Hillary Clinton aimed a fierce barrage at Donald Trump on Thursday, accusing him of fomenting racism, bigotry, and paranoia with his presidential campaign.
It was a kitchen-sink attack, a bracing inventory of Trump’s connections—some direct, others more tenuous—to conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, white supremacists like David Duke, and the “alt-right” conservatism of Breitbart. The speech served as a domestic-policy counterpart to the similarly critical broadside she aimed at Trump’s foreign policy in June. As Julia Ioffe pointed out, it was also an update to the idea of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” that Clinton coined 18 years ago.
“Donald Trump has built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia. He is taking hate groups mainstream, and helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party,” Clinton said at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada. (A video ad released Thursday covers much of the same ground.) She said Trump’s rhetoric was “like nothing we’ve heard before from a nominee for president of the United States from one of our two major parties.”
Over more than a half-hour of sustained attack, Clinton added little new material to the record. Instead, she methodically plotted Trump’s known ties, in what appeared to be an effort to energize her own voters and, in particular, to give pause to Republicans who have grudgingly opted to make their peace with a candidate they don’t love. As she had in June, Clinton again labeled Trump “temperamentally unfit to be president of the United States.”
Though the speech had been billed as an exploration of Trump’s ties to the “alt-right”—a political niche catering to white nationalists, xenophobes, and others—she only touched on the topic toward the end of the speech. By the time she reached that point, Clinton had already assailed Trump for retweeting a white-supremacist Twitter account and for posting a meme taken from a white-supremacist website. She had mentioned his fabricated account of Muslims celebrating 9/11 in New Jersey and his baseless accusation that the father of Senator Ted Cruz was implicated in the Kennedy assassination. She had criticized him for appearing on Alex Jones’ show and praising the host, and for failing to promptly disavow David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and current congressional candidate. (Although Trump later did so, Duke remains enamored of Trump, she noted.) And she had criticized his latest immigration plan as both unworkable and un-American.
“The last thing we need in the situation room is a loose cannon who can’t tell the difference, or doesn’t care to, between fact and fiction,” Clinton said.
Finally turning to the alt-right, she read off a series of headlines from Breitbart, whose CEO Steve Bannon recently became CEO of Trump’s campaign: “Hoist It High And Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims A Glorious Heritage,” “‘Would You Rather Your Child Had Feminism or Cancer?’,” “Gabby Giffords: The Gun Control Movement’s Human Shield.” She also criticized Trump for campaigning Wednesday night with Nigel Farage, the former head of the U.K. Independence Party and a leader of the campaign supporting Britain’s departure from the European Union.
“I know that some people still want to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. They hope that he will eventually reinvent himself, that there’s a kinder, gentler more responsible Donald Trump waiting in the wings,” she said. But no such Trump exists, Clinton insisted. “The policies that he as proposed would put prejudice into practice. Don’t be distracted by his recent attempts to muddy the waters.”
Her argument that Trump hasn’t really changed was aided by the recent addition of Bannon to the campaign, since Breitbart has emerged, under Bannon’s stewardship, as one of the marquee outlets for the alt-right, and a major point for alt-right ideas to enter the mainstream—sometimes via the Trump campaign.
In reaching out to black voters, Trump has argued that African American communities are uniformly poor, dangerous, and hopeless, and suggested they should give him a chance. But Clinton noted that Trump had been accused of racial discrimination as far back as the 1970s.
“It really does take a lot of nerve to ask people he’s mistreated and ignored for decades, ‘What do you have to lose?’” she said. “Because the answer is everything.”
The speech was a remarkably harsh attack for a candidate who is leading Trump by sizable margins both nationwide and in key swing states, having already expanded the possible range of victories into traditionally Republican states. But if Trump’s odds in November already look long, she sought to knock him entirely out of contention on Thursday. The careful indictment was designed to make Trump supporters uncomfortable, forcing them to reckon with some of the less savory remarks their candidate has made, and to encourage Republicans who are on the fence to forsake Trump and back her.
Clinton harkened back to moments when prominent Republicans have publicly rejected bigotry. Discussing Trump’s attack against federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel, she quoted Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Trump endorser who labeled the jab “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” She praised President George W. Bush for his inclusive rhetoric about Muslims immediately after 9/11, and lauded Senator Bob Dole for banishing racists during his 1996 run against her husband. (In an ironic turn, Dole is a Trump backer this year.) “This is not conservatism as we have known it, this is not Republicanism,” she said. Reprising a campaign ad, she warned of the effect of hearing Trump on children.
Yet Clinton’s speech was also well-calibrated to bait Trump and his supporters, right down to her quotation of a Mexican proverb. She got some immediate gratification when David Duke defended the alt-right—and by extension Trump—in a rebuttal to BuzzFeed.
The best-case scenario for the Clinton campaign is to prod Trump himself into responding. She has characterized him as easily baited to anger, and when he has lashed out in the past, his outbursts have often been damaging to his campaign. Although he’s attempting a milder tone this week, he also said, “If people hit me, I will certainly hit back. That will never change.” Clinton has served the ball right into his court to prove it.