One of Hillary Clinton’s general election strategies will come right out of the Obama 2012 playbook — painting Donald Trump as out of touch with the American people in an effort to, as CNN puts it, “prick his populism.” There are limitations to this strategy, unless it hits the jackpot: defining a new narrative about why Trump is running in order to ruin his credibility.
But I’ll get back to that.
First, it probably won’t work. There are critical differences between 2012 and 2016, and it comes back to the candidates themselves. Hillary Clinton and her family are worth a considerable amount of money, far more than the Obamas were worth. For that reason, Clinton would have a tough time hitting Trump, like Obama did to Romney, on being out of touch due to his net worth.
The more important contrast, surprisingly, is between the 2012 and 2016 Republican candidates. While Trump and Mitt Romney certainly came from affluent backgrounds and are now worth a considerable amount of money, Trump is far more comfortable with his riches. Romney didn’t like talking about his wealth. He wore blue jeans to farms and factories. Trump, on the other hand, dives, like Scrooge McDuck, head first into his treasure. He flaunts it. He uses it as an underpinning to his candidacy. His ability to negotiate, swing favorable deals, and take advantage of the rules make him the exact kind of president he needs.
Ah, yes, taking advantage of the rules. He openly admits to “using the country’s laws” in his favor, like when he filed for his bankruptcies or maximized tax loopholes to reduce his effective tax rate. These were legal strategies that he used to his benefit, and I don’t think we should hold them against him.
He’s effectively used “taking advantage of the rules” to explain so much. It’s why he donated money to Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, including, as Ted Cruz reveled in telling us, members of the “Gang of Eight,” a committee that proposed immigration solutions much more moderate than what Trump ostensibly believes in. In most years, that would disqualify a Republican, especially in a year where Hillary Clinton was the Democratic opponent. But not Trump. He was just buying politicians, behaving like the ultimate insider, playing by the rules for personal gain.
Most recently, unearthed comments from 2006 confess that he “hoped” there would be a housing crisis because it would be great for rich men like him who could take advantage of it. As the Wall Street Journal notes, he does this “with seemingly little regard for the impact on American families,” and Clinton is already using these comments in swing states attack ads.
Trump’s response was predictable: “I am a businessman and I have made a lot of money in down markets, in some cases as much as I’ve made when markets are good. Frankly, this is the kind of thinking our country needs — understanding how to get a good result out of a very bad and sad situation.”
Exactly. It’s an effective, blanket defense. Trump has all but inoculated himself from the attacks used against Romney. Any examples Clinton can find of Trump using the rigged system to line his pockets is just him gaming the system. He uses the rules to his advantage. His underlying thesis now claims that when he’s president, he’ll do the same thing for the American people.
Or will he?
If Clinton can nail this attack just right, I think it can ruin Trump’s candidacy:
Trump’s history doesn’t reveal that his knowledge of the rules means he will game the system for America; it reveals that he uses his knowledge of the rules to game the system for himself.
This narrative frames him running for president because, win or lose, he can convert this run into huge book sales, sky-high ratings for reality TV, and a stronger brand for his real estate empire. At best he’ll be the former President of the United States doing each of those things; at worst he was a major candidate for the office and the biggest celebrity in the country for 18 months. Either way, it’s yuge publicity, and it’s been free for him.
If successful, Clinton could dismantle his populist tag, portraying him instead as a scheming billionaire taking advantage of Americans, for whom he claims to be a vessel of their discontent, for his own personal gain. Everything about Trump’s career shows he’s in it for himself, motivated by profit and ego. His run for the White House is no different.
How accurate is that narrative? Irrelevant. The question is only how effective it can be. As for its legitimacy, I wouldn’t rule it out. I’m still not convinced he wants to win. He has left his wealth largely untapped, and he continues to do things someone who wants to win just wouldn’t do. Yesterday he lambasted the Hispanic governor of New Mexico, fellow Republican Susana Martinez. Needing to make inroads with Latinos, women, and battleground states, he attacked her leadership after she said she couldn’t attend his rally. (He of course would have said nice things about her if she showed up, but her absence retroactively destroyed her record.) This morning on “Morning Joe,” Republican Joe Scarborough, who for months was largely impressed and friendly with Trump’s campaign, noted this attack on Martinez is the latest sign that he might not even want to win, calling it 50/50 if he desired the office or not.
Of course, we should not overlook that Trump’s ego — and, for that matter, evolution on the issues — isn’t all that different from Hillary Clinton and hundreds of other politicians. Most of them are driven by egotism, profit, and power. I often think that in the press’s haste to crown Trump a flip-flopper who lacks core convictions and says whatever is politically expedient at the time, it has forgotten all the stories it has run about Clinton being basically the same. “The Onion,” fortunately, never forgets; yesterday, it ran this op-ed from “Hillary Clinton”: “If I Could Be Just Completely Honest for a Second, I Believe Exactly What You Believe.”
The point, however, is that Trump isn’t special in his caring for the American people just because he hasn’t been in politics or all of a sudden says populist things and claims to know how to keep the people safe. His entire career is void of public service. Should we really trust that he’s changed his spots?
So, if authenticity is a wash, what do we fall back on to make our decision? Ideology? I’m not sure Trump won’t end up being more radical than Clinton. Considering his recent history on the issues, can any of us be sure of that?
What’s the next thing off of which we should base our decision, then? I suppose you have to decide that on your own. I’d wager that most remaining factors, like temperament, experience, and knowledge, would break toward Clinton, though, so if she can pull off this narrative, she might run away with this thing down the stretch.
But when was the last time Hillary Clinton was good at framing a narrative?