While Hillary Clinton has been slowly pivoting to the general election for several weeks, her speech on foreign policy on June 2 could be seen as the official rollout of her post-primary campaign, as the presumptive Democratic nominee, against Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee. Based on this speech, it seems that her message will be that Trump does not have the temperament or experience to be president and her strategy is to dismiss him as a serious candidate by utilizing a rather Trumploid (or, should it be Trumpesque or Trumpian?) strategy—ridicule.
Hillary had taken much of the preceding week to write and rehearse the speech, so many were expecting a her to map her own foreign policy. Instead, she delivered a series of slights and insults that were, while more substantive and measured than those of her presumptive oppenent, still basically Trumpian (maybe the adjectival form of Trump needs to have different forms for different occasions).
In De Inventione, Cicero says that we should fight fire with fire—that is, fight emotional appeals with emotion, and logical appeals with logic. So, perhaps, it makes sense to counter Trump’s ridicule with ridicule. However, in Cicero’s time, the rhetorical situation of political speeches was less complex. In our times, in a culture saturated by mass media and social media, most political debates involve people and media rather than two individuals and a medium. Cicero debated against another senator by projecting his voice across the senate chamber. Little of the encounter would echo beyond the stonewalls of the Roman senate, except for maybe a summary by the town crier in the forum.
Ridicule and insults should certainly be part of the Hillary campaign against Trump, but I would argue this should be the role of surrogates. Hillary should not become like Trump to counter Trump. She should consistently remain unlike Trump. She should be about finesse and dignity and substance without becoming Trumpesque.
(One brief aside here: have you noticed that, in this election, democrats are called by their first names and Republicans by their last names? We have Hillary and Bernie, but Trump, Cruz, Rubio, etc. This event though Trump was once known as The Donald.)
Hillary should, in short, avoid playing to Trump’s strength (his ability to define his opponents with insults, usually crystalized in a single adjective); instead, she should engage Trump’s weaknesses. I will list three strategies (there are more), which should drive Hillary’s campaign.
First, we know that Trump will not change his personality or strategy, but he will also be fairly consistent about values and not at all consistent about policies. He has been advised to act more presidential, and he has been advised to pivot to the general election. While Trump has made a few gestures toward a pivot (we have seen a teleprompter here or there), he continues to act in the same way that won him the nomination. For the most part, he will continue to speak without a script, delivering a series of comedic one-liners, insulting the opposition or anyone who criticizes him, and delivering policy in a single short simple sentence (“I will build a wall”). As evidence of his inability to change, ven though he has won the Republican nomination, even though he has won the Republican nomination.
Second, he will not have many significant surrogates. Paul Ryan finally endorsed Trump, sort of. He made the announcement that he would vote for Trump in his hometown newspaper and on social media, during Hillary’s foreign policy speech. Ben Carson has endorsed Trump, but he doesn’t seem to be capable of explaining his decision. Chris Christie endorsed Trump, but he looks uncomfortable (embarrassed?) when he stands beside Trump. Except in rare occasions, Trump will have to speak for himself.
Third, Trump’s campaign has focused on values that are essentially un-American, or, at least, at odds with America at its best. Certainly, America has its contradictions. It has embraced the ideal of immigration as it mistreated wave after wave of immigrants. Trump says he wants to make America great again, but it seems that this simply means we are going to be winners. To be a winner seems to be mean we will not be pushed around. We will be the bully who pushes others around.
How can Hillary engage Trump’s weaknesses?
While Trump will have few, if any, surrogates, Hillary will have many. While the strategy of using surrogates to attack the opponent as the candidate remains above the fray, that is, presidential, is not new, Hillary needs to use surrogates in a slightly different way. She needs to use surrogates who represent different constituent groups to attack Trump, not so much to deliver a message, but rather to provoke a Trumploid response. Elizabeth Warren has already being doing this. She has been attacking Trump on Twitter, his favorite medium, and Trump has predictably responded by calling her Pocahontas. If Hispanic surrogates attack Trump, he will respond by insulting Hispanics. If women surrogates attack Trump, he will respond by insulting women. If Black surrogates attack Trump, he will respond by insulting Blacks. Why? Because Trump cannot change. If Hillary uses her surrogates wisely, she will be able to reinforce her support with key demographics and attract some independents.
Because Trump speaks in the moment and doesn’t seem to remember what he said five minutes ago, because he is only consistent about insults (from these insults, we learn his values), Hillary superpacs should develop a series of ads that use Trump’s own words against him. Some of the ads should show how Trump consistently demeans demographic groups like women or Hispanics. Other ads should show how inconsistent Trump is on important policy issues like abortion, even his party affiliation. The quotes included in these ads need to strip Trump’s words from its context. When Trump speaks to his people, he is entertaining. In fact, his stump speeches are basically standup routines. The audience laughs but does not analyze. Stripped of context, Trump’s comments will seem vapid. Strung together, they can either show the consistency of his values or the vapidity of his ideas.
To remain as unlike Trump as possible, Hillary herself should focus on logical appeals (substantive policy discussion that require more than a single sentence to explain) and values that represent American at its best (America as the land of opportunity, America as a promoter of democracy, America as inclusive, etc.). If Hillary is consistent, if she speaks the best of American values, she will never need to mention Trump’s name. The contrast will be apparent.