The Republican primaries are not for another two months, so it would be premature to say that Troy Downing has produced the dumbest ad of the 2018 election. All we can do is hope. Last week, Troy Downing for U.S. Senate released a 30-second spot that told us less about the candidate than what his campaign thinks of Montana voters.
The ad begins with the central message of Downing’s campaign: He is a veteran who likes the president. Vague rock music plays over shots of a younger Downing in his flight suit and pilots climbing into fighter jets, as a voiceover explains that “Troy Downing is a Montanan, war vet, helicopter and jet pilot, and big supporter of President Trump.”
This last part appears on the screen in quotation marks, but without any attribution; it is a quote in the sense that it has been said aloud. Then the rock music fades out, and the Top Gun shot of a pilot in a fighter cockpit dissolves to a man sitting on a tractor, playing the trumpet. “Jon Tester was an elementary school music teacher, plays the trumpet, fights against our president every day,” the voiceover says. “So whom shall we send to the senate: the trumpeter or the Trump supporter?” As the rock music kicks in again, a fighter jet swoops down and knocks the trumpet player off his tractor, sending his instrument flying through the air.
First of all, big points for correctly using “whom.” This choice runs against the guiding principle of the ad, which is that the viewer is dumb and proud of it. I wish, dear reader, that you could hear how the voiceover artist says “plays the trumpet.” It’s the tone of voice you would use to say “sleeps at the porno theater” or “gives cigarettes to animals.” The message is clear: Tester is the kind of man who plays an instrument and teaches music to children, whereas Downing is the kind who knocks that first guy on his ass.
“A society of wealthy veterans who ran around knocking trumpets out of the mouths of our few remaining nerds would be miserable.”
More interesting than what this ad says about Downing is what it says about us — or what the Downing campaign thinks of us. We are the kind of people who know that flying a jet is cool and playing an instrument is lame. Also, we love President Trump.
This is the consultant’s view of Montana. It is true that our state contains more veterans per capita than any other state but Alaska. Ryan Zinke won two elections here by trading on his military service, so the strategy has worked before. And because Montana went for Trump by 20 points in 2016, it makes sense for Republican candidates to tie themselves to the president. Greg Gianforte won a special election last spring by rebranding himself as a Trump supporter and, while he was at it, throwing another man to the ground. So this ad follows an established playbook.
But Downing’s justifiable pride in his Air Force service curdles when his campaign presents it as something we will immediately recognize as superior to teaching school. At the risk of provoking letters to the editor, I think educating children might contribute more to society than invading Afghanistan. I recognize that this is a controversial position, and a reasonable person could argue against it. But a politics that assumes we will agree, without even trying to convince one another, that soldiers are better than teachers might be a little sick.
Instead of assuming that Montanans are jingo hicks who look suspiciously on any man who has taught school or can play a musical instrument, the Downing campaign could ask how Tester won two terms in the senate in the first place. It wasn’t by presenting himself as a he-man who uses his jet to put teachers in their place. Neither was it by shooting a TV to prove how much he loved guns and hunting — as both Gianforte and his Democratic opponent, Rob Quist, did in campaign ads last spring — or pandering to any of the other stereotypes about this state. Tester won elections by presenting himself as someone ordinary voters could relate to — the kind of Montanans we all know and respect, even if they have loser jobs like teaching or dork hobbies like music.
We can’t all be millionaire jet pilots. More important, a society of wealthy veterans who ran around knocking trumpets out of the mouths of our few remaining nerds would be miserable. I don’t think Downing wants to create that society. I bet he doesn’t even look down on Sen. Tester for playing an instrument, or teaching school, or working his family farm while Downing was in Afghanistan. After watching his ad, though, I worry that Downing looks down on us. Who would hope to represent a state where this kind of advertisement worked? Why would you want to work for such people?
Dan Brooks is on Twitter at @DangerBrooks.