On Thursday, Hillary Clinton delivered a rather devastating critique of Donald Trump and his ties to the ethno-nationalist movement that calls itself the alt-right. She stopped short of specifically labeling Trump a bigot or racist, but she nonetheless reminded voters of the many, many, many times the GOP nominee has said or done bigoted or racist things. Taken together, the picture Clinton painted was of a paranoid race-baiter who, in her words, is “taking hate groups mainstream” with his “steady stream of bigotry.”
Trump’s response? I know you are, but what am I?
The GOP nominee, who had pre-emptively called Clinton a “bigot who sees people of color only as votes” at a Mississippi rally the day before, repeated that charge on Thursday. “She is a bigot because you look at what’s happening to the inner cities, you look at what’s happening to African Americans and Hispanics in this country where she talks all of the time,” Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Pressed further on whether he thinks his rival is “personally” bigoted, Trump replied: “Well, she is, of course she is. Her policies—they’re her policies, she comes out with the policies and others that believe like she does also. … This is over the years, a long time. She’s totally bigoted, there’s no question about that.”
Then, on Friday, the GOP nominee unveiled this low-budget attack ad on Instagram via a tweet declaring [sic]: “The Clinton’s are the real predators…”:
The ad seeks to remind voters that Hillary used the term “super predators” while advocating for the 1994 crime bill her husband signed into law (Bernie Sanders also sought to attack Clinton this way during the primaries, a moment to which this ad calls back). The term, a reference to a since-debunked crime theory, played to racist white fears of monstrous black youth. Clinton has since said she regrets using the term, but the fact it was so readily deployed in support of criminal justice reform remains relevant to any contemporary conversation about race and policing. (As does the 1994 law itself, which as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie has explained, involved a “complicated story of fear, racism, good intentions, and cynical political maneuvering.”)
But the fact this is the first item Trump is pointing to in order to make his Hillary’s the real racist argument is telling. After all, the law-and-order rhetoric that was the centerpiece of his Republican National Convention address and is a key component of his campaign sounds an awful lot like an endorsement of the aggressive policing and incarceration policies that formed that 1994 law. And the valid point he’s implicitly, if unintentionally, making here—that racially charged language has no place in a conversation about crime—runs counter to his own Us vs. Them campaign rhetoric.
Another flaw in the ad is that Trump’s intended audience for this attack would appear to be the left, but it’s hard to imagine him making up any ground there given a liberal voter who is unhappy with the Clintons’ tough-on-crime approach two decades ago is likely to be even more troubled by Trump’s tough-on-crime promises today. Meanwhile, the people Clinton’s big alt-right speech was designed to appeal to—white moderate Republicans—seem incredibly unlikely to be moved by the idea that Clinton is a racist for using the term “super predators,” particularly when confronted with far less nuanced images and sound bites of the flock of bigots who have descended around the Trump campaign. And there’s also this: Clinton has admitted she was wrong for using the term super predator, something Trump has notably refused to do for any of the horrible things he’s said—and continues to say—about blacks, Hispanics, and Muslims.
Trump, then, is explicitly calling Clinton a bigot without offering much proof that she is. Clinton, meanwhile, is offering up a wealth of evidence but leaving it to the voters to draw the obvious conclusion about Trump for themselves.