Teenage Dante Latchman from Las Vegas is a familiar face in the United States today. Diagnosed with cancer in his spinal cord at the age of one, Latchman, now 17, referred to Republican candidate Donald Trump apparently mocking a physically challenged reporter from The New York Times during a rally in South Carolina and said: “I don’t want a president who makes fun of me. I want a president who inspires me. That is not Donald Trump.”
Latchman’s powerful message is in the form of a 30-second ad that ends with this line: “Stop Hate, Stop Trump”. And the ad, released by a Political Action Committee (PAC), one of the many that raise and spend money to elect and defeat candidates, has been aired on almost all news channels in the US, apart from gaining ground on social media.
According to political observers, this ad is just one of the many in a bitter presidential campaign that has entered its final weeks in swing states and is marked by an unprecedented number of negative advertisements. On October 5, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s camp released another visceral ad. Titled “Mirrors”, it shows teenaged girls checking themselves on mirrors and cellphone cameras, straightening their clothes, brushing their hair. Then, there are visuals of Trump saying: “I’d looked her right in that fat, ugly face of hers… she is a slob, she ate like a pig.”
The ad begins with an image of Hillary hugging an adolescent girl with the voiceover: “I am Hillary Clinton and I approve this message”. The ad concludes with a question: “Is this the president we want for our daughter?” Last week, the Trump camp released a TV ad ridiculing Clinton’s recent pneumonia diagnosis, declaring that she does not have the “fortitude, strengths or stamina” to be president. Then there are ads on military veterans and African-Americans reacting to caustic remarks made by Trump during his different campaign rallies.
On Monday, Clinton’s campaign came out with another ad comparing her Republican rival with the famous bullies of Hollywood movies. It contrasted famous scenes from “Back to the Future”, “The Karate Kid” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” with Trump’s outrageous remarks against various communities. This ad, too, ends with a message from Hillary saying: “That’s why its important to stand up to bullies wherever they are, and why we shouldn’t let anyone bully his way into the presidency.”
Paul Glader, an associate professor at The King’s College in New York, described this presidential election campaign “as one of the worst”. “In the last 20 years, we have had an increasing number of negative ads with candidates attacking one another instead of talking about their own ideas. I think we have reached a new low now,” he said.
“At the presidential level, this is certainly one of the worst negative campaigns, largely because of Donald Trump’s behaviour. But we have seen a steady trend of negativity over the years,” said Glader. The Democrats hope that such ads would boost their efforts to link all Republicans, who are contesting for the House of Representatives, with Trump. Take the case of LuAnn Bennet, the Democrat candidate from Virginia’s 10th Congressional district. “Barbara Comstock stands for Donald Trump,” Bennett said while opening the debate last week against her Republican rival.
In this region, said to “lean slightly” Republican, Comstock has been avoiding any mention of her controversial presidential nominee. “It’s sad she (Bennett) is focusing on this. I am focusing on being the best Congresswoman for this district,” she said.
Glader says the “unusual use of social media in a very aggressive way” could be one reason for the surge in the negative campaign and the polarisation within the US. “Read the tweets of Donald Trump. Most of them have nothing to do with policies but have a lot to do with personalities, insults and comments. Even Hillary does not seem to be using social media for policy discussions. The tweets and trolls are distractions from policies and ideas on how one will govern, how one sees law and its implementation, and how one sees the role of the president as commander-in-chief, head of state and in other roles. We hear very little on that, especially from Trump. Everything is about distraction and chaos,” he said.
According to Al Tompkins, senior faculty (broadcast and online) at Poynter Institute in St Petersburg, Florida, such negativity has been part of US elections for a long time. “In American politics, such attacks have a long history. For over a hundred years, candidates have levelled personal allegations against each other. The purpose of such attacks is usually to raise questions in the voter’s mind, not necessarily to convey something important — and it’s very effective,” said Tompkins. And what of the common man? “Such advertisements make us cringe. They makes us feel embarrassed as Americans,” said John Fitzgerald, a local driver.