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Hillary vs. Donald: The Benefit of the Doubt

Hillary Clinton on the last night of the Democratic National Convention, Philadelphia, July 2016
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Hillary Clinton on the last night of the Democratic National Convention, Philadelphia, July 2016

Facing a mass audience, Hillary Clinton had often come across as if she’d been rehearsing in front of a mirror, trying on expressions of delight that registered as forced, less than wholehearted, the opposite of spontaneous. The “public” part of public service, she’d acknowledge, was the part that came hardest to her. But on the last night of the Democratic convention, as she stood by herself on a big stage, bathed in bright lights, ready to embrace a presidential nomination never before bestowed on a woman by a major American party, she no longer seemed to be playing a role. In that heady moment of fulfillment for herself and most women (and some men), she seemed, at last, to be inhabiting one.

All week long, talking heads and live updaters had been naming what was to follow “the most important speech of her life” or her “historic speech,” as if the words had only to be uttered to be remembered across the ages. But when she was done, a shower of balloons didn’t quite offset a discernible sense of letdown. The quick consensus of the commentariat rated it somewhere between uninspiring and OK for the job it had been designed to do: weakest, it was said, in its dutiful presentation of herself and her goals; strongest in its sharp, unsparing depiction of Donald Trump, who’d pulled ahead by meaningless fractions in some polls taken after the previous week’s gathering of a Republican Party the builder-showman had captured in a hostile takeover. “A man you can bait with a tweet,” Clinton said in one of her most telling sallies, “is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” And that, plainly, was what she was doing. She was baiting him.

Otherwise, her speech was strewn with reruns—stale talking points that had surfaced more than a year earlier in her speech launching her campaign on Roosevelt Island in New York, dusted off there from her first run in 2008: the bit about her grandfather working in a lace mill in Scranton, the old Clinton truism about America thriving when the middle class thrives.

Just three days later, on June 16, 2015, a chesty Donald Trump rode down the escalator in the marble lobby of his eponymous tower on Fifth Avenue to declare his candidacy. The race in the Republican Party was already crowded. The smart money was on two Floridians, the dynast Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, young enough and fresh enough, some reasoned, to be an effective foil to Clinton. Trump could be an amusing sideshow. He wasn’t given a chance by the Greek chorus of media know-it-alls slow to grapple with the idea that the serious business of presidential politics might not be all that different from reality TV. Then the candidates with the tinted bird’s nest coiffure started winnowing the field, dismissing his opponents like would-be apprentices on his show.

Three months into his campaign Trump promised to expel 11 million undocumented immigrants. Three months after that he floated his proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country. Just about everything he had to tweet or otherwise say from then on had to be taken as news. Nothing in the campaign tickled the media algorithms and cable news ratings more consistently than the name he’d long since sold off as a brand to be slapped on buildings and products he didn’t build, make, or own.

He promised to be bold. His indifference to ragged norms of political discourse—his eagerness to shock—was offered as a bond, an implied pledge that a President Trump might be bold in action as well as words. The massive wall would be built at massive cost (to Mexico), the undocumented noncitizens rounded up and expelled, the Muslims barred. It was beyond politically incorrect, an implicit promise of unrestrained strong-arm action. Aroused adherents found it a satisfying vision. Whether they actually believed any of these things could or would be done is another question. His readiness to hurl insults, threaten violence to hecklers, could be taken as a down payment.

As the months wore on, he went from showing tendencies toward demagogy to practicing it on a daily basis. The absence of restraint seemed part of the attraction for followers soon numbering in the millions. Calling Barack Obama a “disaster” and the “worst president” in history proved to be great applause lines in this constituency, despite Obama’s rising approval ratings. A campaign that had its obscure origins in the so-called “birther” movement—spreading the notion that Obama had been born in Kenya, not Hawaii, and therefore was ineligible for the office he held—never bothered to backtrack, never amended or questioned its premises. What it willed to be true could be taken as true. It just moved on.

Trump once claimed that detectives he’d sent to Hawaii were making “absolutely unbelievable…unbelievable” discoveries. To this day he has never said what those were, never acknowledged that the detectives may have been a convenient figment, leaving an impression that he’d been making it up as he went along, indulging in what his first ghostwritten autobiography euphemistically excused as “truthful hyperbole.” Similarly, remarks that give off more than a whiff of bigotry didn’t need to be cleaned up. Almost daily, crafty, sometimes sinister Trumpisms achieved wide currency as news, blowing off the liberal outcries they provoked. He’d revive waterboarding and order torture techniques “a hell of a lot worse” to fight terrorists, up to and including killing their nearest relatives. (American troops wouldn’t refuse his orders, he said, even if they called for actions fuddy-duddy officers might oppose as war crimes.) Turning Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s adage about facts and opinions on its head, the self-created, self-managed candidate felt entitled to his own facts, relying on innuendo when challenged.

Trump’s unrelenting, stentorian acceptance solo in Cleveland clocked in at seventy-five minutes. Comparisons to Mussolini were posted on YouTube. Ted Koppel, Larry Wilmore, and The Washington Post developed the thought. Trump, his chin jutting, pivoting at the lectern to offer his profile, came close to auditioning for the part. Addressing “the forgotten men and women of our country,” he declared, “I AM YOUR VOICE.” The words were set in upper case on his Teleprompter. His uniqueness was reasserted moments later. Having called Hillary Clinton the “puppet” of “big business, elite media and major donors,” all relying on her to maintain a “rigged system” from which they profited, he offered his own person as a secular savior. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” The words bear repetition. I alone… No checks and balances there.

This wasn’t his usual rambling exercise in free association, hopping from one inflateable adjective (soo greathuu-geincredibleunbelievable) to the next snide put-down or boast. Drafted by a hired pen, it was consistent in tone if not “presidential” in the usual sense. The tone was anger over the terrorism and crime supposedly flooding our cities.

When Hillary Clinton spoke at her own convention a week later, she already knew that her opponent’s speech, watched by as many as 33 million viewers according to Nielsen, had won the approval of about 57 percent in the first flash poll, about the same proportion as her overall disapproval rating at that point (which was only slightly better than his). These weren’t heartening indicators.

So, when her turn came, that moment of exultation, she also had to know that vanquishing Donald Trump would be no sure thing; that given the unmoored, truly transgressive nature of his candidacy, it could prove to be the heaviest, most important challenge she’d ever be called on to confront in her exceptionally long run as a national political figure. (Twenty-four years and counting if you start from her appearance alongside her husband on Sixty Minutes in 1992 to dispel a chimera called Gennifer Flowers. It’s not a perfect comparison but that’s longer than the twenty-two years that intervened between Richard Nixon’s Checkers speech in 1952 and his resignation as president.)

Even if she pulled ahead in the race and fought her way back to the White House, this time in her own right, stopping Trump could still be viewed as her most important achievement. Sure, becoming the first woman president would mean a lot—not just symbolically—to the country as a whole. It would be a cultural landmark. But her long list of policy goals, including those borrowed from Bernie Sanders—higher taxes on the one percent, the biggest infrastructure investments since World War II leading to huge numbers of new, better-paying jobs, a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling—would continue to be nonstarters so long as Republicans kept their lock on the House of Representatives and remained as adamantly uncompromising and unreachable as they’ve been since 2010. Her presidency would likely be ridden with frustrations from the get-go, which is to say more or less normal for this era.

A Trump presidency, by contrast, would be anything but normal. It would be a grim three-ring crisis from the outset, possibly leading to an escalating standoff among the various branches of government. Turning the executive branch over to a character as unprepared, as impulsive, as fixated on the defense of his own unharnessed, evidently fragile ego could reverberate more in the country than even that long-sought breakthrough for women, ninety-six years after they finally won the right to vote.

Of course, the new-old doctrine of “America First” wouldn’t make America great again. Whatever we retain in the way of consensus, meaning common understanding, among ourselves and in the world, would soon be upended if he attempted to govern in a manner consistent with his various stands as a candidate. Donald Trump would bluff and bluster and, at least rhetorically, bludgeon. “Sometimes it pays to be a little wild,” the character of that name says in The Art of the Deal, an autobiography in the form of a manual for would-be moguls that he approved but didn’t write.

At a minimum, if the candidate is to be taken as a guide to the presidency he proposes, not just Obamacare and Roe v. Wade would be over. Global climate change and trade pacts would be disclaimed. NATO would be on life support. Vladimir Putin might well be our new best friend. At least for a time, the country would go careening—not into a halcyon golden age, rather an unforeseeable cycle of grinding renegotiations, realignments, and conflicts. How nasty these might prove is anyone’s guess, for there’s really no Trump plan, just a string of hollow boasts from a man who hasn’t looked deeply, as far as we know, into any single issue unrelated to property, the law of bankruptcy, and tax avoidance.

Perfectly plausible premonitions over the wreckage a Trump presidency might scatter can still sound worse than alarmist, a little crazy. But understatement on that score can be crazier, if it leaves an impression that his candidacy hasn’t quite gone over the edge, that it might still be in the outer precincts of normal.

Donald Trump delivering his acceptance speech on the last night of the Republican National Convention, Cleveland, July 2016
Nina Berman/Noor/Redux
Donald Trump delivering his acceptance speech on the last night of the Republican National Convention, Cleveland, July 2016

Hillary Clinton’s task at the climax of her convention wasn’t to outdo the impressively well-pitched speeches of a lineup of character witnesses including the two Obamas, her husband, Vice President Biden, Michael Bloomberg, and Elizabeth Warren; or to unfurl some shining new vision, as various commentators had urged; or to find a few words that might indicate contrition for setting up her own e-mail server in her State Department years and later fibbing about its having been properly authorized. It was to get beyond all that and the lucrative Goldman Sachs speeches and any other albatrosses from bygone years lurking in her menagerie and to keep a spotlight on the champion fabricator and fantasist who’d been demonizing her as “crooked Hillary” and now gave two thumbs up to raucous chants at his rallies of “Lock her up, Lock her up.”

“Self-deprecation is not her forte,” Carl Bernstein observed drily in his judicious, carefully nuanced 2007 biography, A Woman in Charge. “Her attempts are stiff and come off rehearsed usually.” Very occasionally she acknowledges “mistakes,” skipping the details just as she shuns press conferences where attempts might be made to explore them. She didn’t offer a hint of a mea culpa in Philadelphia.

So it was left to Barack Obama, her toughest opponent three elections ago, to soften the resistance of doubters who, according to polls, were still a majority of the likely electorate. “She knows,” the president said on her behalf, “that sometimes during those forty years she’s made mistakes, just like I have, just like we all do.” That’s what happens when you’re the kind of citizen Teddy Roosevelt once described “who is actually in the arena,… who strives valiantly; who errs,… but…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement.” (A small number of senior citizens may have recalled Nixon finding solace in the identical TR passage in his farewell remarks forty-two summers earlier.) Never has there been anyone, “not me, not Bill, more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president,” Obama testified.

Michael Bloomberg, whose first choice for president was well known to have been someone else—himself—went further in advancing the basic calculation Hillary doubters and critics now needed to make. Presenting himself as an independent speaking to independents, he mentioned disagreements with Hillary but said this wasn’t the time to dwell on them. “We must put them aside for the good of our country,” he said, and “unite around the candidate who can defeat a dangerous demagogue.” It may have been the best speech of his life. Trump, the former mayor said, “is a risky, reckless, and radical choice.” (True to form, Trump taunted back on Twitter: “‘Little’ Michael,” he said, lacked “the guts to run for president.”)

If the Clinton campaign wanted viewers to carry away a single thought from the four-day TV talkfest, Bloomberg’s was it. No other speaker put it so succinctly or persuasively. It said you were entitled to your misgivings about Hillary, that you didn’t have to like her or trust her implicitly in order to vote for her. It was enough to grasp that stopping Donald Trump had become a civic duty.

Newly anointed, the candidate was operating on several levels when she set off in a star-spangled bus on a three-day tour of Pennsylvania and Ohio, quadrennial “battleground” states, with her new running mate, Tim Kaine of Virginia, and the forty-second president (whose name Hillary Rodham had taken in a spirit of self-sacrifice only after Arkansas voters failed to reelect a governor with a wife who insisted on her own surname). The bus route ran through regions that had been losers in the globalized economy’s competition for investment and jobs. In her sights were overlapping groups of white voters, variously characterized as working-class or, more narrowly, males lacking a college education. However these demographics were sliced, they’d been at the core of Trump’s most vehement support.

“We’re dealing with somebody who has a history of stiffing people,” she said in Ohio on August 1, “making things somewhere else besides America and, wherever possible, hiring foreign workers.” Clinton had faced a comparable divide in the electorate before, the first time from the other side. In the waning days of her 2008 campaign against Obama, she’d pinned her hopes on these same voters, now leaning heavily to Trump, claiming she had a “much broader base to build a winning coalition” because her black opponent was failing to gain traction “among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans…whites…who had not completed college.”

She was trying then to talk nuts-and-bolts politics. She may not have meant to turn “hard-working” into a synonym for “white.” It took some explaining to show how she got to that point. “These are the people you have to win if you’re a Democrat in sufficient numbers to actually win the election,” she said at the time. “Everybody knows that.” Now she has to hope that’s not so.

In the event, “everybody” proved wrong eight years ago. Obama won both Ohio and Pennsylvania that year without most of “the people you have to win” in the general election. Whether these same disillusioned “hard-working” male voters would now celebrate the election of the first woman president on the heels of the first black president remains to be shown. The majority did not start off on Clinton’s side. Hoping to inherit the multiracial, multiethnic, multigender Obama coalition, she was still pursuing the “hard-working Americans” who long since had gotten away from her party.

Hillary rebounded in the polls after the convention but not by enough to be classed, on the strength of her own campaigning, as an odds-on favorite. Or so it seemed at first. But then her opponent gave her candidacy an unintended boost with a dizzying series of seeming asides, each nastier than the one before, as if he sensed that his rants were losing their force, that they required a bigger payload if he were to hold the attention of his hard core. The possibility then emerged that, short of further revelations, she might not need to confront her own issue of trust, which had been a discernible drag on her campaign for months, in order to win big, that she might conceivably do so with a majority of voters still feeling queasy about her.

Trump’s slump started in the immediate aftermath of the Democratic convention with several ill-considered counterattacks on parents of a US Army captain killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq twelve years ago; even more bitter were his views on the media types who jumped on the story and kept it going with his help.

The lost son, whose family had emigrated from Pakistan when he was an infant, had been awarded a Bronze Star and a hero’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery, under a headstone marked by the Muslim crescent and star. The father, a retired lawyer named Khizr Khan, noting that his son would never have gotten into the country had it been up to Trump, zinged Hillary’s opponent with a barbed question: “Have you even read the United States Constitution?” Waving a $1 pocket version, he added, “I will gladly lend you my copy.”

Soon social media were alight with comparisons to the lawyer Joseph Welch and the still-resounding question with which, a lifetime ago, he’d single-handedly pinioned the last great demagogue in American politics, Senator Joseph McCarthy: “Have you no decency, sir?” It wasn’t apparent that Trump, a loyal friend and client of Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s close aide, had ever heard of Welch. Words of sympathy or silence would have served him well at this point. Neither, he showed again, would have been in character.

The dignified challenge was more than he could take from a self-professed “patriotic American” who happened to be Muslim. He couldn’t let his followers believe it was possible to be both. So he made a snide remark about the bereaved mother, who’d stood silent next to her husband with her head covered, asking whether she was allowed to speak in public. This was berated as an attack on a Gold Star family. Within hours he was crossing swords with John McCain, Paul Ryan, and other Republicans in Congress running on a ticket he leads. From there the “conversation,” as we now call it, skipped ahead to considerations of his sanity.

Trump hit back with perhaps his ugliest attack on his opponent up to that point (unless it had been calling Clinton, three months earlier, “an unbelievably nasty, mean enabler” of her husband’s sexual wanderings). Christening her “Hillary Rotten Clinton,” he said she was “totally unhinged,…unbalanced.” This came in a stew of disdain and misogyny. “All you have to do is watch her, see her,” he said. If insult hurling was the name of the game, he would not be counted out.

Then on successive days came two even grosser Trumpisms: his suggestion, in a characteristic jumble of sentence fragments, that “Second Amendment people” might know what to do to keep Hillary Clinton from appointing justices to the Supreme Court who’d be ready to impose restrictions on gun ownership; and his further assertions that the president was honored by jihadists as a “founder” of ISIS, with Hillary as “co-founder.” The next day he flatly insisted that he’d meant this literally, adding for good measure that ISIS would give Clinton its “most valuable player award.” The day following he shrugged it all off as “sarcasm,” later adding that he’d been “not that sarcastic.”

Resurrecting a term not much used since S.J. Perelman, this could be called “crazy like a fox” were it not for the facts that (a) Donald Trump has continued to fall in the polls and (b) he’s still getting about 40 percent of the votes in most parts of the country, including nearly all of the so-called “battleground states.” Is this not insignificant vote for such an alarming candidate best understood as the anti-Clinton vote? Is hers the anti-Trump?

And there were still more than ten weeks to go—ten weeks, including, presumably, three debates, maybe more WikiLeaks dumps, shooting incidents, fresh examples of international terrorism, new accusations of “rigging” (of the system, the debates, the election itself). Ultimately, it would be a test of the electorate, a measure of its fear and loathing. Presidential candidates typically are expected to move to the center, having secured a partisan base and, with it, a nomination. Not Trump. He’s neither of the right nor left. What he presents as an economic program is too incoherent to be so defined. What it offers sounds like a con. Essentially he promises to save Social Security by giving big tax cuts to the wealthy in order to stimulate growth. Promising miracle fixes, he offers scapegoats to those who feel shortchanged.

At this writing, Republican officeholders were said to fear a debacle. But the smart money still gave the Democrats no chance to take back the House of Representatives. Clinton’s chances for a big win seemed to turn less on her own efforts and appeal than on her opponent’s inner drives and obsessions, his need to preen and react to every criticism. She wasn’t, in the post-convention period, gaining ground, it could be argued, so much as he was losing it.

Current statistical projections make Clinton the likely winner. Assuming for the moment that the surveys hold up, that there’s no enthusiasm gap or populist upsurge they’re failing to detect, a Hillary Clinton victory in an election in which a majority express mistrust of either candidate won’t be easy to interpret, whatever the margin. How she interprets it may matter most of all.

Carl Bernstein in his biography makes a case that most of the ancient controversies and chronic small scandals that plagued the first Clinton administration, way back in 1993, could be traced to her prideful misreading of the election returns. In a three-cornered race, in which a clear majority of votes went to candidates other than her husband, she still found, according to this biographer, a strong mandate for “wholesale change.” The Clintons, assuming she would play a major part, wondered whether the First Lady could serve as chief of staff, attend cabinet meetings, occupy an office in the West Wing. The ill-fated decision to make her, in effect, the czarina of health care reform was the result.

Writing before her first run for president and her term as secretary of state, Bernstein also wrote that she has since shown an “extraordinary capability for change and evolutionary development.” If so, she may yet prove to be the better Clinton. But why then, one wonders, are her evasions and fibs over today’s controversies—notably her “damned e-mails,” as an exasperated Bernie Sanders called them—so reminiscent of her handling of the all-but-forgotten controversies she brought upon herself when she was new to Washington?

Most voters who are appalled by her opponent will realize that they’ve no choice—as Mike Bloomberg argued—but to give her the benefit of the doubt. But on the basis of what we’ve seen so far in the biggest campaign of her life, the benefit of a persistent doubt will be something less than a mandate.

—August 16, 2016

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