The media this morning is nearly universal in its praise for Hillary Clinton’s Nevada speech yesterday, in which she claimed a ‘radical fringe’ is taking over the Republican Party under Donald Trump. Arguing that the Trump campaign is built on ‘prejudice and paranoia’, she cited headlines from Breitbart, comments by Alex Jones, and a host of other aspects from the dark corners of the white nationalist web as being endorsed by or at least tolerated by Trump and his campaign. You can read her full speech here, which I recommend over listening to it.
This morning on Morning Joe – where she’s appearing for an interview – the praise for Clinton and criticism of Trump was fairly universal – little surprise that Al Sharpton, Nicolle Wallace, Jon Meacham, Eugene Robinson, and the rest would approve as an honorable act. But Kasie Hunt noted the truth – that this speech was intentionally planned as a way to push the Clinton Foundation headlines off the front page. It’s done that, yes, but will it actually push those college educated suburbanites who have been Trump’s weakest supporters into Clinton’s camp? To sound a contrarian note: I doubt it.
Here’s the problem – look at this ad, which ties Trump to the KKK and white supremacists. It’s just over the top in my view. Trump gives you plenty of material himself, and where Clinton’s speech yesterday was the strongest, it was focused on Trump and what he says, basic aim of sending the message to Republican and lean-Republican voters that “this isn’t who you are” or “you’re better than this.” But where it was weakest is when it was looping in other figures unfamiliar to most voters as objectionable and racist. Much as he would like to think otherwise, Alex Jones and InfoWars is not a household name, and suggesting that voting for Trump means standing for his brand as the Tinfoil-Crowned Queen of Summertime comes across as silly as claiming being Baptist means you support Westboro.
The danger for Clinton is overreach. If she sends a message that Donald Trump says race-baiting things that should be rejected by responsible voters, with the implication being that voting for him is an endorsement of these race-baiting statements, she can advance a strong case. Trump has supplied all sorts of examples of this himself, personally, and he will likely continue to do so. But where she stretches to claim that Trump’s hiring of Steve Bannon means a vote for Trump is an endorsement of every Breitbart headline, she gets into the weeds and risks playing into Trump’s logical response, which he advanced yesterday: that Democrats say everybody’s a racist, so her attacks should be ignored. This is a fair point given the way Republican voters believe their prior candidates have been treated. Then Trump proceeded to call Clinton a “bigot”, because he has the best words.
If Clinton can stick to a softer, nuanced message here, inviting college educated white voters, among whom Trump is already dramatically underperforming Mitt Romney’s numbers, to take the feel-good path of staying home, voting third party, or voting for her in rejection of Trump’s statements, this can work. But if she falls into the trap of painting Trump supporters or would-be supporters as being a vast number of angry racist white folks, she’ll be making a mistake, and potentially driving more white voters toward Trump. The problem for her is that given the level of praise this speech has received, this is a mistake the media is inviting her to make.