Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.
Many Republicans must have thought it was a bold and brilliant move to place an attack ad on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, known as AOC, during the third Democratic debate on Thursday. But the content of the ad drew attention to serious shortcomings in today’s Republican Party, and the context in which it was aired only highlighted it as a perverse lie.
ABC aired an inflammatory ad produced by the New Faces GOP PAC that shows an image of Ocasio-Cortez’s face being consumed by fire. Republicans have repeatedly targeted the New York representative, who describes herself as a democratic socialist. By drawing a comparison between AOC’s ideology to that of the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the PAC makes a series of claims that range from absurd to transparently false. And by placing the ad during a robust debate between Democratic candidates for President, the effort to cast AOC as the face of the party fell flat. (An ABC spokeswoman said the ad did not run on the national telecast of the debate, meaning it was purchased through local stations in markets like Washington, CNN noted.)
New Faces GOP is headed by California Republican Elizabeth Heng, a child of Cambodian refugees who failed last year to win a seat in Congress. The PAC says its mission is to “elevate the next generation of Republicans,” and bring new faces into the party, to protect America from, “being destroyed by extreme, socialist Democrats.” It’s unclear how closely the PAC and its donors coordinated with the rest of the party, but it’s a good bet this was not a fully independent effort.
If the goal was to draw attention to Heng and New Faces, the ad succeeded. In every other way, it could not have been any more of a failure. The spot of crass Republican propaganda opens with an ominously tightening image of AOC, which suddenly bursts into flames. As the image of her face burns, revealing a second image — of skulls from the Cambodian genocide — Heng declares, “This is the face of socialism and ignorance. Does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez know the horror of socialism?” Heng then tries to equate AOC’s Democratic socialism to the ideology of the Khmer Rouge, the radical communist group inspired by Mao Zedong that nearly destroyed Cambodia during its four-year rule, when at least 1.7 million people died from executions, disease, starvation and overwork.
To claim that Ocasio-Cortez, or anyone on the debate stage, holds a single policy idea that is in agreement with the Khmer Rouge’s murderous ideology displays either stunning ignorance or an active effort to deceive.
Ocasio-Cortez shot back, tweeting, “Republicans are running TV ads setting pictures of me on fire to convince people they aren’t racist. Life is weird!”
In the ad, Heng then goes on to respond to charges that Republicans are racist, months after Trump himself called for AOC and the rest of the so-called “Squad” to “go back… [to the] broken and crime infested places from which they came, even though three of the four were born in the US. In the ad, Heng sets herself up in contrast to AOC and declares, “Mine is a face of freedom. My skin is not white. I’m not outrageous, racist or socialist. I’m a Republican.”
With that, the ad ham-handedly showed the desperate Republican efforts to make voters — mostly Democrats, no less, watching the debate — think that AOC views, which have been grotesquely distorted by the GOP, are representative of the entire Democratic Party. But viewers were in the midst of listening to 10 Democrats, including the centrist leading the 2020 race so far, discuss the best ways to expand affordable health care coverage, along with other ideas that are supported by the majority of Americans.
The ad inadvertently drew attention to the dearth of minority support for the current Republican administration. No matter how much Heng supports him, President Donald Trump is profoundly disliked among minorities, and holds historically low approval ratings among all Americans. The latest CNN poll found that more than 80% of African-Americans disapprove of the jobs he’s doing, as do two-thirds of Hispanics.
No amount of derogatory air time, not even by an Asian-American, can negate the fact that Trump’s Republican Party has turned into the cozy home of white supremacists, with scant support from non-whites.
Will Hurd, the only black Republican in the House of Representatives, announced last month that he will not run for reelection. And the man Trump awkwardly labeled, “my African-American,” Gregory Cheadle, just declared that he has stopped supporting the President, saying he’s fed up with a Republican Party that he believes wants to enact a “pro-white” agenda and uses minorities as “political pawns.”
The slam of AOC by Heng, a relatively rare minority Republican, only underscores just how uncommon it is for non-whites to support the party as it stands today.
The ad is a sad reminder of what has happened to political discourse in the United States since Trump entered the political arena. Insults, name-calling, intimations of violence against candidates are hardly shocking any more when they come from the President. Now other party members are following suit. Yesterday, Rep. Liz Cheney launched an ugly attack on fellow Republican, Sen. Rand Paul, retweeting a 2015 Trump posting in which he described him as “a spoiled brat without a properly functioning brain.” Cheney, in public intraparty fighting that would have been unimaginable in another administration, called him, “a big loser (then & now).” The Trump style has infected the party. Heng’s commercial was carved from bark of the same rotting tree.
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But we can thank Heng, New Faces, and whoever thought the AOC attack ad was a good idea. All Americans know what to expect in the 14 months ahead: more calumnies, more lies, more insults, and more ridicule. Michelle Obama’s injunction to go high when others go low will test many Democrats’ restraint, but it will make the contrast between the choices Americans face even more stark than it has been since 2016.