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.
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.