The defining quality of Donald Trump’s bill of particulars against Hillary Clinton, laid out in a bullet-pointed speech Wednesday morning, is that much of it was fabricated or embellished. “A lot of what [Trump] just said is flatly not true,” noted NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell shortly after his comments concluded.
To the extent that Trump’s comments were false, it was by design. As he does seemingly every time he gets into political trouble for running his mouth, Trump delivered his speech from a teleprompter, which means the inaccuracies were written into the prepared text instead of ad-libbed.
But it’s worth setting aside the factual problems with Trump’s speech briefly to consider whether the attacks themselves, in their basic structure and interplay, should frighten Clinton and the Democrats or not.
I contend they should not. As delivered, Trump’s remarks call into question whether he has the capacity to sustain a thematic line of criticism against Clinton beyond the “Crooked Hillary” sobriquet he perfected on Twitter. Though scripted, Trump’s remarks were scattershot and defensive. In that regard, and in the rather inelegant and desperate way they were deployed to change the current narrative of the race, they resemble the disorganized, information-dump-like attacks his primary campaign rivals aimed at him, just as their campaigns were about to falter. Everything all at once, but too little, too late.
That’s a strange tack to take against someone like Hillary Clinton, who is already well defined in the public eye. Rather than identify her agreed-upon weaknesses and use them to paint a clear, confined case against her, Trump vomited up every negative Fox News soundbite and right-wing talking point he’s internalized about her in recent years, hoping the regurgitated mess would speak for itself.
The final, chunky product might have served to remind avowed Clinton-haters what they dislike about her. But for anyone who wasn’t already sure what to think about her, the bile Trump generated provided little guidance. Here is a representative sample of his attacks:
- “Hillary Clinton who, as most people know, is a world-class liar. Just look at her pathetic email and server statements, or her phony landing in Bosnia where she said she was under attack but the attack turned out to be young girls handing her flowers, a total self-serving lie.” (Mostly true.)
- “Hillary Clinton has perfected the politics of personal profit and theft. She ran the State Department like her own personal hedge fund.” (False.)
- “Hillary Clinton gave China millions of our best jobs, and effectively let China completely rebuild itself. In return, Hillary Clinton got rich!” (Meaningless and only half true.)
- “[U.S. Libya Ambassador Chris Stevens] was left helpless to die as Hillary Clinton soundly slept in her bed.” (Unsubstantiated but in conflict with Clinton’s account.)
- “Hillary lied about a video being the cause of [Stevens’] death.” (False.)
- “Hillary Clinton, who already has the blood of so many on her hands, is now announcing that she is willing to put each and every one of our lives in harms’ way.” (False.)
- “Hillary also wants to spend hundreds of billions to resettle Middle Eastern refugees in the United States, on top of the current record level of immigration.” (False.)
The speech reads like a manic opposition-research dump—a rather unusual way for a campaign principal to build a case against his opponent.
The 2012 campaign Barack Obama ran against Mitt Romney, to take one contrary example, was much more methodical. Many months before Romney secured the Republican presidential primary, Obama laid the groundwork to run against a heartless plutocrat, proposing a tax reform he called the “Buffett Rule,” which would ensure that high-income earners and people with large investment incomes (people, in other words, like Mitt Romney) wouldn’t pay lower effective tax rates than their employees. Republicans everywhere, including Romney, obligingly inveighed against the proposal.
Obama’s efforts to define Romney flowed from there: He isolated key aspects of Romney’s business record and his political agenda, and held them up through that lens.
What Obama didn’t do was rattle off all the unlovely Romney facts he thought he knew, without any connective tissue binding them together into an organic whole. That job (such as it was) fell to surrogates, SuperPACs, and, through opposition research, to the media as well.
Clinton’s campaign against Trump is following a similar trajectory, stemming from a single, cohesive critique of Trump’s temperament. The consistency and cohesion are crucial: Voters may know they’re not supposed to like Trump, but they may not be sure why. Harping on a single, compelling reason is the best way to inform them.
Trump seems incapable of this. His preferred style is cacophony, rather than variations on a theme, and it will be to his detriment, whether he’s attacking Clinton with facts or falsities. She has weaknesses as a candidate, and no matter how poorly he runs his campaign, he will be able to exploit some of them. But if Wednesday’s speech was any indication, he isn’t disciplined enough to distill Clinton’s character for voters overwhelmed with conflicting information. As good as Trump is at making noise, he doesn’t know how to carry a tune.
Want to hear more about the Clinton and Trump? Listen to our politics podcast, Primary Concerns, hosted by Brian Beutler: