“In the context of today, George Bush might say, ‘I love that Willie Horton ad,’” said Mr. Brown, who is now co-chairman of the pro-Trump America Fights Back political action committee. “Instead, he said, ‘Who’s the crazy guy over there running that ad?’”
Sixteen years after “I approve this message” became part of the lexicon, negative political ads seem to be everywhere, increasing by 61 percent since the last midterm season, according to a recent report from the Wesleyan Media Project.
None of this even accounts for social media, which has gone unregulated because Facebook and other platforms managed to get themselves exempted from the advertising disclosure requirements of television and radio.
The drafters of the “Stand By Your Ad” rule thought they would bring about a more civil brand of campaign discourse. But perhaps naïvely they did not foresee a time when candidates, following the lead of a self-described “nationalist” president for whom insults and falsehoods are political weapons of choice, would see no downside in attaching their names to racially incendiary messages.
One of the architects of the “I approve this message” provision, the longtime Representative David E. Price, Democrat of North Carolina, told me he still believes in it enough to propose something similar for social media ads. The challenge now, he said, is that the crudest tactics are being rewarded with votes.
“It’s not only beyond shame, it’s also seeing this as a political asset in some quarters,” Mr. Price said. “It’s about the general coarsening of the political discussion, and the calculation that ‘I’m the baddest, meanest, most politically incorrect guy in town and will say whatever pops into my head and I regard that as a political virtue.’”
The tenor this year was “most obviously about Trump,” he added.
From the first day of his presidential campaign, during which he referred to Mexicans as “rapists,” Mr. Trump has often pushed a message of racially tinged nationalism. Now, he and his allies are employing the same strategy in the midterms, only with more confidence.