At first I thought that Hillary Clinton would have no trouble dispensing with Donald Trump. Sure, she’s the second most unpopular presidential candidate (and likely nominee) in the history of polling—but he’s the first. She’s unpleasant, but he’s downright repellent. All she has to do is win Obama’s states and a swing state or two and it’s all over for Trump, and he’d go back to being a third-tier real estate guy.
Now I’m not so sure. The same pundits and pollsters who assured us he could never get the nomination are now telling us that there’s no way he could win in November. While past performance is no guarantee of future results, this record doesn’t inspire confidence.
And the Hillary campaign so far isn’t performing impressively. All they have been able to do since Trump became the almost-certain nominee is uncork insults against him and marshall quotes from alarmed conservatives who can’t support him (for now). Some of her supporters are denouncing his supporters as ignorant bigots. Many of them no doubt are, but far from all, and that’s not the way to win friends and influence people. Lots of people are turning to the huckster because their lives are a mess and the political system doesn’t do shit for them. Hawking hats like this will drive away more of the discontented than it’ll attract. It speaks to the complacent and comfortable, which seems to be a major Hillary target audience.
Adding further to my doubts is Trump’s wiliness as a psychological warrior. Having destroyed Jeb and Marco with cruel, accurate epithets, he’s now ready for Hillary. And, at least according to an article New York Times by Patrick Healy, his approach looks to be a lot more sophisticated than one might have expected.
In a telephone interview, he noted that women did not like seeing Mrs. Clinton insulted or bullied by men. He said he wanted to be more strategic, by calling into question Mrs. Clinton’s judgment in her reaction to Mr. Clinton’s affairs — people close to the couple have said she was involved in efforts to discredit the women — and in her response to crises like Benghazi.
“Just getting nasty with Hillary won’t work,” Mr. Trump said. “You really have to get people to look hard at her character, and to get women to ask themselves if Hillary is truly sincere and authentic. Because she has been really ugly in trying to destroy Bill’s mistresses, and she is pandering to women so obviously when she is only interested in getting power.”
He acknowledged that Republicans tried to discredit her judgment in the marathon Benghazi hearing in the fall, to little avail. But he said that he would be more pointed and memorable in linking her to the failings and deaths in Libya, and that the debate would have a vastly larger television audience than the hearing. Still, advisers of Mrs. Clinton pointed to her face-off with the Republican-led Benghazi committee as a sign of her unflappability.
This is dead-on, not least because every word of it is true. The contrast with the conventional GOP approach on Benghazi is striking. That was always a bogus scandal. But she was central to the regime change in Libya (“We came, we saw, he died”), from which little good has come. Pointing that up undermines one of her most heavily advertised attributes, her “experience.” Citing Hillary’s undeniable (and impressive) “unflappability” is the strategy for for fighting the last war. Hillary can be tough, but she’s also capable of blurting out embarrassing things under pressure, and it’s almost certain that Trump will get viciously under her skin.
When I first started doing my Hillary research, my Democratic friends (I still have a few) hated me for it. I countered by saying I was actually doing them a favor by pointing to the many vulnerabilities of their candidate. They would hear none of it. They still won’t. Tweet negatively about her and you’re more likely to get blocked than to be met with an intelligent argument.
Twitter isn’t real life, for sure, but the move is emblematic of their response to criticism—stop the ears and denounce you as a misogynist. The psychoanalyst in me attributes that response to a strenuously disavowed awareness of her vulnerability, and the lack of strong positive arguments for her candidacy. She’s going to have to come up with some simulations of those, or Donald Trump will do her some serious damage.