One of the persistent unanswered questions about the Donald Trump era is how to cover his bullshit lies without just spreading his bullshit lies even further. This is particularly salient as the midterms rush to a nightmarish close, with the Republicans doing everything they can to frighten their base of old white people who think MS-13 is coming to take over their lake houses—like the plot of a zany teen movie, but racist.
Indeed, one of President Trump’s closing arguments of this election came in the form of one of the most openly racist political ads since the GOP’s Willie Horton ad in 1988. This ad did not run on television. It exists to receive what political pros call “earned media”—getting it aired by “earning” coverage in the press, instead of just paying to run the ad. Trump’s team clearly hoped it would be replayed on CNN and Fox News for free.
However—and this is the tricky position Trump has put the media in since his very first campaign event, where he called Mexicans rapists and criminals—that doesn’t mean the media can simply ignore it, or fail to check the facts therein. He spewed this glob of bile and phlegm onto our plates, and we are required to dispose of it; we can’t just politely eat around it.
The Enemy of the People in the media did, in fact, check the details of the ad. Luis Bracamontes, the immigrant whom the video claims was allowed to stay in the country and kill cops by Democrats, was actually let back into the country under George W. Bush after being deported under Bill Clinton. It was also the office of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, immigration hawk and recipient of Trump’s first presidential pardon, who released Bracamontes after he was picked up on a drug charge, according to the Washington Post. Politifact gave the video’s central argument a Pants on Fire rating. That should be the end of it, right?
Well, no. The segment of the American population for whom this despicable ad was created does not care if Bracamontes was let back in under Bush. Trump hates the Bushes, for a start, and Trump is incredibly popular with members of his own party. They adore him. A good chunk of them probably think of Bush as weak on immigration and have come to associate him with what they see as his brother’s cuckishness. They voted for Trump because they rejected the even slightly veiled racism of the Bush-era Republican party.
But most importantly, the audience this video is intended for won’t mind that Trump’s argument is based on a falsehood. People are very good at interpreting new information to confirm their existing beliefs. In this case, Trump fans would probably argue that the Democrats made Bush release this violent criminal, or that it was the result of a leftover Clinton policy, or something. Or it would just slide off their brains, leaving no trace, like an egg on good Teflon. There is an extraordinary amount of fact-suspension going on in the brains of Trump supporters—they somehow have to believe he’s bringing back coal jobs, protecting health coverage for pre-existing conditions, and that it’s the state of California’s fault that it has wildfires. The defining characteristic of Trump supporters, other than racial animus, is that they are committed to supporting a president who blatantly lies all the damn time. It is no coincidence that Trump spends most of his time decrying and devaluing the media. These people do not believe us.
This doesn’t mean the media can cover the Bracamontes video in any way they like—cable news shouldn’t replay any portion of the ad, for example. And it’s true that evidence shows that the repetition of a lie, even if it’s followed by a fact check, still helps people believe it. But ultimately, that matters less than the simple fact that you do have to point out when the president is lying, especially since we know the people for whom this ad is intended are essentially a lost cause. They aren’t listening to us. (They definitely aren’t listening to Splinter.)
Democrats need to stop chasing the myth of the independent voter who went for Trump but might be persuaded to come back from the dark side if only they’re presented with the Facts, Sir. Anyone who, at this stage, believes all this racist stuff about the migrant caravan and is frightened of this Scary Criminal Immigrant who’s somehow the Democrats’ fault cannot be the primary or even secondary target of any kind of democracy-rescuing mission.
They’re a lost cause. Let their brains rot. If some of them amble back to reality after Trump leaves office or dies on the toilet, great. But in a country that is increasingly non-white, we will, eventually, not need to cater to the racist old ladies who think MS-13 is coming to have the Best Summer Ever at Lake Winnibigoshish.
Correction, 12:07 p.m. ET: This post originally said that the GOP’s Willie Horton ad aired in 1992. It aired in 1988.