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The GOP’s 2018 message: Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Republicans want voters to believe they’re living in a horror movie.

Man in hockey mask with knife Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

A few days before the Wisconsin primary election, before Democrats picked the candidate they hoped could finally take down Scott Walker, the Republican governor sent shivers down the spines of the voters who gathered to hear him speak at a campaign rally.

It was a stump line for Halloween and haunted houses, not the August humidity.

“Those other things — health care, education — none of that matters unless you’re safe,” Walker said at a campaign stop last week, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report headlined, “Scott Walker says Democrats would make Wisconsin more dangerous.”

There was no ambiguity or subtlety. If Democrats win, you and your family are in danger. Democrats want to let violent criminals back onto the street, Walker claimed. It sounded like anodyne Wisconsin (15th lowest crime rate out of 50, for the record) would be plagued by anarchy or mass murder or both.

If you were to distill the prevailing Republican campaign message for the 2018 midterm elections to one image, it would be this: a hooded figure in the shadows, machete (or knife or bladed fingers) in hand, waiting to pounce if the wrong candidate wins.

Life is a horror movie and it’s Democrats behind the hockey mask. Vote Republican.

It comes from the top. This Trump 2020 campaign ad is the message’s Platonic ideal.

As the ad stamps “PURE EVIL” on the face of a convicted murderer who entered the United States illegally, what sounds like a lame rip-off of the Halloween theme can be heard.

It is no accident that a president whose supporters are overwhelmingly white and less educated, who tend to live among other whites, are being targeted by mini horror movies that prey on fears of the other and the unknown. All that’s missing is the jump scare.

You’re seeing these 30-second horror shorts everywhere. In last year’s Virginia gubernatorial race, Republican Ed Gillespie aired several ads that flashed the words “Kill, Rape, Control” with grimy photos of MS-13 gang members to attack Democrat Ralph Northam.

In last week’s Ohio special election, Republican Troy Balderson’s campaign ran a TV spot that called Democrat Danny O’Connor “dangerous” three times in half a minute. It was yet another case of the GOP choosing culture wars over their substantive agenda in a close campaign, as Vox Tara Golshan reported.

This isn’t just for the culture warriors, either; it is more or less the standard Republican playbook at this point. Rep. Barbara Comstock — a Virginia Republican, a relative moderate representing an affluent suburban district — recently sent the Washington Post a list of MS-13 victims who had been “beaten, stabbed and shot to death.”

This online video from the Republican National Committee, released in June, has everything: Kathy Griffin holding the decapitated head of a mock Donald Trump doll, limousines burning in the street. Snoop Dogg literally shoots a Trump impersonator at the end.

The original satire of the Griffin stunt — in good taste or bad, effective or not — is stripped away. The threat is real and omnipresent. Democrats are the party of death.

In a way, this is nothing new. The Willie Horton ad — the George H.W. Bush ad that used the racially charged image of a black criminal to attack Michael Dukakis — ran 30 years ago. LBJ aired the “Daisy” ad warning of nuclear destruction.

Donald Trump took the oath of office while bloviating about “American carnage” — which really could be the subtitle for the next Purge movie. This kind of fearmongering is a staple of American politics.

Still, it’s notable that these ads are airing in what is in fact the safest time in recent history to live in America. But then, we seem to have a pervasive disconnect between reality and perception. Maybe because our politicians are always trying to frighten us to win elections.

Pew Research Center

It was one thing for Republicans to run ads warning about ISIS in 2014, with a Democratic president in the White House to serve as a villain: The main agenda they were running on was that they weren’t Barack Obama. It is revealing, after two years of absolute power, that the best the Republicans can muster as they come back to the voters is, “If the Democrats win, you might literally die.” Luridness wins out over reality. Believe what we tell you, not what the statistics show.

They couldn’t repeal Obamacare, because their plan was horrifyingly unpopular and actually would have, literally, led to more deaths. Their tax law is the political definition of milquetoast — the public doesn’t care about it at all, and Democrats don’t even find it that useful as a cudgel. Trump’s border wall never got built. The infrastructure bill never came. You can’t run a campaign ad on the Congressional Review Act.

So they’re running on fear. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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