Soothed with the sound the king grew vain;
Fought all his battles o’er again;
And thrice he routed all his foes, and thrice he slew the slain.
— John Dryden, “Alexander’s Feast”
There must be a sign in the Oval Office that reads, “In case of emergency, point finger at Hillary Clinton.” Whenever President Donald Trump senses he’s in trouble, he and his surrogates scream about his 2016 presidential rival. The greater the trouble, the louder the screams. And so, as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the last election has heated up, the Clinton accusations have reached a deafening pitch. As Politico reported on Saturday, amid word that an indictment was imminent, “The lack of information, on a case that could have major ramifications for the president, left many current and former Trump advisers livid, focusing their rage on how the information leaked and on a forever target: Hillary Clinton.”
Sure enough, a day later Trump fired off these tweets:
On Monday morning, news broke that Trump’s former campaign chief, Paul Manafort, was indicted “on charges that he funneled millions of dollars through overseas shell companies and used the money to buy luxury cars, real estate, antiques and expensive suits,” according to The New York Times. Trump returned to Twitter:
Even for Trump, these are unusually febrile tweets. But they also explicitly lay out a strategy for weathering the current political storm. His best hope of surviving his presidency is to rally Republican “ANGER & UNITY” by misleading or outright lying to the GOP faithful about Clinton: that she paid for the Steele dossier of damaging information on Trump (the conservative Washington Free Beacon website, largely funded by an anti-Trump Republican donor, first hired the research firm that created the dossier); that she approved a uranium deal to Russia while acting as secretary of state (nine agencies signed off on the deal); and that FBI Director James Comey is on her side (which seems unlikely given that his ill-timed letter may have cost Clinton the election).
This enduring obsession with Clinton, despite the results of last year’s election, is well outside the norms of American democracy. Losing political candidates usually fade from the national spotlight and aren’t seen as worth attacking, even if they remain prominent political figures. Barack Obama didn’t fret about John McCain or Mitt Romney after he defeated them; ditto George W. Bush about Al Gore or John Kerry. But Clinton is a necessary enemy for Trump, the bogeywoman who binds together the Republican Party and its president at a time when they have failed to accomplish anything of significance, despite their unified control of government. That Clinton remains the tallest lightning rod of right-wing politics sends many on the left into fits, but the Democrats could use it to their advantage—if Clinton is willing to play along.
The president’s desire to use Clinton as a foil (or “forever target”) shapes his policy as well as his rhetoric. Trump is putting pressure on the State Department to release Clinton’s emails from her tenure as secretary of state and to respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on Clinton. So committed is Trump to this fishing expedition that more resources are being poured into these activities even as the State Department as a whole faces massive cuts. In effect, the State Department is being reshaped to carry out Trump’s political vendetta against Clinton.
With these moves, Trump is returning to the political strategy that won him the White House. Attacking Clinton has been an effective, or at least low-risk, strategy because no matter how unpopular Trump is, Clinton is even more so. This is especially true among the Republican true-believers, who have been taught to loathe Clinton since the 1990s, and in the right-wing press. “It’s time, folks,” Fox News personality Judge Jeanine Pirro told viewers on Sunday. “It’s time to shut it down, turn the tables, and lock her up. That’s what I said. I actually said it. Lock her up.” Last Thursday, former White House official Sebastian Gorka went further, hinting that Clinton deserved execution. “If this had happened in the 1950s, there would be people up on treason charges right now,” Gorka said on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show. “The Rosenbergs, okay, this is equivalent to what the Rosenbergs did, and those people got the chair. Think about it—giving away nuclear capability to our enemies, that’s what we’re talking about.”
Many Democrats now ignore such unhinged rhetoric, since Clinton is no longer a presidential nominee who must be defended at all costs. And their hope is that, like earlier defeated candidates, Clinton gracefully exit the political stage. As an unnamed Democratic fundraiser told The Hill, “The best thing she could do is disappear.... Honestly, I wish she’d just shut the fuck up and go away.” But Trump’s insistence on attacking Clinton makes it impossible for her to “go away,” and indeed this is the best argument for Clinton to remain a central figure in American politics: She gets inside Trump’s head and under his skin. Without even saying a word, she provokes Trump to show the worst of his personality: his sexism, lies, bullying, vindictiveness, and stubbornness. The spectacle of an American president inventing dirt on his defeated rival is as damning an indictment of Trump as one would like.
Trump can’t assume the mantle of the presidency because he’s stuck in the mentality of a campaigner. And the more he badmouths Clinton, the deeper he sinks into the quagmire of the 2016 election, reminding Americans that last year is an unhealed wound. A vast swath of America has long refused to accept Trump as a legitimate president because of the unsettled issue of Russian interference, and his continued lambasting of Clinton reeks of protesting too much. By trying to use Clinton as a rallying cry for his right-wing base, Trump is raising doubts among his most reluctant voters about his right to office he holds.
Continually slaying the slain is a bad strategy. Clinton is not running for president again. In a normal political environment, Republicans’ ire would be directed at potential 2020 front-runners like senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. As a lightning rod for right-wing hysteria, Clinton can draw attacks that otherwise would be directed at fellow Democrats. Doing this doesn’t necessarily require any work on Clinton’s part; Trump’s tweets these past few days weren’t prompted by anything she has said or done recently. But since this is the role in which Trump has cast her, she should embrace it wholeheartedly—to make him pay for painting her as the enemy.
With the Mueller investigation now besieging Trump, there’s no better time for Clinton to deploy her special gift of enraging Trump. More than any other politician, she can speak to the legitimacy crisis in his government, and the success of her bestselling memoir What Happened proves that there is a vast audience eager to listen. The story emerging from the Mueller investigation is that Russia hacked the Clinton campaign’s emails and used those them as chips in a quid pro quo with the Trump campaign. The 2016 election is as tainted as Trump alleges in his tweets, but the actual victim was his opponent. Who better than her to speak for those who want justice? There’s even a perfect Twitter hashtag for her campaign: #LockHimUp.