Clinton, Trump's Shared Strategy: Vilify the Other

Clinton, Trump's Shared Strategy: Vilify the Other
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In back-to-back speeches Thursday, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump worked to make the election a referendum about the other, wrestling on a fraught battlefield of race and leadership in America.

With 75 days of bruising combat ahead, Clinton seized the offensive in swing-state Nevada, accusing Trump of disqualifying himself by pandering to racist extremists and pedaling “race-baiting ideas,” which she said Democrats and leaders of the Republican Party firmly denounce.

As she has in the past, Clinton stopped short of labeling Trump a racist.

The Republican nominee, bolstered by new campaign advisers and a revised strategy aimed at narrowing Clinton’s lead in the polls, described his opponent as too ethically compromised to lead the country because of judgments she made as secretary of state about her emails and her ties to the Clinton Foundation.

Trump, during a speech in New Hampshire, defended his law-and-order ambitions for America and sidestepped his characterization of Clinton as “a bigot,” an incendiary charge he unleashed during a Wednesday rally in Mississippi. He described her as at the center of an emerging political scandal akin to Watergate in the 1970s, the conspiracy that brought down President Richard Nixon.

Clinton, who on Wednesday pushed back after a swell of negative coverage about the Clinton Foundation, has been alert to Trump’s tamed rhetoric about his policies on immigration and what to do with 11 million undocumented migrants living in the country. She used her speech, a new ad and a campaign report to try to discredit Trump by lashing him to the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacists, and purveyors of online conspiracy myths.

Her goal was to communicate with undecided voters who in the past objected to Trump’s unfiltered presentations and inflammatory views of Mexicans, Muslims, women and immigrants, underscoring her view that the unpredictable businessman has not evolved into a more palatable presidential choice since capturing the GOP nomination.

“From the start, Donald Trump has built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia,” Clinton said during her rally in Reno. “He is taking hate groups mainstream, and helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party. His disregard for the values that make our country great is profoundly dangerous.”

In a somber tone of voice, Clinton recounted her opponent’s record on race and ethnicity and sought to drive a wedge between Trump and members of the Republican Party who have rejected bigotry and religious intolerance in the past. Aware that the GOP nominee is renewing efforts to seek alliances with establishment figures in his party, Clinton made a point of commending House Speaker Paul Ryan, former presidential nominees Robert Dole and John McCain, as well as former President George W. Bush. 

“We need that kind of leadership again,” she said.

Clinton also appealed to her Democratic base, including progressives, women, African-Americans, Latinos and young adults, to reinforce her pitch that the election presents a stark choice between her experience and celebration of a multicultural world, and what she described as Trump’s dark and cynical play to fears among voters on the far right.

If elected president, Trump and his supporters “would put prejudice into practice,” she warned. And the GOP nominee’s hot-headed temperament would prove dangerous in a commander-in-chief, she argued.

Younger voters, majorities of whom give both nominees poor marks for honesty and trustworthiness in poll after poll, received an effusive shout-out from Clinton, who spoke Thursday at a community college.

“The young people in America today are the most open, diverse and connected generation we have ever seen,” she said.

“I will be a president for all Americans,” she added. “Don’t be fooled.”

Trump defended himself against Clinton’s attacks by accusing his opponent of “smearing” him and, by proxy, his supporters — American voters, he said, who are being persecuted for wanting a different course.

“She lies, she smears, she paints decent Americans as racists,” Trump said during a rally at the Radisson Hotel in Manchester. “She bullies voters, who only want a better future, and tries to intimidate them out of voting for change.”

To Clinton, her campaign, and her donors, he said, “Shame on you.”

Using the word “smear” throughout his speech — a pre-buttal to Clinton’s — Trump said an attack on him was an attack on supporters of “our movement.”

Trump used that frame to defend his rhetoric and policy, arguing that people who support his proposals are not racist or discriminatory.

“People who speak out against radical Islam, and who warn about refugees, are not Islamophobes,” he said. “They are decent American citizens who want to uphold our values as a tolerant society, and who want to keep the terrorists out of our country.”

Trump described those supportive of his calls for tougher border security measures — epitomized by chants to “Build a wall” — as “patriotic Americans” who want to enforce immigration laws and protect their country.

Trump’s immigration policies are at center stage this week as he has tried to moderate his positions as part of a larger effort to navigate closer to his own party. The GOP nominee has retreated from his advocacy of mass deportation and now embraces more “humane” measures reminiscent of solutions suggested by primary rivals including Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. The Trump team’s attempts to square the cornerstone issue of his campaign with a general election appeal threaten to put the candidate on a tightrope with his core base of supporters.

Trump has promised clarity in the form of a policy speech in the near future, but for now his prescriptions are muddled. During an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper Thursday night, Trump said his plan would not include a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, after comments earlier this week suggested he might support such action. 

A key element of Trump’s strategy this week has been to turn attention from his campaign as it works through this dilemma and instead seize the opportunity to condemn Clinton as a magnet of scandal and corruption.

The Republican nominee ventured slightly off script to compare the controversy over Clinton’s emails and their revelations to Watergate.

“What is being uncovered now is one of the most shocking scandals in American political history. It’s Watergate all over again,” Trump said. “A secretary of state sold her office to corporations and foreign governments, betraying the public trust — putting innocent lives in danger — and then she went to great lengths to hide, delete, destroy and lie about the evidence. Just like her lie that she never sent any material marked classified.”

Trump has used these new revelations to bolster his outsider appeal and to remind Republicans of their decades-long dislike and distrust of her. Over the past several days, Trump has also moved to attract white, college-educated voters who traditionally support Republicans but are repelled by this particular nominee’s rhetoric by reaching out, at least nominally, to black and Hispanic voters. Trump hopes to shed allegations of racism and bigotry by making these overtures, arguing that is it Democrats who have treated minorities as political pawns.

“This is the year that the people who have been betrayed by Democratic policies, including millions of African-American and Hispanic-American citizens, reject the politicians who have failed them and vote for change,” he said.

While the Republican nominee refrained from labeling Clinton a "bigot" during the New Hampshire speech, he did not hold back in his subsequent interview with Cooper. "She is a bigot," he said when asked about his use of the term to describe his opponent, arguing that her policies have betrayed minority communities. "She’s totally bigoted, there’s no question about that," he said. 

Trump closed his New Hampshire speech by calling for a rejection of “bigotry and hatred and oppression in all of its forms” but also endorsed his America First approach.

“Our citizens will proudly promote our values and our system of government as the best in the world — and we will do so without apology,” he said.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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