The first ad of Donald Trump’s general-election campaign stays on message for about two seconds. The spot opens with a still image of an exhausted Hillary Clinton, as a voice-over informs us that, in the Democratic nominee’s America, “the system stays rigged against Americans.”
Before that line is fully spoken, the words “system rigged” are superimposed over a sign that reads, “Vote here.”
There were so many other ways to illustrate this line — ways that would evoke the idea of a corruption without suggesting that voting doesn’t matter because our democracy is illegitimate. A close-up of a handshake, for example. Or Clinton laughing with a conspicuously foreign dignitary. Or headlines about the Clinton Foundation’s various pseudo-scandals. Or the Democratic nominee’s face floating beside a pile of money and a sheriff’s star. Or, okay, that last one might create its own problems.
But still: Trump could have implied that the corruption in our system stems from how our leaders choose to conduct themselves once in office. Instead, he suggested that it stems from how we choose our leaders; or, more precisely, how ACORN chooses them for us. This is not an argument for why you should vote for Donald Trump. It’s an argument for why it isn’t Donald Trump’s fault if he loses in November.
The ad does ultimately make a case for the former, warning viewers that, if Clinton is elected, Syrian refugees and undocumented immigrants will roam the country trying to kill real Americans. It’s not clear whom Trump hopes to convert by calling attention to this fictional crime wave. But it is a coherent message. One that could at least energize law-and-order conservatives in Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, where the ad will air.
But the spot’s first (non-Clinton) image sticks out like a sore thumb. Especially since one could plausibly argue that it is actually the most on message part of the ad: In recent weeks, one of Trump’s most consistent themes on the stump has been that the election may be “rigged.” Last week, he told a crowd in Pennsylvania, “The only way we can lose, in my opinion, I really mean this, Pennsylvania, is if cheating goes on.” Earlier this month, he made a similar suggestion in Ohio. In North Carolina, Trump complained that if the state’s voter-ID law remains suspended, Clinton voters will go to the polls “15 times” each.
At this point, Trump stands very little chance of defeating Clinton on November 8. It’s possible that the mogul now cares more about shaping how his supporters’ understand his loss than he does about trying to convert the skeptical voters he’d need to win.
On Thursday night in Charlotte, Trump said that he “regrets” saying “the wrong thing” at various points in his campaign. But he never specified what, precisely, those wrong things were. Evidently, his various attacks against the legitimacy of our political system aren’t among them. But at least Trump “will always tell you the truth” and put “the American people first again.”