Kevin M. Kruse @KevinMKruse Historian. Author/editor of White Flight; The New Suburban History; Spaces of the Modern City; Fog of War; One Nation Under God; Fault Lines. Nov. 01, 2018 3 min read

A lot of people are comparing this new fear-mongering Trump ad to the infamous Willie Horton ad from 1988. In fact, it's a whole lot worse.

For those of you who don't remember, here are the 1988 ads and some supporting interviews, all taken from the outstanding documentary "Boogie Man" about GOP strategist Lee Atwater: 

During the early 1980s, Lee Atwater developed a reputation as a practitioner of a no-holds-barred style of politics.

And almost literally. He was a big fan of pro wrestling. It was from that, a biographer noted, that he'd "learned the importance of bombast" and storytelling.

He was well-known for pushing dirty campaign tactics to new limits.

Ed Rollins, his boss on the '84 Reagan-Bush campaign, called him a "ruthless" attacker who "just had to drive in one more stake" even after a political target was already dead.

A native South Carolinian, Atwater knew the power of racist appeals and was willing to go to places where others wouldn't.

But he still understood it had to be done carefully. Here's his famous interview from 1981 on the use of racial "code words" 

When Atwater led the Bush campaign in 1988, he faced an uphill battle. (After the DNC that summer, Dukakis had a huge 17-point lead over Bush.)

So Atwater convened a focus group to test out the negative issues that he might use that fall. And "Willie Horton" worked the best.

William Horton Jr. was an African American prisoner sentenced to life without parole for murder. But he had been released under a Massachusetts furlough program for prisoners and, while out, had raped and stabbed a Maryland woman.

And I should note -- he never went by "Willie."

As he noted in a later interview, that was a nickname cooked up by Atwater to make him sound even more sinister and threatening than he already was.

Now, the furlough program had been started by Dukakis's GOP predecessor in Massachusetts and had been modeled on a similar program in California started by Reagan when he was governor there.

It was still used against him. Al Gore brought it up first in the primaries.

While Gore raised it as a policy issue, Atwater seized on "Willie" Horton to capitalize on white fears of black criminals and drive a stake in the Dukakis campaign.

"By the time we're finished," he bragged, "they're going to wonder if Willie Horton isn't Dukakis' running mate."

But -- and this is the important part -- Atwater knew he had to deal with this issue at arm's length.

A nominally independent group "Americans for Bush" created the mug shot ad. It was soon picked up by PBS's McLaughlin Group, and then network news shows started showing it too.

When confronted about the ad, Atwater forcefully denied having anything to do with it.

Here's a great exchange from "Boogie Man" documentary, which, again, I highly recommend. (Stay for the Roger Stone kicker at the end.)

Roger Stone was right. Lee Atwater did live to regret it.

The ad haunted him his final years, especially when he took over as RNC chairman and found himself trying to dig out of the racist hole he'd dug.

When he was on his deathbed in 1991, he repented for his past as a negative campaigner, bringing up the infamous Willie Horton ad that had rightfully haunted him ever since.

So that brings us back to today.

Unlike the Willie Horton ad -- which was outsourced to third parties to the point where Atwater insisted he had nothing to do with it -- this new ad is coming directly from the personal Twitter account of the president himself.

And it isn't just that the president of the United States is personally pushing white nationalist politics in its ugliest and crudest form, it's that he's doing it proudly and with purpose.

That is so, so much worse than "Willie Horton" ever was.

You can follow @KevinMKruse.


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