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Fears of a Clown

Donald Trump's circus show is drowning out Hillary Clinton's message.

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Donald Trump has many flaws as a politician, but the narcissistic former reality show star is good at one thing: keeping the media attention on him. During the Republican primaries, this prevented any of his rivals from gaining traction. The conventional wisdom was that in the general election, with a field of just two competitive candidates, Trump wouldn’t be able to dominate. And yet, he is. Clinton is enabling this by making the campaign partly a referendum of Trump, with much of her own energy taken up with explaining why he’s unfit for the presidency. Since both Trump and Clinton now are focused on Trump, we have in effect an election that is all about Trump—just as he desires.

A presidential season that is all Trump all the time makes it hard for Clinton to sell her virtues. More specifically, the attacks on Trump are in tension with Clinton’s other major argument, that she embodies an inclusive post-partisan politics than can heal national wounds by listening to people of different politics. In the run-up to the conventions, Clinton finds herself in the doldrums in the polls, with her small lead over Trump shrinking. Her campaign now has to ask: Is this combination of post-partisanship and anti-Trump rhetoric enough to win, or does she need another tack?

The internal contradictions in Clinton’s message were clear in a solid, thoughtful speech she gave on racism in Springfield, Illinois, on Wednesday. Using the location as a pretext for invoking Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, Clinton warned of the dangers posed by Trump and called upon Americans to live up to their highest ideals of equality.

Yet the two major strands of the speech sat uneasily together. On the one hand, she presented herself very much the way President Barack Obama does, as someone who can reconcile the warring factions of America. At one point, she chided herself for being too partisan.  “I cannot stand here and claim that my words and actions haven’t sometimes fueled the partisanship that often stands in the way of our progress,” she said.  “So I recognize I have to do better, too.”

On the other hand, she launched a fierce attack not just on “dangerous” Trump for his bigotry, but on the Republicans as a whole for becoming “the party of Trump.” The question is whether the two strands cohere or whether they send off a mixed message.

If Donald Trump truly is dangerous (and he is) and if the Republicans are now the “party of Trump,” then why try to be post-partisan? Isn’t it incumbent in such a situation to be ultra-partisan, to try to fight the enemy tooth-and-nail rather than compromise with them?

Clinton inherited this post-partisan tic from Obama, so it’s interesting that he has begun to acknowledge its limits.

Earlier this week in Dallas, at a memorial service for the five police officers murdered at a Black Lives Matter rally, Obama uttered some of the most sobering words of his presidency. This was the eleventh time since taking office that he has had to speak at a memorial for the victims of a mass shooting, and the speech reflected his despair that his calls for greater gun control have been met with inaction. “I’ve seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about lasting change,” he said. “I’ve seen how inadequate my own words have been.”

Obama is one of the greatest orators in American history. His command of rhetoric and delivery helped him win two national majorities, something no Democrat has achieved since Franklin Roosevelt. Yet even Obama, after facing an increasingly obdurate GOP that has chosen his polar opposite as its standard bearer, had to acknowledge the limits of words.

If Obama’s eloquence couldn’t win over Republicans to a post-partisan paradise of rational discussion and problem solving, then how much can we expect from Clinton? It’s not just that she’s a middling speaker, but her speeches are being drowned out by the carnival barker she’s competing against.

Trump’s gift at creating spectacle won’t necessarily win him the election. To judge by his unfavorability rating in polls, his antics turn off more people than they win over. But Trump’s clowning makes it harder for Clinton to get her message across. Widely distrusted because of her many political shifts and her handling of her email account as secretary of state, Clinton needs undecided voters to listen to her and give her another chance.

In her Springfield speech, Clinton emphasized the importance of listening as part of the process of national healing:

And all of that starts with doing a better job of listening to each other.... And yes we do need to listen to those who say ‘Black Lives Matter.’... I do wish Donald Trump would listen to other people once in awhile. He might actually learn something. But he’s made it clear—that’s not his thing. As he has said, he only listens to himself.

Vox’s Ezra Klein has argued that one of Clinton’s great strengths as a politician is that she’s a listener rather than a talker. Klein contrasted Clinton with her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders: “Given where both candidates began, there is no doubt that Bernie Sanders proved the more effective talker. His speeches attracted larger audiences, his debate performances led to big gains in the polls, his sound bites went more viral on Facebook. Yet Clinton proved the more effective listener — and, particularly, the more effective coalition builder.”

The question is whether listening and reasoned discourse is the best way to defeat a candidate like Trump, who fills the airwave with noise. This is a question with no easy answer. To try and challenge Trump in the realm of spectacle is to risk sinking to his level, as Marco Rubio found when he mocked Trump’s hand size (and implicitly his penis size). A more aggressive and confrontational politics would also undermine the very message of reconciliation that is a cornerstone of Clinton’s campaign. The gut-check question the Clinton campaign has to ask itself is this: If anti-Trump rhetoric combined with a message of reconciliation proves to be ineffective, what is Plan B?