Local Politics: Tim Ryan ad makes an already ugly Senate campaign even uglier

A new ad from the Ryan camp stoking “us vs. them” sentiment with China has been criticized by local Asian American groups, but the candidate has responded by doubling down

Craig Calcaterra
Mon., Mar. 28, 2022; Wilberforce, Ohio, USA; U.S. Senate Democratic candidate Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) stands at the end of Ohio’s U.S. Senate Democratic Primary Debate at Central State University. Mandatory Credit: Joshua A. Bickel/Ohio Debate Commission

Ohioans have spent the past year trying to wrap our brains around a Republican primary campaign for an open U.S. Senate seat that has featured a couple of candidates who are, basically, trying to out-fascist one another. It's been a real race to the bottom as far as the right-wing extremism, white supremacy, xenophobia and homophobia has gone. But since the modern Republican Party apparently has no bottom, they just keep on racing.

Congressman Tim Ryan, who is the odds-on favorite to be the Democratic nominee, has watched all of this and has, apparently, learned that leaning into odiousness isn't a dealbreaker for voters in the Buckeye State. We know this because last week he unveiled an ad in which he claims that "Communist China" is to blame for the loss of American jobs, that "China’s winning" and "workers are losing,” and that "it’s us vs. them."

While Ryan's ad attempts to couch all of that in matters of economic policy, it doesn't take a political scientist to see what he's up to here. The ad is a transparent effort to create a foreign boogeyman for Ohio's economic woes as opposed to, say, critiquing the actions of American corporations, the American government or American consumers, all of which are primarily responsible for the change in manufacturing and macroeconomic patterns that have put the rust in the Rust Belt. It likewise ignores any specific acts of the Chinese government or Chinese businesses, eschews specific policies aimed at Chinese institutions and, instead, relies on the invocation of a vast “other” that stands at odds with American interests.

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As various Asian American groups have noted in criticizing Ryan's ad, including the Ohio-based Asian American Midwest Progressives (AAMP), there is no small amount of Sinophobic racism in that appeal. There are also considerable similarities to Donald Trump's 2016 messaging in all of that, with Ryan substituting China for Mexico and, I suppose, being a bit more superficially polite about it all. But make no mistake: In its depiction of Asia and its people as an existential danger to the Western world, Ryan's ad fits in perfectly with the long, rich and deplorable history of Yellow Peril politics

More:Asian Americans face growing violence, anxieties a year into COVID-19

Such an appeal has always been a loathsome one, but it's a dangerous one, especially in recent years. Researchers announced in February that hate crimes targeting the Asian-American community increased by 339 percent last year compared to the year before which, itself, featured more anti-Asian hate crime than had been recorded in this country in a very, very long time. Much of that spike is a function of American politicians scapegoating China for the pandemic, but the same has happened in the past when politicians and business leaders have scapegoated Asia for American economic woes. The volume of anti-Asian hate crimes has increased considerably, but the dynamic is an old and, sadly, familiar one.

The thing is, Ryan doesn't have to do this. On a basic policy level, he has a pretty solid record when it comes to pocketbook issues, and he has proposed a number of programs and policies that might very well help the many Ohioans who find themselves on the bad end of America's growing economic divide. He's supported initiatives aimed at revitalizing the state's manufacturing industry. He supports a federal $15 minimum wage, the PRO Act and, like Sen. Sherrod Brown, another Democrat who has found success courting the working-class vote, Ryan has been critical of foreign trade deals that his own party tends to support. All of that is the sort of stuff that has allowed Ryan, and Brown for that matter, to win elections in a state whose working-class voters have increasingly turned to Republican populists like Trump. 

Affirmatively campaigning on those laudable policies is not enough for Ryan, however. Maybe that's because he's worried that being for something rather than opposed to something will be cast by his eventual Republican opponent as socialism and he's trying to preempt such attacks. Maybe it's because he sees a chance, occasioned by the general sleaziness of possible Republican opponents such as Josh Mandel and J.D. Vance, to peel off some Republican voters who would like a less unhinged senator but who he feels still need some racial and ethnic red meat thrown their way.

Whatever the case, Ryan is not backing down from his "China is the enemy" rhetoric, even in the face of strong and legitimate criticism. Indeed, he doubled down on it in a statement provided to Alive on Monday, saying that China “has been our greatest economic adversary for 40 years." “I will never apologize for doing everything in my power to take on China and fight for all Ohioans,” he concluded.

Between that response, and the vocal objection to his ad from the Asian American community, Ryan lost the ability to claim that his message was merely muddled or thoughtless. Ryan knows exactly what he is doing by cynically wading into these dark waters. As he does so, an already unprecedentedly ugly U.S. Senate campaign has, somehow, gotten even uglier.