Donald Trump just posted a new attack ad against Jeb Bush on Instagram. And in typical attack ad form, it takes quotes from Jeb, uses them out of context, and tosses in photos of criminals while spooky music plays in the background. I have seen the future of American politics, and whether it includes a President Trump or not, it’s filled with Instagram attack ads.
Trump’s new Instagram video post centers around the issue that made Trump both infamous and a darling of the nativist set: Illegal immigration. It’s far from the first Instagram video that Trump has made attacking his opponents. He’s gone after Jeb, he’s gone after Hillary, and he’s even used Barbara Bush in a rather strange video that is edited to say “we’ve had enough Bushes.”
But now that every candidate is their own channel, it will be interesting to see how dramatically ad budgets shift to social media not just in 2016, but over the next decade. Tweets and Instagram videos are cheap, they’re easy to publish quickly, and so far they’ve been largely ignored by the regulatory bodies that oversee more traditional political advertising.
When reporters asked Trump’s advisors earlier this month whether he had plans to buy traditional TV, radio, or print advertising to support his campaign, they scoffed. “Why should I spend my money when I’m getting so much for free,” one associate of Trump told the WSJ, explaining the bombastic candidate’s thinking. Trump himself echoed similar sentiments just a few days ago at a rally in Nashville.
Combined, the candidates for federal office are expected to spend roughly $4.4 billion on TV ads in the 2016 election cycle. But it remains to be seen whether social media superstars like Trump will even bother spending a dime in that arena — provided, of course, Trump’s campaign survives into primary season this Spring. We’re still over a year away from the general election.
And until Facebook and Instagram force candidates to pony up some cash, these non-traditional methods of reaching potential voters will continue to be cheap and easy.
“There is some evidence that more and more people are sort of turning off those [TV] ads,” political consultant Gregg Phillips told NPR earlier this month. “The younger generation is going to be moved by a different type of ad.”
And those ads can still look remarkably similar to traditional TV ads. They’re just being delivered without giving a dime to TV networks. Trump’s new ad, for example, looks very much like a traditional attack ad in many ways.
“Yes they broke the law, but it’s not a felony,” Bush says in the new Instagram video edited by Trump’s team. Viewers on Instagram then see mugshots of immigrants who were arrested while in the United States illegally, as ominous music plays behind Bush’s words. Bush is clearly referring to the fact that many people who come to the United States illegally are doing so to look for a better life and provide for their families. But the ad, which has already racked up over 4,000 likes at the time of this writing, implies what Trump himself has said explicitly: Undocumented immigrants are murderers and rapists.
“I believe that the great majority of people coming here illegally have no other option. They want to provide for their family, but we need to control our border. It’s our responsibility to pick and choose who comes in,” Bush would later say, clarifying further his comments about the acts of love expressed by people who come to America.
What’s perhaps most interesting is that Trump says he doesn’t want to run negative ads. Which could just be interpreted as another powerful figure lying through his teeth. But it could also be the warped perception that Instagram ads don’t count as “real” ads. So by using social media to attack his opponents he half-heartedly believes that he’s not really running attack ads at all. As recently as a few days ago, Trump told CNN that he only wants to run “positive TV ads.”
“I just want to talk about my accomplishments. I’m not looking to attack anybody,” Trump told CNN. “I would rather have positive TV ads. Absolutely.”
Notice that he calls out TV in particular. With apologies to HBO, maybe ‘It’s not TV, it’s Instagram’ will become the way that politicians of the future can do the mental gymnastics required to rationalize their negative campaigning on social media as anything other than what it really is: Regular old attack ads. As if they needed one more way to rationalize their bullshit.
(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)