Donald Trump may have tried to appear more presidential during his recent trip to Mexico but Hillary Clinton’s strategy remains one of painting her opponent as mentally unfit for the presidency. Clinton’s ads have used Trump’s words against him to attack both his temperament and his opinions. One memorable spot saw children gaping at television screens as Trump spewed increasingly offensive lines. Clinton’s team is merely replaying The Donald’s words, a man who once said that he’d date his daughter if only she weren’t his daughter.
Portraying Trump as mentally unhinged and needlessly offensive may play well in 30 second digital ads but such a strategy is vulnerable. If Trump manages to contain his retaliatory impulses during the first presidential debate and appear semi-presidential, Clinton’s ads will lose steam. The bar that Trump must cross to be seen as the victor in the debate is absurdly low. As long as he can refrain from directly labelling Clinton a four-letter word, the media will laud his pivot to sanity. With all the coverage that the debate will get, such a performance from Trump would significantly weaken the central plank of her attack strategy.
To reinforce her support, Clinton should refute Trump’s assertions that he will solve the current (imagined) chaos that so many Americans fear. He declares himself to be standing with working class Americans while sleeping in a penthouse. He worships himself as the dealmaker-in-chief but refuses to pay contractors what he owes them. He acclaims himself the law and order candidate yet his gaming licenses are suspect and his buildings are constructed using mob-supplied concrete.
Though the Clinton campaign is using these contradictions they remain secondary to denunciations of Trump’s character. Demonstrating that Trump is an outsider to the experiences of most Americans would be significantly more difficult for him to refute. This plan of attack would also dovetail with Clinton’s existing assertions that Trump presents a danger to minorities’ welfare, national security and America’s standing in the world. If Trump won’t play by the rules in his businesses, how will he enforce those rules on others while president?
Trump is crazy, yes, but he’s also dangerous — Clinton must remind the American people of the latter. Declaring Trump crazy is weaker because it implicitly dismisses his ability to win the election. Complacent Democrats could be all that he needs to edge Clinton out in the states that matter. Demonstrating Trump to be dangerous will be more effective in getting out the vote. Fear motivates far more effectively than derision.
Many have compared this year to the 1964 election between Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater. Both Trump and Goldwater used racism to great effect and neither of the two understood the important issues of the day. The LBJ campaign revolutionised TV political ads. Making creative use of the format his team demonstrated Goldwater’s craziness in his own words (see “Eastern Seaboard”) and the man’s danger to America and the world (see “Daisy”). The two themes reinforced each other and contributed to an LBJ landslide.
If the Democrats are to repeat that performance with Clinton, a candidate not dissimilar to LBJ, against Trump, a racist thoroughly similar to Goldwater, they must accept that it is not enough to simply dismiss Trump as mentally deficient. Any effective ad campaign, particularly entering this last stretch of the election, must convince undecided voters of the truly generational danger that Trump represents, to America and its way of life but also to the fundamental principles of liberty and equality.
Why am I convinced of the danger Trump represents? I’ll leave you with the following exchange at one of his rallies: a 12-year-old girl told him, “I’m scared.” And what did this man, this presidential candidate, reply? “You know what, darling? You’re not going to be scared anymore. They’re going to be scared.”
Alex Davies is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have I Got News For You? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.