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How Hillary Clinton Let Donald Trump Back In The Race

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs up during a visit to the childhood home of Dr. Ben Carson, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, in Detroit. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs up during a visit to the childhood home of Dr. Ben Carson, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, in Detroit. (Evan Vucci/AP)
This article is more than 4 years old.

Among the most sickening spectacles in a campaign overrun with them, was the sight of Donald Trump pledging support for a new “civil rights agenda” before an audience of African-American parishioners in half-empty Detroit church.

In the mind of Trump, of course, the very act of spending time around African-Americans who are not either employees or celebrities constitutes a major civil rights breakthrough.

When it comes to brown people, Trump is more comfortable blocking them from moving in to his properties, or accusing them of being rapists, or threatening to deport them, or ban them from entering the country.

Candidate Trump not only supports voter suppression, but has encouraged his partisans to monitor the polls — just to make sure the wrong sort of people don’t rig the election. Wink wink.

Rather than knocking the bully off balance, she’s given him ballast.

This is the reason white supremacists and Klansmen are among his most ardent fans. Heck, he just hired a white nationalist cheerleader to run his campaign. The party that once issued racial dog whistles is now ruled by a guy who wolf whistles his race baiting.

In fact, Trump’s most recent panders — these include his recent trips to Louisiana and Mexico — have nothing to do with appealing to people of color. They are stunts intended to provide a moral fig leaf to all those moderate and independent white people who want to vote for Trump (or against Clinton), without the taint of backing an unhinged racist.

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So that’s what Trump has been up to. And what has his opponent being doing all the while? She’s been quietly touring the nation’s toniest precincts shaking the almighty money tree. “I stand between you and the apocalypse,” Clinton declared during a recent jaunt to the Hamptons, eliciting laughs from Calvin Klein and Harvey Weinstein.

Meanwhile, back in that dull world known as electoral reality, her lead in the polls has been evaporating. Clinton has clearly adopted a strategy of raising dough during a supposed lull in the election — a gaudy $143 million in August alone. The logic is apparently to lay low until after Labor Day, when the electorate will be more focused on the race.

It’s a coward’s play, and the short-term results have been disastrous. Clinton has allowed Trump to redefine himself, under the guidance of his new handlers, while she’s been tarred, once again, as untrustworthy based on a couple of ginned up non-scandals.

He is now close enough in the polls that a strong performance in the first debate could swing the election in his favor. And given the rock-bottom expectations set by most of the media, a “strong performance” by Trump would consist of mouthing the appropriate platitudes without mentioning his genitals, or dropping a racial epithet.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waves from her motorcade vehicle as she arrives for a fundraiser at the home of Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waves from her motorcade vehicle as she arrives for a fundraiser at the home of Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

That’s what I’d expect. Trump is a TV star. He understands how to perform before a camera. And he understands, more crucially, that all of his previous vitriol can now work to his advantage.

How?

Because he has created such an extreme persona over the past year, that many undecided voters who are only now tuning in to the election will be shocked to see that Trump is not the demented demagogue portrayed by the pundit class, but a humble change agent who merely wants to fix our broken system.

That’s the narrative opportunity that Clinton’s passivity has bred in the past month. Rather than knocking the bully off balance, she’s given him ballast.

Team Clinton has to face the fact that Trump is likely all done sticking his foot in his mouth. Their candidate is going to have to win the election, not simply wait for Trump to lose it.

Team Clinton has to face the fact that Trump is likely all done sticking his foot in his mouth.

That will mean not just calling out Trump for his galling hypocrisy, or running tape-loops of his most infamous affronts, but speaking in simple and direct terms about her plans. How will she create jobs? Address income inequality? Help kids pay for college? Reform our immigration system? How will he?

Recognizing the media’s obsessive focus on scandals and poll numbers, Clinton has to make the last eight weeks of the race about policies, not propaganda.

Vote for me because I won’t usher in the apocalypse may play to the Hamptons crowd. But struggling citizens in swing states need to believe in something more humble, and hopeful. They need a candidate with the guts and passion to set out a moral agenda for the country, a reason to vote for Yes, we can! rather than No, we shouldn’t.

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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