U.S. mid-term election has been a story of bigotry and fear

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Photo: Wil C. Fry/Flickr

Never before have Canadians been so interested in a U.S. mid-term election campaign as they are in the current one.

While there have been tensions aplenty between Canada and the U.S. in the past, no U.S. president prior to the current one ever expressed such open hostility toward Canada. That would be reason enough for Canadians to pay close heed to what happens on Tuesday, November 6.  And yet, that is not the main reason for the high level of Canadian interest.

The main reason is best summed up in a disillusioned comment by former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press on Sunday.

Brokaw noted that a man openly shouted “death to the Jews” as he murdered 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue just as authorities were charging an avowed Donald Trump admirer for sending pipe bombs to a number of Trump’s most prominent critics. And yet, one week later, hardly anyone on the campaign trail evokes those horrific incidents.

Instead, the Trump camp has successfully shifted the focus to a caravan of Honduran refugees making its way through Mexico to the U.S. border.

Trump calls this group of desperate people – which includes many children – invaders. The president claims, outrageously and based on no facts, that hiding in the caravan are Islamic State terrorists and criminals intent on wreaking havoc and chaos in the U.S.

Trump has ostentatiously sent thousands of troops to “defend” the southern U.S. border. Self-appointed vigilantes who live near the U.S.-Mexico border are organizing to resist this “invasion,” guns at the ready.

Taking a leaf from an earlier Republican attack

The president does not merely make these claims from podiums at rallies. He and his allies are running lurid ads denouncing the Honduran refugees. They connect the caravan with the story of a Latin American migrant who, a number of years ago, killed two U.S. police officers.

The producers of the ad managed to find video of that convicted murderer leering and laughing. Their message is anything but subtle. They falsely accuse the Democrats of having allowed the Latin American criminal to get into the country, and then add that Democrats advocate for “open borders,” thus inviting dangerous hordes from the south to invade the U.S. to steal jobs and undermine public services.

Many in the U.S. media decry this shameless use of the big lie. Many others, however, including a good many Republican candidates and right-wing media, like Fox News, are happy to embrace and amplify Trump’s message.

The caravan ad and accompanying rhetoric are a more extreme version of the infamous Willie Horton ad from the 1988 presidential campaign, in which the senior Bush (George H. W.) defeated Massachusetts governor, Democrat Michael Dukakis.

Horton was on a furlough from a life term in prison when he committed a number of violent crimes, including rape. He was also black. Republicans and their allies used ads featuring images of the sinister-looking convicted felon to accuse Dukakis of being weak on crime. The tactic worked well. Dukakis had been well ahead in the polls, but lost badly on election day.  

Few in the U.S. note the cruel irony that, based on his social media posts, the accused mass murderer in Pittsburgh, Robert Bowers, was, in large measure, motivated by hatred and fear of the Honduran refugee caravan.

In postings on the website Gab, Bowers described the Hondurans as invaders who planned to kill “his people.” He believed a Jewish immigrant aid group, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), was helping the refugees, and that’s why he targeted a Jewish institution.

Amazingly, Trump and his acolytes picked up Bowers’ “invaders” theme after the synagogue shooting and arrest. It seems Republicans do not fear association with a vicious bigot involved in the worst incident of anti-Semitic violence in U.S. history.

A strategy that worked for Trump in 2016

Indeed, Trump is nothing if not almost naïvely transparent about his motives for targeting the Honduran caravan.

He admits that the synagogue shooting and pipe bomb incidents appeared to have slowed down his party’s momentum, which, he claims, picked up following the bruising Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination process.

Trump claims that by pressing hard on the anti-immigration button, he is exciting his political base and reviving that momentum.

Democrats remain confident despite Trump’s campaign of fear and loathing. Pundits and pollsters believe the Democrats have an excellent chance of re-taking the House of Representatives this time. For the Senate, however, the electoral map is daunting for Democrats. Senators are elected for staggered six-year terms and, this year, of the 35 Senate seats at play, Republicans occupy only nine.

All 435 seats in the House are at stake. House members are elected for two-year terms. Yet, even there, many observers, among them a good number of Democrats, fear another surprise along the lines of 2016, when, up to the last day, every poll and every pundit predicted a Hillary Clinton victory.  Fear, however unfounded and based on nothing more than prejudice, is, it seems, a powerful motivator.

To Canadians, all of the above should make of the 2018 mid-terms a ghoulish and frightful spectacle, mitigated only partially by the fact that, based on the early vote, young people and women seem to be participating in record numbers.

On this side of the border, Trump is not without allies here. 

Ontario premier Doug Ford is on the same page as the U.S. president on climate change, and the founder of the new Peoples’ Party, Maxime Bernier, has a similar attitude to Trump’s toward borders and refugees.

Even Bernier’s former Conservative Party and its leader Andrew Scheer have mercilessly and relentlessly attacked the Liberals for being soft on the so-called queue jumpers who cross into Canada from the U.S. through open fields and unguarded back roads to seek asylum.

We in Canada cannot vote south of the border, but we will inevitably have to deal with the consequences of the choices Americans make.

This time, Canadians will be watching to see if U.S. voters will ignore concerted efforts to scare them and appeal to the darker voices of their collective consciousness and do something to limit the power of the current reckless occupant of the White House.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Photo: Wil C. Fry/Flickr


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