Building Myths on the Border

AP Photo/J Pat Carter

Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz during a campaign stop in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, December 23, 2015. 

They keep coming,” the advertisement’s narrator intoned, while the screen showed footage of undocumented immigrants scurrying across a highway. The year was 1994, and the ad was the centerpiece of California Republican Governor Pete Wilson’s re-election campaign. Trailing in the polls after a lackluster first term, Wilson resurrected his prospects by excoriating the Clinton administration for its presumed lack of border enforcement and by backing a ballot measure (Proposition 187) that would deny all public services, including the right to attend K-12 schools, to the undocumented:

Short-term, the strategy worked. Wilson won re-election; Proposition 187 passed handily, though it was soon struck down by the courts. Long term, Wilson’s strategy proved to be a Republican cataclysm—indeed, in a state on track to become “majority minority,” (today, California is 39 percent Latino, 13 percent Asian, 6 percent black and 38 percent non-Hispanic white), a more thorough act of political suicide is hard to imagine. In 1996, Latinos began voting in far greater numbers, overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates; in time, as the GOP’s anti-immigrant crusades continued, they were joined by the state’s Asian voters as well. What had been a politically purple state at the time of Wilson’s re-election turned deepest blue. Today, Democrats hold nearly two-thirds of the seats in the legislature, represent more than 70 percent of the states congressional districts, and of the 56 regularly scheduled elections for statewide office that have been held since 1994 (for the eight statewide constitutional officers and the two U.S. senators), Republicans have won exactly one—Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2002 gubernatorial bid.

In only slightly modified fashion, updated versions of Wilson’s ad began popping up on TV screens and social media this week. Donald Trump’s very first ad features a narrator proclaiming, “He’ll stop illegal immigration by building a wall on our southern border that Mexico will pay for,” over footage showing a mass of people streaming across the border:

Ted Cruz responded with an ad showing people in proper business attire hastening across the border, while Cruz asks if economic elites would be so blasé about immigration if the migrants were a threat to professional, rather than low-wage, jobs—a right-populist twist if ever there was one. (Given America’s changing demographics, of course, Trump and Cruz are likely inflicting the same kind of long-term damage on the national Republican Party that Wilson inflicted on California’s GOP, but candidates and their managers are existentially allergic to thinking long-term.)

The Cruz footage, of course, was staged. But then, the Trump footage, as his campaign belatedly acknowledged, was a video clip not of the U.S.-Mexican border, but of the border between Morocco and the North African Spanish enclave of Melilla. (Mexico, Morocco—sound alike, swarthy people, don’t speak English: What’s the diff?)

But Republicans have a long tradition of staged border footage. Indeed, the very first political ad ever screened was of dangerous, foreign-accented hordes streaming over the California border. Only, the hordes were really actors, the footage was shot by MGM, and it was presented to the California public not as an ad but as a documentary newsreel that was screened in virtually every movie theater in the state.

The “newsreel” (actually, newsreels—there were three of them) was the linchpin of the GOP’s ultimately successful effort to defeat the 1934 gubernatorial campaign of socialist author and activist Upton Sinclair, who had stunned the state by winning that year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary and who was clearly favored to win the general election until the Republicans launched a multimillion-dollar barrage of falsifications designed to bring Sinclair down.

The barrage included a well-publicized effort to suppress voter turnout by threatening to prosecute and send to prison for up to seven years “fraudulent” voters with no fixed addresses or who had recently moved. (There is little new under the Republican sun.) But the “newsreels,” which were commissioned by MGM studio chief Irving Thalberg, were the GOP’s pièce de resistance. In answering a question on how he’d follow through on his pledge to create jobs in Depression-wracked California, the somewhat ethereal, political novice Sinclair had said he’d be so successful that the unemployed of other states would flock to California. Thus inspired, the MGM crew staged footage of unsavory characters with menacingly foreign accents crossing the state line into California, endorsing Sinclair as they came. (Some of the footage was actually outtakes from the William Wellman-Warner Brothers picture Wild Boys of the Road, about Depression-engendered hobos.) One bearded figure with a heavy Yiddish accent said of Sinclair, “Vell, his system vorked vell in Russia; vy can’t it vork here?” (In actuality, Sinclair had a long record of anti-communism, and the Communist Party reviled him during the campaign as a “social fascist.”)

The “newsreels” so enraged Sinclair supporters that arguments broke out in movie theaters across the state, and some chains stopped showing them. They also alarmed many in California’s Jewish community for their blatant use of anti-Semitic stereotypes (much as many Latinos and Muslims are alarmed today by the GOP’s descent into racist and nativist stereotypes). Some Jewish leaders condemned the studio heads (all of whom opposed Sinclair and all of whom were Jewish) as traitors to their people.

The only real political difference between the 1934, 1994, and 2016 versions of the GOP’s border demagogy is that the 1934 version focused on state lines, not international borders. The opposition of the California right to economic migrants from other states during the Depression was every bit as intense as the Republicans’ opposition to transnational immigrants today, and the stereotyping every bit as vile. The Oakies who came to California fleeing the Dust Bowl in the years immediately following 1934 were often stopped at the state line and turned back by self-appointed border guards, or subjected to vigilante violence in attacks on migrant farmworker camps. (Such scenes are depicted in both the book and the film of The Grapes of Wrath.) Given the right conditions and sufficient rabble-rousing, even God-fearing white Protestant Americans could be turned into the “other.” No matter the particulars, the GOP’s determination to exploit and engender anxiety and bigotry for political gain, even, or especially, when it requires blatant and repetitive falsification, has a long and storied pedigree, as more than 80 years of the party’s border propaganda makes sickeningly clear.

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