For a long time, there was a script for beating Donald Trump, borne of equal parts conventional wisdom and the wonderfully naïve belief that logic and reason prevail in American politics. It went like this: stay quiet, remain above the fray, and allow the man to self-destruct in a mushroom cloud of ethnic slurs, dreadfully garish ties, and nonsensical rants about winning that even Charlie Sheen finds kind of uncomfortable. If this goes down on live national television, hey, all the better.
In the year that elapsed between his official announcement and the extended Trump family infomercial that was the Republican National Convention, Democrats and Republicans alike stayed faithful to this script. Instead of condemning his rhetoric or challenging his bona fides, they sat patiently, waiting for Trump-as-candidate to tucker himself out like an overexcited puppy and slink quietly back to reality television and/or cultural irrelevance. Yet one by one, his various challengers who tiptoed politely around Trump’s increasingly ugly bigotry-as-political-platform succumbed to the power of #MAGA. Today, he is one of two people with a realistic chance of moving in to the White House come Inauguration Day, and our national nightmare is well underway.
So, in a speech in Reno on Thursday, Hillary Clinton finally decided it was time to ditch the script. Scrapping her planned remarks on small business development (BORING), the Democratic nominee instead delivered a startlingly damning indictment of the Trump movement’s “prejudice and paranoia.” For twenty minutes, she coolly detailed her opponent’s myriad offenses against minorities/women/everyone, quoting extensively, offering minimal commentary, and talking about herself only in the context of the insane conspiracy theories about her alleged health problems (problems for which there exists exactly zero evidence, but as you know, “facts” are not things that stop Internet People anymore).
At last, it seemed, Clinton was invoking the language she had scrupulously avoided for the last thirteen months. She directly accused his campaign of taking “hate groups” mainstream and allowing a “radical fringe” to hijack the Republican Party. She called Trump’s pet conspiracy theories “racist lies,” and his speeches “dog whistles to his most hateful supporters.” She brought the receipts, too, tossing off names of white supremacists whose content Trump routinely retweets and re-shares. And most startlingly, she dropped the r-word a dozen times, calling Trump or his associates some variant of “racist.” Not “bigot,” or “closed-minded,” or some other euphemism well-suited for network television. “Racist.” Hillary Clinton is not here for the bullshit anymore.
This is remarkable: the election’s leading candidate, in lieu of criticizing her opponent’s political positions, spent valuable time in a battleground state making the case that said opponent is, in essence, the morally bankrupt thought leader of the modern white nationalist movement. By portraying him as a racist stooge, not a serious political candidate, Clinton hopes to force wavering, already-kind-of-embarrassed GOP voters to decide just how far they’re willing to take their partisan allegiances.
This is not an easy ask. Sure, voters like to think of themselves as judicious and discerning, but loyalty counts, too! It stings to abandon the nominee of one’s party, because the worrisome implication of that choice is that something must have been wrong with the choice to support that party in the first place. Clinton’s delicate task is to convince GOP voters that Trump is not of the GOP or the conservative movement, and that it is not a cowardly abdication of their core beliefs to quietly vote for someone else this time around.
Furthermore, even when deployed fairly and objectively, the r-word is a deeply offensive slur in American politics. Even if only by association, no one likes being called a racist (possible exception: actual racists). If she plans to continue attacking Trump in this manner, Clinton must carefully avoid the temptation to insinuate that because the GOP nominated Trump, everyone who has ever identified as Republican must be racist, too.
Oh, and one more detail: no matter what she says, it might be too late. In the months leading up to his nomination, plenty of smart, important people thought Trump was a prejudiced clownfraud. But the time to call someone out as an unserious candidate is during the primaries, when voters can get rid of interlopers without jeopardizing their party’s general election chances. Now, the gravitas that major-party candidates enjoy largely protects Trump from attacks on his character. His bad takes du jour are no longer the ramblings of an inconsequential Twitter egg. They are part of the political platform of a bona fide presidential nominee, and demand to be taken seriously.
Clinton’s approach to confronting the more insidious aspects of the Trump campaign is not the first instance of “negative campaigning” in American politics. But it nonetheless is a unique risk in an election that pits a longtime policy wonk against an entertainer and political neophyte. Whether or not you agree with them, Hillary Clinton knows the issues she would prioritize as president. By directing the spotlight at Trump’s character, Clinton keeps these carefully crafted policy arguments in the dark and reduces the perceived differences in their fitness for office.
The decision to call out Trump’s scandals also implicitly invites criticism of “scandals” of her own. No, it’s not fair to equate Trump’s retention of an avowed white nationalist as his campaign manager to a host of poorly-explained conspiracy theories that insert “BENGHAZI” at seemingly random junctures just to keep your attention. But in a two-horse race, candidates’ weaknesses seem analogous, even if they are not. And since Trump has no real policy ideas of his own, he has nothing to lose if the race turns poisonous. The man will get buried in a debate, but an insult-a-thon? Why, he’s rolling his French cuffs up over his clammy forearms as we speak.
Donald Trump hopes to become president by appealing to the most basic prejudices in American society. He is a bad man, and he deserves to be called out as such. But this was true long before Thursday’s remarks. By hewing too closely and for too long to a script that ultimately proved worthless, Clinton may have missed her chance.