In a speech today on the subject of Donald Trump’s ties to the "alt right," Hillary Clinton painted the GOP nominee as a dangerous racist with a history of discriminatory conduct and hateful rhetoric that dates back to before the beginning of his presidential campaign.
She also went out of her way to deny that this aspect of Trump and Trumpism has anything to do with the Republican Party mainstream. She explained that "alt" stands for "alternative" and quoted a Wall Street Journal article that argued that the alt-right "rejects mainstream conservatism."
"A fringe element," she said, "has effectively taken over the Republican Party." A circumstance she described as "something we’ve never seen before."
Tensions between the alt-right and mainstream conservatives are real enough, but Clinton’s description of a hard and fast line between them that makes Trumpism entirely unprecedented is factually wrong and analytically sloppy. It’s also smart.
From the start, Donald Trump has built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia. He's taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over one of America's two major political parties. His disregard for the values that make our country great is profoundly dangerous. To borrow a term from Barack Obama, Clinton is trying to create a "permission structure" for Republicans with misgivings about Trump to not support him.
If this guy seems weird to you, Clinton is saying, rest assured that he really is weird. You’re not going RINO or betraying your principles. In fact, you are the one who’s been betrayed. The Republican Party, she argues, has been taken over by some kind of hostile alien force that’s an "alternative" to the normal wholesome conservative politics you’ve been committed to your whole life. Just because you’re a Republican, in short, doesn’t mean you have to be a Trumpkin.
Clinton’s analysis of the mainstream doesn’t really add up
It’s conventional intellectual history to mark the origins of the modern conservative movement to William F Buckley’s magazine, National Review.
And, indeed, over the course of the 2016 campaign, National Review and its writers have stood strongly against Trump. They haven’t, however, been particularly critical of his racist inclinations. And National Review was squarely on Trump’s side in the intramural Republican Party controversy over immigration reform that played out in 2013 to 2015.
Beyond that, National Review in the 1950s stood squarely for opposition to the civil rights movement. Most famously, Buckley himself wrote an editorial titled "Why The South Must Prevail" arguing that it would be an injustice for Northern Americans to force voting rights for culturally inferior African Americans on the culturally superior white South. But more broadly, the intellectual project of the pioneering days of the modern conservative movement was precisely to forge an alliance between Northern business interests upset by the New Deal and Southern white supremacists who worried that big government was a threat to American apartheid.
This alliance came to a political head in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign. Goldwater, a non-Southern conservative, offered a free market rationale for opposition to the Civil Rights Act and carried the Deep South even while losing nationally in a landslide. Ronald Reagan campaigned against federal fair housing legislation in California ("if an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so") and stood up for South Africa’s apartheid government against its critics in Congress. In the George W. Bush era, Republicans focused heavily on mobilization of anti-gay sentiment, and today’s congressional Republicans have been blocking reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act for several years now.
All of which is to say that Trump’s version of conservatism has some very real ties to the mainstream kind.
Clinton’s strategy is clever
But while Clinton’s version of intellectual history may not be entirely accurate, a political campaign is not a seminar room. Trump really is different from previous Republican Party nominees and most Republican Party elected officials.
He’s also currently very unpopular, so exaggerating those differences is a good way of seeking votes while simultaneously putting down-ballot Republicans in awkward positions.
Kelsey Snell of the Washington Post, for example, described New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte as "stuck between Donald Trump and a hard place," noting that her refusal to endorse Trump is denying her the opportunity to campaign alongside the ticket and ride the waves of positive media exposure that usually brings. At the same time, she’s said that she is voting for Trump — the key theme of a Michael Bloomberg–funded Super PAC ad slamming Ayotte.
On the two core issues where Bloomberg disagrees with the GOP — gun regulation and climate change — there really is no difference between Trump and a conventional Republican. But the fact that Trump is seen as an abnormal figure gives Bloomberg the ammunition he needs to turn the mere fact that a Republican senator is voting for the GOP nominee into an attack ad.
Even though Clinton is letting the conservative movement off the hook intellectually for Trump, the abnormalization of Trump doesn’t actually let specific individual Republicans off the hook unless they disavow Trump entirely. But doing that risks a backlash on the other side.
The Republican Party, institutionally, is supporting Trump and expects its elected officials to do the same. Attempting a hard break with Trump risks an institutional breach, damaging infighting, and the loss of concrete campaign resources.
Clinton wants to shame Republicans
Politically speaking, the key passage of Clinton’s speech was one where she made an unusual move for a candidate and offered fulsome praise to the opposition political party. Rather than noting the ways in which Trumpism has ties to the GOP past, she highlighted elements of the Republican Party history that push in the opposite direction:
This is a moment of reckoning for every Republican dismayed that the party of Lincoln has become the party of Trump. It’s a moment of reckoning for all of us who love our country and believe that America is better than this.
Twenty years ago, when Bob Dole accepted the Republican nomination, he pointed to the exits and told any racists in the party to get out.
The week after 9/11, George W. Bush went to a mosque and declared for everyone to hear that Muslims "love America just as much as I do."
In 2008, John McCain told his own supporters they were wrong about the man he was trying to defeat. Sen. McCain made sure they knew — Barack Obama is an American citizen and "a decent person."
Clinton is flattering Republicans about their past to shame them about their present.
To reach the kind of electoral targets Clinton is currently aiming for in places like Arizona and Georgia — or to help her party’s House members who need to win in districts that are 4 or 5 points more Republican than the nation as a whole — Clinton needs to win in places that are full of lifelong Republicans.
If Clinton were more popular, personally, or at least some kind of "fresh face," candidates in such districts could hope to ride a general wave of pro-Democrat sentiment. But she isn’t. A typical Republican in a typical Republican-leaning district will be able to argue to people who normally vote Republican that, whatever they think of Trump, they need to reelect Rep. So-and-so to avoid giving Clinton a blank check.
What really could work, by contrast, is straightforward demoralization.
Since the mid-19th century, millions more people have voted in presidential election years than vote in midterms when no presidential candidate is on the ballot. That gap has widened over the past few cycles. The general up and down of turnout is known, on average, to hurt Democrats whose base voters are disproportionately likely to forget to show up for midterm elections.
But turnout declines for both parties, and a reasonable strategy for down-ballot Democrats is to try to convince Trump-skeptical Republicans to treat it like a midterm and not vote. It seems the charismatic qualities of a president you are excited about drive turnout far ahead of where the banal realities of congressional politics put it.
Flattering Republicans about their party’s tradition while highlighting the ways in which Trump differs from that tradition is a way of making many upscale Republicans who may deeply dislike Clinton feel bad about the presidential election. If they feel bad, they won’t vote. And if they don’t vote, Clinton — and Democrats all up and down the ballot — will win.