Clinton says Trump has based his campaign on prejudice and paranoia
TWENTY years ago when Bob Dole accepted the Republican presidential nomination: “He pointed to the exits and told any racists in the party to get out,” Hillary Clinton recalled approvingly on August 25th, as she neared the end of a speech that—in effect—accused Donald Trump of beckoning bigots back in to the heart of the conservative movement. Mrs Clinton’s account of Mr Trump’s closeness to white supremacists and conspiracy theorists was both brutal and detailed: closer in tone and structure to a prosecutor’s closing argument than to a traditional campaign speech.
The Democrat started with Mr Trump’s record as a young property developer, when he was sued by the Department of Justice for refusing to rent apartments to black and Latino tenants (whose applications would be marked with a “C” for “coloured”, Mrs Clinton told her audience). Trawling through well-fished waters, she cited Mr Trump’s energetic promotion of the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama is not American-born, his claim that the Mexican government is actively sending rapists across the border and his assertion that a federal judge born in Indiana is biased against him because he is “a Mexican”. Indeed Mr Trump’s attack on a judge on the basis of his Hispanic heritage was condemned by the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, as “the textbook definition of a racist comment,” Mrs Clinton noted.
Her case for the prosecution took her audience, in Reno, Nevada, into less familiar territory, too: the twilight world of the “alt-right”, a mostly online universe of ethno-nationalists and anti-immigration populists, that is at heart little more than a gussied-up, millennial-pleasing version of old-school white supremacist prejudice. Mrs Clinton urged voters to ponder what it means that Mr Trump recently hired as his campaign chief executive Stephen Bannon, the boss of Breitbart.com, a website much followed on the “alt-right”. She offered some Breitbart headlines, from “Would You Rather Your Child Had Feminism or Cancer” to “Hoist It High And Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims A Glorious Heritage.” She noted Breitbart’s contempt for mainstream conservative leaders and its many attacks on Mr Ryan, the House Speaker—a Republican who has urged his party to craft and promote policies to tackle inner-city poverty and curb racism, rather than ceding such ground to the Democrats.
Mrs Clinton noted Mr Trump’s vocal admiration for Vladimir Putin of Russia, who she called the “godfather” of a “global brand of extreme nationalism,” and his praise for Alex Jones, a talk radio host who has claimed that the Sandy Hook school shooting was faked by the government, with child actors used to play what he calls the non-existent victims. What kind of heart is dark enough to believe such things, she asked, ad-libbing from her prepare text, before quoting Mr Trump telling Mr Jones, during an appearance on his radio show, that he would not “let you down”. She cited news reports of white school students using Trump slogans to taunt Latino children in schools in Indiana and Iowa.
All these nods and winks, she argued, make a mockery of Mr Trump’s attempts, in the past week, to reset his image among non-white Americans. She poured scorn on speeches that Mr Trump has given in recent days, in which he has reached out to black Americans and accused Mrs Clinton of being a “bigot” whose policies hurt non-white voters and take them for granted. She quoted Mr Trump’s description of life in black inner-cities, which he has summed up as: “Poverty. Rejection. Horrible education. No housing. No homes. No ownership. Crime levels nobody has seen.” This, Mrs Clinton asserted was an insult to black America, which failed to see the success of black leaders, the vibrancy of black-owned business or the strength of the black church. What is more, Mr Trump had made those claims “in front of largely white audiences,” she chided.
By way of prebuttal, Mr Trump gave a speech in Manchester, New Hampshire that ended a moment before Mrs Clinton’s, in which he said she was effectively calling Trump supporters racists. But wanting strong borders “doesn’t make you a racist, that makes you smart,” he assured the crowd (which was, truth be told, overwhelmingly white). Warming to his theme, he told his crowd that allowing immigrants to take jobs hurt black as well as white Americans, making it a “civil rights issue”.
In theory, the Democratic and Republican nominees thus spent this week having an argument about which policies are best for a multicultural America. Mr Trump has been taking big risks on this front, softening his hardline, if detail-free plans to deport 11m undocumented migrants now in America without papers—an operation that he once said would require the mustering of a federal deportation force. In speeches and interviews Mr Trump has recanted and now says that he might focus deportation efforts on gang leaders and serious criminals, allowing migrants who have avoided trouble with the law a path to earn legal status after paying back taxes. Mr Trump seems unabashed that this new plan amounts to almost exactly the same immigration policy as the one advanced by his former Republican rival for the nomination, Jeb Bush, calculating that his die-hard supporters will be mollified by his continued (nonsensical) promises to build a wall on the Mexican border and make Mexico pay for it.
Mr Trump is not really competing for black and Hispanic votes with this new softer tone, for all that he claims that he will win 95% of black votes. Some polls have him on 1% of black votes, and that is a hole from which he cannot dig himself. This latest change of tone is about stemming his sliding poll numbers among voters whose support he cannot afford to lose: white Republicans who support mainstream conservatives like Mr Ryan, but would be appalled to think they were casting a ballot for racism this November. Notably, he is losing college-educated whites at the moment, though that voter block has chosen a Republican in every presidential contest since 1952.
A while ago this reporter wrote a column about a useful distinction made by European politicians, between the “clean right” and the “dirty right”. The clean right can be very conservative indeed, in this schema, but avoids appeals to prejudice and paranoia. The dirty right is quite willing to wade into the fever-swamps of hatred. Mr Trump seems to be trying to escape the dirty right (though hiring Mr Bannon is an odd move in that case). Mrs Clinton is determined to keep that label firmly round his neck, and to woo every unhappy Republican who wants to support the party of Ryan and Dole, not Breitbart and Trump.