Former President George H.W. Bush was sent off with the pomp and ceremony befitting his many years of public service to his country. He deserved the accolades.
Throughout his years in office, he was usually a model of decency, intelligence, prudence and compassion. Yes, it’s true that we notice those traits all the more in their breach, but Bush’s presidency would have been remembered for his civility even without any comparison to President Donald J. Trump.
Still, blemishes are on Bush’s record. One in particular — the infamous Willie Horton campaign ad — brings Trump to mind. Though our current president is rightly criticized for a divisive governing style that revels in hatred and bigotry of all sorts, it’s worth remembering that Trumpism didn’t start with Donald Trump. The Republican Party has long depended on blatant appeals to racial fear and resentment.
Even so patrician a figure as George H.W. Bush was boosted by such appeals. Having been defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980 for the GOP nomination to the presidency, he was determined to win the office when he finally got the nod from his party in 1988. Bush was already suspected of insufficient fealty to right-wing dogma by certain conservative factions. On top of that, his rival, Michael Dukakis, former governor of Massachusetts and the Democratic nominee, was mocking him — “Where was George?” — as lackluster and unaccomplished.
But Bush needn’t have worried. His campaign manager was a bare-knuckled brawler named Lee Atwater, a political strategist who specialized in dirty tricks. Dukakis’ Democratic primary opponents had earlier criticized him for a prison furlough program that granted weekends out to convicted felons.
When Atwater learned about Horton, a convicted murderer who brutalized a white couple while on furlough, he was gleeful. He declared he would “make Willie Horton (Dukakis’) running mate.” Though the Bush campaign didn’t run ads with Horton’s picture, a group that backed Bush did — making it clear that Horton was black.
That ad became the template for decades of destructive political campaigns that focused not only on violent crime but that also blamed black Americans for much of it. Politicians were so afraid of appearing “soft on crime” that even Democrats began to adopt harsh policies for minor offenses.
But it was the Republican Party that reached deep into the well of bigotry and contempt for constitutional values, making black men and women the targets of an increasingly unjust criminal justice system.
In 1989, five Harlem teenagers — all black or Latino — were charged with raping a white female jogger in Central Park. After many hours of intense, hostile interrogations, they confessed. The crime made national news, quickly becoming emblematic of a new breed of young criminal talked about in criminal justice circles: the “super-predator.”
A certain wealthy New York City developer spent $85,000 to put ads in all four of the city’s print newspapers, calling for capital punishment. “Muggers and murderers should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes,” Trump’s ad said.
There was just one problem: They were innocent. Their confessions had been coerced. In 2002, after they had served between six and 13 years in prison, another man confessed to the crime, and his confession was validated by DNA evidence. The sentences of the original five men were vacated.
Trump, though, has never apologized, insisting that the original convictions were correct. And he hewed to the rhetoric of prejudice and stereotype throughout his presidential campaign, appealing to voters who were ready to believe that people of color are inherently dangerous. Trump portrayed predominantly black inner cities as dystopias of crime and despair. He described Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers. He disparaged Muslims as suspected terrorists.
By now, there are some among conservatives who are fearful for the future of the Republican Party, who despair that Trump has allied it so closely with bigotry and xenophobia, who worry that its aging constituents have grown too dependent on the dog whistles of racial resentment. They are right, but it didn’t start with Donald Trump. The GOP started pandering to racial fears decades ago, and now that’s about the only core belief it has left.