here’s something Atwater said in a 1981 interview:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.'”

Atwater was a sort of evil genius. He gave a lot of serious, creative thought about ways to encode racism into political speech. He was an early adopter of ‘dog whistle’ campaigning, devising methods for emphasizing race that non-racists might not even hear. For example, Atwater shortened Horton’s given name, William — the name he went by — to Willie. Why? Because he thought Willie sounded more black. Atwater said this about the Horton ad:

“By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.”

And hey, it worked. Bush won the election. At the end of his life, however, when he knew he was dying, Atwater apologized to Dukakis for the “naked cruelty” of the campaign he ran. A lot of people doubt the sincerity of that apology.

Lee Atwater, with Strom Thurmond and Ronald Reagan.

Lee Atwater, with Strom Thurmond and Ronald Reagan.

Atwater died in 1991. This is 2016, and in 2016 the Republican National Committee is seemingly proud to return to the naked cruelty of Atwater and the Willie Horton style of campaigning. The RNC quickly deleted their tweet about running a Willie Horton ad. The ad is still out there, of course. And the message is still the same: associate your opponent with the ‘wrong people’ — but do it in a coded way that doesn’t appear hateful.

Here’s the anti-Kaine advert:

The ad concludes by stating: “Tim Kaine, he has a passion for defending the wrong people. America deserves better.”

I spent seven years as a criminal defense investigator, working to defend the ‘wrong’ people. I helped defend murderers, rapists, arsonists, armed robbers, gun traffickers, and child molesters. I helped defend them knowing that almost all of them were guilty. They weren’t always guilty of the crime they were charged with, but most of them were guilty of something — sometimes guilty of something not as bad, sometimes guilty of something even worse.

Some of you — maybe most of you — are asking the obvious question: how could you defend somebody you knew was guilty of a heinous crime? It’s a valid question. There’s an answer that I believe is valid, though not everybody agrees — and even those folks who agree with the answer in the abstract find it uncomfortable to accept in practice. I often found it uncomfortable too. Here’s the answer:

Sometimes the police make mistakes.

That’s it, basically. Sometimes the police arrest an innocent person. I like to believe that most often the police are truly certain they’ve arrested the right person — but sometimes they’re just flat-out wrong. And in order to protect the folks who are truly, factually innocent of the crime they’re charged with, it’s necessary to force the police and the prosecutor to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt every single time. Every single time. Even if the defendant is clearly, blatantly, obviously guilty, we have to hold the prosecution to a high standard of proof. Because if we don’t — if we fail to protect the legal rights of every person every single time — then it becomes easier for them to convict those who are truly innocent.

Tim Kaine defended accused murderers — defended guilty murderers. Nobody does that because they support murder. They do it because the believe in — and are willing to do ugly work to defend — the legitimacy of the Constitution of the United States. That may not be popular, but it’s patriotic.

When the Republican National Committee attacks Tim Kaine for defending accused criminals, they’re actually undermining the U.S. Constitution. They’re basically suggesting there are citizens who are the ‘wrong people’ and as such, they don’t deserve the same rights as ‘decent’ people.

Of course, they’ve been suggesting that for a long time. They suggest the wrong people shouldn’t be allowed to marry, they shouldn’t be allowed to adopt, they shouldn’t be allowed to serve in the military or receive food assistance if they’re poor or be guaranteed safe working conditions or receive financial assistance if they’ve lost their job or become citizens of the United States.

They’ve become very good at suggesting stuff about gays and Muslims and women and poor folks and people of color. Because 2016 and you can’t say ‘nigger nigger nigger’ out loud anymore.

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11 thoughts on “defending the wrong people

  1. A question: Considering the popular vote doesn’t elect a president, why all the worry about who the best or worst candidate might be, the fighting amongst the people, the huge monetary expenditures for campaigns, etc.?

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      • Considering the scope of the latest controversy, I don’t think any further discussions regarding Trump would be in order. I think the latest “stink” is equivalent to what Ross Perot did to himself so many years ago with his campfire joke about rape, and all but banished himself from the idea of ever being elected to much of anything. It’s obvious now that his own party is abandoning him in droves, and without that support in Congress, his presidency will be about as effective as a pile of dry rice.

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      • I suspect Trump will always be a subject of discussion. Regardless of how anybody feels about him as a person or his candidacy, he’s shaped the modern GOP.

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  2. I think this will be interesting to watch and follow in that it has so much in common with the incident involving Ross Perot so many years ago. Although Trump has apologized, I still suspect the media will continue to shove it down his throat throughout the remaining portion of the campaign. Now what effect that will have on the election is still another question. And if it prevents him bring becoming president, will it also then destroy any possibility of Republican control in Congress or the White House?

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    • Trump had very little chance of becoming president before the tape was released, so I don’t think the tape has made a great deal of difference except that it gave a lot of Republicans an escape hatch to distance themselves from Trump. It appears the RNC is going to focus its cash on helping Republicans in state and local races.

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      • I think Republicans in general are going to need that help even as many of them are removing themselves from a very toxic Trump as we speak. I happen to agree with some assessments that Trump and his mouth (attitude) may cost the RNC not only the White house, but also several seats in Congress. It could mean the end of control in the hands of the Republicans. Now whether this would be good or bad for the country has yet to be seen. If more latter than former, then I think we should all pay attention as we become witnesses to the destruction of America.

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      • I’d be okay with a Democrat in the White House and Republicans holding Congress IF they acted responsibly as the loyal opposition — but they haven’t. As you probably know, early in Obama’s first term Senator McConnell stated his top priority was to make Obama a one-term president. That meant blocking every meaningful piece of legislation the president proposed or supported, even if it was legislation that originated with Republicans. Because of that, they deserve to lose control of Congress — at least until they decide their job is to govern, not simply oppose.

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  3. I agree, but I don’t think you went far enough. So strong is the political establishment’s control over Congress and the White House that even well-meaning legislators end up being opposed by their own party. Were the people of this nation to recognize that power structure, and be willing to commit themselves to effecting change, then I think there would be a prayer for the continued success of our nation … but even I won’t hold my breath to that one.

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