IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Stephen Miller group’s ads on race abandon any sense of subtlety

The ads from America First Legal are eerily reminiscent of the kind of unsubtle messaging voters heard from the likes of North Carolina’s Jesse Helms.


By any fair measure, Stephen Miller was one of Donald Trump’s most controversial advisers, especially on matters related to race and immigration. I remember a Greg Sargent piece from 2019 in which he described Miller as “one of the leading figures pushing the Trump administration toward increasing venality, corruption and lawlessness.”

It’s obviously a few years later, and Miller is no longer welcome in the West Wing, but he’s still keeping busy, helping lead an organization called America First Legal, which he helped create after Trump’s 2020 defeat.

And as Election Day nears, America First Legal — a tax-exempt non-profit organization that cannot legally intervene in campaigns — is hitting the airwaves with a specific kind of message.

Politico reported earlier this week, for example, on a radio ad telling the public that President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies are pursuing an agenda intended to hurt white people, as part of “the left’s anti-white bigotry.” The article, which seemed to take care to avoid using the word “racist,” explained that the radio ad “represents one of the most openly race-based spots of the cycle, amplifying tropes that have historically been used to generate backlash to minority groups.”

The spots have been running in and around Georgia, which happen to be home to two highly competitive statewide races in which Democrats are running African-American nominees.

As it turns out, the group’s efforts — which America First Legal describes as “educational” — aren’t limited to the radio. The group has also reportedly sent out mailers in key electoral states, and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes flagged a television ad that’s also apparently airing in Georgia, calling for an “end to anti-white bigotry,” while denouncing “racism against white people.”

There’s a lot to messaging like this, but Philip Bump’s analysis rang true:

Instead of talking specifically about limiting the power of Black Americans (as was common in the Jim Crow era), Republican candidates talked about issues with obvious racial subtexts: integration efforts, states’ rights, support for social services. Richard M. Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign focused on crime — very much with the understanding of how that focus would be interpreted by White Americans. In recent years, the facade has slipped. Former president Donald Trump’s appeals to White insecurity were far more explicit than those of prior political candidates. ... Still, though, the appeals were usually subtextual.

America First Legal is abandoning any sense of pretense. The subtext has become text. The ads are about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Miller and his associates are telling the public that white people are victims of rampant discrimination — and it’s Democrats and many of their white leaders who should be seen as anti-white bigots.

As a factual matter, all of this is utterly bonkers. It’s also eerily reminiscent of the kind of unsubtle messaging voters heard from the likes of North Carolina’s Jesse Helms.

Many wanted to assume that the United States had evolved to a smarter, more progressive, more respectful, and more decent place. And yet, America First Legal is spending millions of dollars on these ads, probably because the group expects them to find a receptive audience.

“The appeals used to be coded, quiet,” Bump added. “Present and identifiable, but shying away from specific ‘they’re coming for you’ language. The coding is gone. The elevation of racial fear is explicit. The Southern strategy is gone; the Jim Crow appeals to Blacks usurping power are back.”