Hugging and kissing are rarely innocent acts in a gangster movie. The Godfather puts his arms around you not always in loving embrace, but as a way of drawing you close and making you an offer you can’t refuse. The warm kiss on the cheek might also be a farewell gesture, a way of saying goodbye before you sleep with the fishes. The same principle works in politics, where praise isn’t meant kindly—instead, it carries an ominous message.
In a speech in Reno yesterday attacking Donald Trump as a racist with ties to the alt-right, Hillary Clinton was amazingly gracious when discussing Republicans who did not support Trump. Like President Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention, Clinton was careful to distinguish between mainstream Republicans and Trump, portraying the nominee as an aberration.
Many analysts took Clinton’s pitch at face value. In The New York Times, Matt Flegenheimer wrote, “Mrs. Clinton’s pitch seemed aimed largely at moderate Republicans and other voters who have watched Mr. Trump’s attempts in recent days to soften his image.” This analysis isn’t wrong, but it is incomplete. Clinton not only tried to convince Republicans that Trump doesn’t stand with them, but also implicitly warned them of dire consequences if they continue to back him.
According to her prepared remarks, Clinton said:
This is a moment of reckoning for every Republican dismayed that the Party of Lincoln has become the Party of Trump. It’s a moment of reckoning for all of us who love our country and believe that America is better than this.
Twenty years ago, when Bob Dole accepted the Republican nomination, he pointed to the exits and told any racists in the party to get out.
The week after 9/11, George W. Bush went to a mosque and declared for everyone to hear that Muslims “love America just as much as I do.”
In 2008, John McCain told his own supporters they were wrong about the man he was trying to defeat. Senator McCain made sure they knew—Barack Obama is an American citizen and “a decent person.”
We need that kind of leadership again.
Every day, more Americans are standing up and saying “enough is enough”—including a lot of Republicans. I’m honored to have their support.
Earlier in the speech, Clinton also noted that Trump’s campaign manager Steve Bannon “railed against Paul Ryan for, quote ‘rubbing his social-justice Catholicism in my nose every second.’”
Consider the foreboding phrase “a moment of reckoning.” Consider what it means to say that “the Party of Lincoln has become the Party of Trump.” And consider, finally, the names mentioned: Bob Dole, John McCain, and Paul Ryan have all endorsed Trump. George W. Bush hasn’t, but he hasn’t come out in favor of Hillary Clinton either, unlike the Republicans Clinton is “honored” to have supporting her.
Yes, Hillary Clinton is inviting moderate Republicans to her camp (or at least convincing them to stay home on election day). Yes, she’s warning them not to trust any Trump pivot to the center. But like the hug of a gangster, her friendly message also contains a threat. To Dole, McCain, and Ryan she’s saying: You still have a chance to jump off the Trump train, but if you don’t, then you will be forever tarred with belonging to the Party of Trump. To Bush she’s saying: Don’t stay out of this; to save what’s left of your legacy, you have to embrace me. And what she says to these individual politicians she is also saying to the Republican Party as a whole: I’m giving you a chance to cut ties with Trump, but if you don’t, you will suffer the same condemnation in the eyes of history. That is the “reckoning” being threatened.
To put it another way, Clinton is trying to heighten the contradictions in the Republican Party by making it clear that there is a stark choice: Either you are with Trump (and everything he stands for) or with me. As it happens, framing the decision in this way puts McCain and Ryan in an impossible spot, since they can’t win without Trump’s base even though Trump is also an anchor pulling them down.
The praise she doled out to Republican politicians may seem magnanimous, but it was also designed to make their lives a hell, since it drives a wedge between Trump’s white nationalist base and suburban college-educated Republicans. It might look like Clinton is kissing the Republican leadership, but as she heads towards victory in the fall she’s also giving them the kiss of death.