‘The Arabs (and Indians and Chinese) Are Coming!’

With so many touching xenophobic and foreigner-baiting attack ads, it's hard to pick favorites. Here are five of the best as the midterm elections get ugly.

WATERFORD-MI: People attend a rally sponsored by the Tea Party Express October 29, 2010 in Waterford, Michigan. The 15-day tour began in Reno, Nevada and will end in Concord, New Hampshire on November 1st. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

It’s late October election season: The trees are losing their leaves, parents are wrapping their kids in scarves for the chilly walk to school, and politicians are now openly accusing their opponents of selling orphans’ kidneys on the Chinese black market to fund al-Qaeda-planned gay wedding chapels at Ground Zero. With only a few days left before the United States’ Nov. 2 election day, political ads — on which nearly $4 billion, or just shy of the GDP of Zimbabwe, will have been spent by election day — have predictably reached their debased, atavistic nadir.

This year, with the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate at stake, boundaries of decency have not only been crossed but trampled on and possibly waterboarded at an undisclosed location. Senators are buying Viagra for child molesters. Aqua Buddhas are threatening Christianity. And plenty of candidates and allied organizations are reaching for the old standby of political fearmongering: the foreigner.

Between the Chinese bankers taking over America, amorous Iranian dictators, and job-stealing Indians (who have apparently taken them from the job-stealing Mexicans), it’s hard to see a single “Daisy” ad — a defining television spot that can decisively swing a previously close race — emerging in this year’s crop. But who knows? The election isn’t until Tuesday, and four days is an eternity in political mudslinging. Here’s a sampling of the year’s greatest, dirtiest hits.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

“They work for us.”

January’s Supreme Court verdict in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was a game changer for election advertisements: No longer would candidates be restricted in the amount of money they could raise from corporate donors. Outside groups, (including the parties’ respective campaign committees) have responded by dumping an estimated $430 million into races this year.

Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), a “private, non-profit organization” whose mission is to “eliminate waste, mismanagement, and inefficiency in the federal government,” has taken its message to the airwaves, loudly protesting what it considers to be excessive government spending and a bloated federal budget deficit. The group’s ad is set in the year 2030 and shows a Chinese professor lecturing a group of students on the downfalls of great empires: “America tried to spend and tax itself out of a great recession. Enormous so-called ‘stimulus’ spending, massive changes to health care, government takeovers of private industries, and crushing debt,” he tells the enraptured group of Chinese youths. “Of course,” he continues, “we owned most of their debt, so now they work for us.”

Yes, one of the students seems to have a pretty cool next-generation iPad (made in China, no doubt), but the Chinese Prof. Evil is muddying up his facts: Most economists agree that the deficit is a growing problem, though were it not for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the U.S. economy might otherwise have entirely collapsed, resulting in significantly more debt than the stimulus ever created. As for health care, the picture is mixed: The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that this year’s reform bill will significantly reduce the deficit in coming years, but critics counter that it’s just not true.

And just in case you were tempted to suppose that this future China in this ad is a liberal democratic one, there’s no missing the enormous communist flag billowing behind the lecturing professor. 

“Guys like this.”

This year’s race for Florida’s eighth congressional district is one of the most hotly contested of the midterm election cycle — but it would have been even more interesting if only Dan Fanelli had actually won the Republican primary.

In his GOP primary campaign against incumbent Democrat, Alan Grayson, Fanelli put out a series of some of the most outrageously unsubtle ads of the season called “Simple Facts.” Each of the three ads focused on the threat of terrorism and the “need” for racial profiling. The first ad in the series begins with Fanelli standing in front of a small plane in an airplane hanger. He looks directly into the camera and says: “I’m Dan Fanelli. This is an airplane. And this,” he says pausing to yank up an olive-skinned man with explosives prominently strapped to his chest — “is a terrorist. Send me to Washington … and I’ll make sure guys like this get nowhere near things like this,” he says, pointing to the airplane. 

In Fanelli’s next ad he’s in the same airplane hanger, only this time he’s standing between an elderly white businessman and the same olive-skinned man, though this time looking tough in a black muscle T-shirt. Here, at least, though heralding the logic of racial profiling, Fanelli manages some self-deprecating humor: “Let’s face it. If a good-looking, ripped guy without much hair was flying airplanes into the Twin Towers, I’d have no problem being pulled out of line at the airport.” Yes, he’s a little thin on top. No comment on the good-looking, ripped part. 

In the third and final ad we’re back in the hanger again, but this time our olive-skinned friend appears co-conspirator who seems to be handy building bombs. Or putting a top on a thermos. The two men speak to each other in Arabic. One terrorist instructs the other how to take advantage of the supple U.S. court system after committing an attack: “After you spill the blood of the infidels, you will allow yourself to be captured. We will use the infidel’s lawyers and Miranda rights to spread our message. Then you will go to God.”

Speaking of which, thank god Fanelli lost in the primary to Dan Webster, who is currently leading Grayson in the polls.

“Dead Aim.”

Lest one think only Republicans engage in tough-guy talk, Joe Manchin, the Democratic candidate for West Virginia’s vacant Senate seat, has brought his gun along. Manchin locks and loads, takes aim, and then fires a perfectly placed shot through a piece of paper reading “Cap and Trade Bill.” Take that climate change legislation! I’ll take “dead aim” at the policy,  he tells viewers, because it’s “bad for West Virginia.” (The state’s economy relies heavily on its coal-mining industry.)

Manchin’s ad got some free publicity during Jon Stewart’s Oct. 27 interview with President Obama, with the Daily Show show host saying he had done a double take when he realized the ad was put out by a Democrat. But Manchin’s campaign strategy seems to be working: Within the last two weeks, he has seen a dramatic surge in support, and now looks primed to defeat Republican John Raese.

“Young Mattie Fein.”

You’ve got to applaud Republican Mattie Fein for trying, but her 90-second political parody of Mel Brooks’s 1974 comedy classic Young Frankenstein is just bizarre. But hey, Fein hails from California, the land of B-movies and starving screenwriters. 

Fein’s unusual advertisement targets Democrat Jane Harman, cast here as the diabolical German-accented “Frau Harman.” Fein catches her in the cellar of a Gothic castle plotting to release Frankenstein — which, of course, symbolizes “dual-use” nuclear technology to Iran. Obviously.

The ad is intended to remind voters, and Gene Wilder fans, of allegations that Harman owned shares of a company that sells electronics equipment to Iran. For good measure, Fein throws in a grab-bag of other charges: from the prosaic (Frau Harman supported TARP), to the incendiary (Harman is a war-profiteer), to the all-out gonzo (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is Harman’s boyfriend?). Polls don’t give Fein much of a chance, but she’ll at least have gone down in style.

“Good for India and China.”

“Pro-outsourcing” is always a reliably effective epithet to throw at a politician who supports free trade. But with the current economic climate in the United States, frustration over jobs losses can easily translate into anxiety over the rising geopolitical ambitions of those “exotic” and “menacing” countries of the East: India and China.

In this ad Bobby Schilling, the Republican challenger to incumbent Democratic Congressman Phil Hare in the 17th district of Illinois, is charged with creating jobs (hey, that doesn’t sound so bad)…in India and China. Zing! Yes, Schilling is on the record supporting a pending free trade agreement with South Korea, but the ad also casts his stance against any and all income tax increases as a sop to companies that outsource jobs to Asia. Meager pickings, but reason enough, apparently, to declare Schilling bad for the good residents of Illinois. No word yet on Schilling’s poll numbers in Shanghai.

Cameron Abadi is deputy editor at Foreign Policy. He previously worked at the New Republic and Foreign Affairs and as a correspondent in Germany and Iran. His writing has appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, the New Yorker, the New Republic, and Der Spiegel.  @cameronabadi

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