Hillary Clinton Took an Uncharacteristic Gamble With Alicia Machado

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Photo: Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

Alicia Machado had a story ripped straight from an anti-Trump opposition researcher’s sweetest dream. When the 20-year-old Venezuelan won the Miss Universe pageant in 1996, she found herself rewarded with a VIP tour of the Republican nominee’s vile personality. As she traveled the world earning money for Trump’s enterprise, he derided her as “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping,” titles she’d earned for the crimes of being Latina and eating food.

When Machado gained too much weight to fit into a beauty ideal that valorizes emaciation, Trump invited a bevy of cable cameras to document her humiliation. The mogul chatted about the 20-year-old’s outsize appetite with reporters, while she exercised in the background. Machado would suffer from eating disorders for years afterward.

This story paints a comprehensive portrait of Trump’s intersectional ugliness — bringing together his loathing of women and racial minorities and his affinity for exploiting workers. The footage of Machado’s workout makes the psychological violence of misogyny concrete and visceral. By highlighting it, the Clinton campaign shifted the media’s glare back onto Trump’s behavior toward women, which often borders on the sociopathic.

And then, to top it all off, Machado announced that she had finally secured American citizenship this August, inspired by a desire to back Hillary Clinton over her former tormentor.

This is the stuff debate zingers and attack ads are made of. And so, the Clinton campaign made both.

But then, Machado also has a story ripped straight from a reactionary radio host’s darkest fever dream. It’s not every day that Rush Limbaugh can accuse a Clinton surrogate of being involved with attempted homicide and judicial intimidation — and have a substantive basis for those claims.

In 1998, Machado was accused of helping her boyfriend escape from the scene of an attempted murder. Here’s The Economist’s write-up of the affair:

The male lead in this complex plot is Miss Machado’s rugged boyfriend, Juan Rafael Rodriguez Reggeti. He had a sister, who, eight months pregnant, jumped off a fifth-floor balcony. He, allegedly, blaming her husband for the suicide, sought revenge by firing two shots at him just after the funeral. The husband was hit but survived. Mr Rodriguez fled in a car driven, say the police, by Miss Machado.

The investigating judge, Maximiliano Fuenmayor, issued an arrest warrant for Mr Rodriguez. But Miss Machado, who claimed she was ill at home at the time, seemed to be in the clear, for the moment anyway. It was a short moment. Within hours, Mr Fuenmayor had a telephone call from her. He says she threatened to ruin his career and have him killed. She admits she rang, but says it was merely to thank him for his unbiased pursuit of justice. Mr Fuenmayor says she in fact threatened him with her powerful friends, from—supposedly—President Rafael Caldera down.

Machado was never convicted of any crime. But the idea that she called up the judge who had her boyfriend arrested to “thank him for his unbiased pursuit of justice” is the kind of audacious alibi one might expect from Machado’s former employer.

And then there’s the whole “alleged affair with the leader of notorious Mexican drug cartel” thing. In 2010, Univision reported that Machado had had a child with José Gerardo Álvarez-Vázquez, a.k.a. “El Indio,” a trafficker who worked with the armed wing of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Machado’s notoriety led Spanish-language media to play fast and loose with the facts surrounding any juicy bit of gossip about her. But Mexican drug cartels are, in essence, unabashedly materialistic terrorist organizations. Conventional presidential campaigns rarely put forward surrogates with (alleged) associations this damaging.

What’s more, in light of this background, Machado’s recent naturalization provides Trump an opportunity to repurpose her story to bolster his campaign’s narrative — that our immigration system is allowing criminals (or, at least, suspected criminals) into the country.

But the Democratic nominee made Machado the star of her post-debate messaging, anyway. In doing so, Clinton displayed a profound trust in the public’s capacity to recognize what is and is not important in the former Miss Universe’s story. (Or else, displayed a profound inability to perform a basic Google search.)

So far, Clinton’s gamble seems to have paid off. Mainstream media outlets have focused more attention on other instances of Trump’s fat-shaming than they have on Machado’s alleged indiscretions — and rightly so.

Donald Trump sees roughly half the American population as objects whose value derives from their secondary sexual characteristics. And he wants to be their president. Machado’s story deftly illustrates why voters shouldn’t give him what he wants: The GOP nominee publicly humiliated a 20-year-old woman and taught her that her desire for food was a pathology. That behavior would be damning even if Machado went on to murder a dozen judges, drive El Chapo’s getaway car, and have a child by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

It’s heartening that most mainstream outlets recognize this. Especially when, just 20 years ago, so many found Machado’s weight gain a contemptible offense in it’s own right.