The Donald Trump campaign released its first-ever television ad yesterday, and its content suggests that Trump considers features what many of us regarded as bugs. He’s doubled down on two of his most risible ideas: a ban on Muslims entering the United States “until we can figure out what’s going on,” and a wall at the Mexican border. When fact-checkers pointed out that footage of immigrants storming a wall during the “wall at our southern border” part of the ad actually showed Moroccans trying to get into Spain, Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski responded, “No shit it’s not the Mexican border, but that’s what our country is going to look like if we don’t do anything.” So the tradition of decorum continues.
Judicious phrasing is not a central element of the Trump campaign. His plan to “cut the head off of ISIS and take their oil”—accompanied by footage of aerial bombardment presumably ordered by President Obama, who does not understand the threat of radical Islamic terrorism—is like threatening to slip Bill Cosby a mickey or blow up the Unabomber. Cutting off heads is bad, bro. And as inaccurate as it is to refer to “their oil,” which presumably belonged to some sovereign nation before ISIS captured it, promising to take it after we kill them is a straight-up offer to share in the spoils of war.
But Trump won’t just plunder our enemies; he’ll also keep us from getting plundered, specifically by the shadowy figures hurling themselves toward our wall. It’s interesting that this footage, with its bird’s-eye view and night-vision green, visually matches the footage of cruise missiles hitting ISIS. It’s almost as though he’s encouraging us to think of Mexican immigrants and middle-eastern terrorists as two versions of the same problem. Brown people from other countries come to America and try to wreck it.
But what’s most striking about this ad is that the Trump campaign seems to consider the wall and the anti-Muslim rhetoric its strongest features. That’s odd when you consider that both are patently ridiculous. A giant wall across our southern border would be logistically improbable, financially impossible,1 and administratively ineffective. The numbers are hard to come by, but consensus holds that a relatively small percentage of illegal immigrants are straight-up running across the desert. And even if the Constitution allowed us to bar members of one religion from entering the United States, how would we enforce that? Everyone in line at customs has to eat a pork sandwich?
What we have here is an ad that doubles down on Tump’s existing base of support. His campaign seems to believe it is succeeding not in spite of its candidate’s dumbest remarks, but because of them. It’s an interesting strategy, because it’s not as though his positions against immigrants and Muslims were little-known. They’re also not ver popular in Iowa, a state whose evangelical Christians are more concerned about abortion than sharia, and whose Mexican immigrant population is well-integrated both socially and economically.
Perhaps I am misreading the Republicans of Iowa, among whom Trump currently trails Ted Cruz by 3.5 points. But it’s hard to see how this ad will change anybody’s mind. Trump’s first foray into advertising suggests he wants the same message but amplified—a viable strategy for national polls, where he continues to dominate, but an odd one for Iowa, where he needs to catch up.
The most striking element of this spot, though, is that it implies Trump is not just sayin’ stuff and letting his campaign control the damage. At best, he is sayin’ stuff and making it his official policy afterward. At worst, he has consciously bet on xenophobia and religious bigotry. And why shouldn’t he? It was supposed to backfire on him in his campaign announcement,2 when he insulted John McCain’s war record, and when a reporter ostensibly lured him into endorsing a ban on Muslims. But all those things only made him more popular. For the last six months, polls, the media, and maybe voters have been teaching Trump the wrong lesson. He appears to have learned it.