There is an adage, based on Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”: “Know your enemy.” After watching Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, I wonder just how well Democrats really know Trump and his strategy.
It is easy to paint the businessman-turned-politician as a “racist” and “misogynist.” He is all those things and more. In fact, those descriptors are part of his political strategy. Pointing them out without seeing the larger picture of how he is planning on winning the November election is a recipe for failure.
I knew that if I watched Trump give his speech, I would be so enraged by his loathsome manner and disgusting rhetoric that it might blind me to his bigger plan. When I read the transcript later, I still felt rage, but the topics appeared to be a confusing mess, with Trump jumping from domestic to foreign policy with no apparent coherence. But then a pattern emerged.
Broadly speaking, Trump is using a simple combination of two political devices, pivoting deftly from one to the other. The first is the tried-and-true form of dog-whistle politics to rally racial resentment. The second taps into anger and legitimate public disgust over the failures of capitalism. In other words, he is solidifying the resentment-filled voter base that backed him from the start, and is overtly wooing the base that Bernie Sanders inspired but abandoned when the Democratic Party undermined his nomination. Trump’s acceptance speech was a repetitive exercise in this two-prong approach, and with the combination of these two seemingly disparate voter bases, he sees victory in November.
Never mind that Trump himself is a key player in the financial system that has devastated ordinary Americans—he gets away with that contradiction by earning the oxymoronic and Orwellian moniker of “blue-collar billionaire” from the likes of Jerry Falwell Jr.
Over and over in his speech, Trump invoked the fear of the “other” (which Hillary Clinton embodies simply by being a woman) and then pivoted to the economy. For example, he brought up the case of Sarah Root, a 21-year-old woman who died when her car was slammed by an undocumented immigrant who apparently had been driving drunk.
“I’ve met Sarah’s beautiful family,” Trump said. “But to this administration, their amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting. One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders. What about our economy?”
The non sequitur about the economy was followed by statistics meant to appeal to people of color: “Nearly four in 10 African-American children are living in poverty, while 58 percent of African-American youth are not employed. Two million more Latinos are in poverty today than when the president took his oath of office.”
By the way, The Washington Post and other fact-checking organizations have issued a comprehensive list of lies and exaggerations in Trump’s speech, which include the aforementioned statistics. But of course, facts are there to be manipulated into the dire portrait of the nation that Trump is painting.
Here is another example of Trump invoking the fear of the “other,” this time personified by Islamic State and white Americans’ fear of losing imperial prestige: “[Islamic State] has spread across the region, and the world. Libya is in ruins, and our ambassador [the late J. Christopher Stevens] and his staff were left helpless to die at the hands of savage killers.” He later invoked Clinton’s kowtowing to moneyed interests: “Big business, elite media and major donors are lining up behind the campaign of my opponent because they know she will keep our rigged system in place.”
Still later in his speech, he jumped back to domestic policy by touting the killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., with no mention whatsoever of police violence and killings of black Americans. This, of course, was Trump using dog-whistle politics to win over pro-police and racist white voters. But then he quickly pivoted to the economy, saying, “This administration has failed America’s inner cities. It’s failed them on education. It’s failed them on jobs.”
He (wrongly) accused Clinton of having an immigration policy of “mass amnesty, mass immigration and mass lawlessness” that “will overwhelm your schools and hospitals, further reduce your jobs and wages.” Such a macabre vision plays directly to nativist fears of immigrants, which Trump once more followed with a switch to the economy by promising “a different vision for our workers. It begins with a new fair trade policy that protects our jobs and stands up to countries that cheat.”
When he got around to summarizing his approach to the presidency, he used the same pivot again: “My plan will begin with safety at home—which means safe neighborhoods, secure borders and protection from terrorism. There can be no prosperity without law and order. On the economy, I will outline reforms to add millions of new jobs and trillions in new wealth that can be used to rebuild America.”
Trump, who likely would have been roundly defeated by Bernie Sanders in a general election (as many polls suggested), is determined to pick up Sanders fans by whipping up the general public frustration with the failures of capitalism. At one point, Trump just comes out and says it: “I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens, just like it was rigged against Bernie Sanders—he never had a chance. But his supporters will join our movement, because we will fix his biggest issue: trade.”
If Democrats want to beat Trump in November, they need to recognize this strategy fast and adopt the progressive-sounding economic proposals that Trump is offering as he tries to reconcile conservative white voters with economic liberalists. In other words, Clinton needs to embody Sanders, and fast. That way, she can combine Democratic stalwarts (those who planned to vote for her all along) with the independents Sanders rallied and win by a comfortable margin in November. Of course, the Democratic Party could have ensured a win early on by refusing to undermine Sanders’ candidacy. Recent internal documents leaked by Wikileaks have shown the contempt the party had for the candidate best suited to usher in a decisive win.
But it’s too late to worry about that now. All Clinton can do is understand Trump’s strategy and work to beat it. That would mean renouncing the very Wall Street ties she has relied on throughout her career, ties that have in large part earned her well-deserved, collective contempt from the public. Instead, she is relying on voters choosing her because she is not Trump. If Trump is espousing a politics of fear through his racism and misogyny, Clinton is no different. The fear she is relying on is a fear of Trump himself. And that may not be enough.