Throughout Donald Trump's rise and hold at the top of national Republican Party polling, there's been a tendency to dismiss his rhetoric as mere limelight-grabbing antics. Trump, as Nate Silver put it, was running a perpetual attention-getting machine in which outrageous statements fueled media coverage, which fueled high poll numbers, which fueled more media coverage. And it's clear that Trump is, in fact, an adherent of the theory that there's no such thing as bad publicity.
But this has always missed the specificity of Trump. He doesn't say or do random things to get attention. He says particular kinds of things. Things that take what liberals have long argued is a white ethnocentric subtext to many conservative politicians' rhetoric and make it the main text.
His first ad is a powerful reminder of what he's running on, and why we should take his words seriously:
Trump is not running on white, working-class America's economic anxieties. He's not giving voice to activist frustration with establishment Republican Party politicians' inclination to compromise. He's saying that foreigners — especially Muslim or Mexican ones — are scary and you should vote for Donald Trump because he will keep them out of the country. If real footage of real immigrants to the United States isn't scary enough, Trump will feed you some footage of Moroccans trying to enter a weird Spanish enclave in North Africa and just pretend it's America.
Whether he came to that message out of conviction or out of opportunism, it's clearly his message. If he manages to ride it to victory, that will be enormously telling about where his supporters stand.
Trump is counting on this ad
This ad plays an unusually large role in Trump's campaign, because Trump has been pursuing a very unusual campaign strategy. Simply put, he hasn't done very much. He tweets, he rallies, and he appears on cable television, but he doesn't have much field stuff, and until now he hasn't been running television ads.
All that free media powered him to the top of national polls last summer and has kept him there ever since.
But there's a catch. The first states to actually vote for a presidential nominee will be Iowa and New Hampshire. These are the states where rival campaigns have concentrated most of their firepower, and they're the states where voters are paying the most attention. Trump is also behind in Iowa according to most polls, and his lead in New Hampshire is small compared with his national lead. Past national polling leads have collapsed in the blink of an eye after bad early state results (just ask Howard Dean), so Trump has to worry that a loss in Iowa could lead to a loss in New Hampshire that could swiftly doom his once-dominant campaign to irrelevance.
Via an ad-buying source, Trump has purchased *at least* $1.25M on IA/NH TV this week -- $750K in IA, $500K in NH— Mark Murray (@mmurraypolitics) January 4, 2016
Finally ponying up the money to buy airtime in Iowa and New Hampshire is Trump recognizing this risk. He's running this message because he thinks it will help him connect with those Iowa and New Hampshire voters. He thinks it's what Republicans in those states want to hear. Now we'll get to find out if he's right.