From the very beginning of the 2016 general election, it has been obvious that Hillary Clinton’s campaign would go after Donald Trump with a claw hammer. He presented too ripe a target to ignore even momentarily, and given Republican misgivings about him it made obvious sense to exploit Trump’s weaknesses in order to both detach potential supporters and to frighten the Democratic base into showing up to vote. Beyond that, it seemed logical in a contest between two relatively unpopular pols to do everything possible to ensure that media coverage revolved around the other candidate.
But while a negative (or if you wish, “comparative”) campaign was a no-brainer, HRC’s campaign still had to decide on its scope and focus. They could simply underline Trump’s out-there rhetoric and unpopular issue positions again and again. They could instead make him out as a conventional Republican with a conventional Republican’s weaknesses — as a sort of rough-hewn and profane version of Mitt Romney. They could execute a combo platter of the above strategies.
Or they could Go Big and attack Donald Trump the way shocked elites in both parties tend to think of him: as the representative of a new and scary departure in conservative politics that replaced the usual litany of limited-government priorities with ethno-nationalism and a violent reaction to cultural change.
With the new ad Clinton unveiled yesterday and her speech in Reno, Nevada, today, it’s clear that for the moment at least her campaign is indeed Going Big.
The ad does not begin with much subtlety, as noted on Politico:
“The reason a lot of Klan members like Donald Trump is because a lot of what he believes, we believe in,” a robed man identified as the Imperial Wizard of the Rebel Brigade Knights of the Ku Klux Klan says at the top of the video, followed by images of a Confederate flag fluttering in the wind, Trump waving after a speech, and a man performing a Hitler salute at what appears to be a Trump rally.
But then the ad seeks to do two fairly complicated things very briefly: explain the ethno-nationalist background of Trump campaign chairman and Breitbart News exec Stephen Bannon; and introduce the concept of “alt-right” as the broader movement backing Trump. You’d guess an overwhelming percentage of viewers of the ad have never heard of Breitbart or of alt-right, which probably sounds like a niche musical genre. It’s unclear how many repetitions of this rap would be necessary to sink it all in.
Clinton’s subsequent speech in Reno followed the same tack with significantly more detail. She spent considerable time presenting what you might call Trump’s racist prehistory, before his presidential candidacy, concluding with his support for the “racist conspiracy theory” of birtherism.
Her key argument was that Trump had, time and time again, resisted opportunities to repudiate racism and racists, and was only now ineffectively trying to change his tune. Her best sound-bite was suggesting that Trump’s slogan could well be: “Make America Hate Again.” And she concluded with a very direct challenge to Republicans to reject the “takeover,” citing Bob Dole’s call for racists to leave the GOP and George W. Bush’s defense of American Muslims.
All in all, it was a pretty compelling pitch that aggregated a lot of negative material on Trump’s unsavory comments and associations; the ad made more sense once you listened to her explanations. But this tack is not without risks.
For one thing Clinton and her campaign will need to devote far more resources to the kind of explanations she gave in Reno before it will begin to “stick” with voters who aren’t already hip to the ins and outs of white nationalism and Trump’s association with it. There are opportunity costs associated with that investment as well: It won’t leave as much time as she once had to focus on his dubious personal business record, his irresponsible tax plan, his climate-change denialism, and his incoherent foreign policy views.
The harshness of her criticism of Trump — she didn’t directly call him a racist, but did everything imaginable to suggest it indirectly — could strike some voters as representing a decision by Clinton to leap into the gutter with the mogul, making his own attacks against her — most recently, calling her a bigot — stand out less in their violation of political norms.
And because of her invitation to Republicans to abandon Trump as an extremist interloper, Clinton could make it easier for voters to split tickets. In some respects, she’s letting Republicans off the hook by describing Trump’s candidacy as unprecedented. Certainly Republican congressional candidates in the close races that will determine whether a President Hillary Clinton has the support she needs to get anything much accomplished will be reinforcing the message that their Party represents constituencies broader than Trump’s.
Still, the great virtue of what Clinton is doing now is that it brings the widespread elite horror at Trump in both major parties down to earth and into the mainstream of the campaign. In the chattering classes it’s been an open and incessantly discussed question as to whether Trump represents the sudden advent of of an alien strain of crypto-fascism, or merely a crude version of old-school American right-wing populism. For Republican elites, it hasn’t just been a matter of deciding whether to support or not support Trump as their leader; some conservative thinkers and opinion leaders view the mogul as an existential threat to everything they believe in. Bringing this mostly negative furor about Trump to actual voters instead of shouting about it over their heads isn’t the easiest choice, but could be the best choice.
What will be most interesting is whether these tactics shake the (mostly) stubborn loyalty of Republican voters to their nominee, and even turn a significant number of them to a one-time vote for a Democrat.
But either way, Clinton certainly knows that going after Trump in so visceral a manner will be wildly popular with Democratic activists starved for a presidential candidate willing to give as good as she gets in partisan warfare. And when it comes to “energizing the base” and perhaps deterring progressives from a vote for Jill Stein, you cannot get much more galvanizing than a warning that indifference or apostasy could elect a racist monster to the cheers of Nazis, Klansmen, and Vladimir Putin. From that perspective, Clinton’s new tack may well be a carefully calculated risk.