Hillary Clinton used to have a reputation for being more ruthless than her husband. Bill Clinton was often described as fundamentally conflict-averse, more eager to persuade his opponents than attack them. Hillary, by contrast, was known for identifying villains and going after them. In his book, A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Carl Bernstein quotes former Clinton adviser Dick Morris saying that Hillary had “a quality of aggressiveness and strength about her that he doesn’t have. A killer instinct. Her genre of advocacy is always straight ahead—fight, battle, take the fight to the other side.” (Morris was speaking before he turned on the Clintons.)
This Manichean quality was at work in some of the incidents from Hillary’s history that most disgust progressives. As first lady of Arkansas, she succeeded in pushing school reform by demonizing teachers. Bernstein quotes Bill Clinton’s former campaign chair: “She made it very clear that there had to be a bad guy in this.” At the same time, her strong sense of who her enemies are is the reason she was able to clearly apprehend the “vast right-wing conspiracy”—her coinage—that bedeviled her husband’s administration.
We hadn’t seen this Hillary in a while. She stayed under wraps during the Democratic primary, never seriously going after Bernie Sanders. But the killer in Hillary came out on Thursday, delivering a devastating indictment of Donald Trump’s associations with the far-right fringe, one meant to permanently delegitimize him among decent people. “A man with a long history of racial discrimination, who traffics in dark conspiracy theories drawn from the pages of supermarket tabloids and the far reaches of the internet, should never run our government or command our military,” she said, daring Republican officials to disagree.
With Trump already trailing badly in most polls, Clinton could have tried to yoke him to the Republican Party so he would drag it down with him. Instead, she sought to isolate and personally destroy him. First came her campaign’s Twitter video earlier today about Trump’s white-supremacist admirers. Usually, a politician trying to link her opponent to the KKK would come dangerously close to the Godwin’s Law line, but Clinton appears to have calculated that few Republicans would rally to their nominee’s defense. Her speech, in Reno, further painted Trump as a creature from the fever swamps, one who has nothing to do with legitimate conservatism. It was able to briskly explain some of the crazier figures and theories Trump has associated with, without getting bogged down in obscure detail. Her list of Breitbart headlines, including “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” and “Gabby Giffords: The Gun Control Movement’s Human Shield,” tells you much of what you need to know about Trump’s new campaign CEO, Steve Bannon, the former head of the site.
Clinton invoked Paul Ryan twice, but both times it was in order to distance him from Trump. She made it seem as if Republicans have a history of anti-racism: “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,” Clinton said. “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.’ … We need that kind of leadership again.”
This story is, at best, incomplete. It leaves out Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy and Ronald Reagan’s dog-whistle rhetoric about “strapping young bucks” buying T-bone steaks with food stamps. In some ways Trump is a freakish deviation from normal conservatism, but in others he represents the movement’s blustery culmination. It makes sense, however, for Clinton to paint Trump as a bizarre aberration, since it puts more pressure on Republicans to reject him.
After all, everything she said in her speech was true. It’s simply that no one has put it all together before quite so skillfully. Trump’s outrages come so relentlessly that they’re hard to keep track of, and eventually, one becomes numb to them. To follow Trump closely is to live in a miasma of cynical incredulity. Clinton’s speechwriters found a way to cut through it with just the right examples. They reminded us how bonkers it is that Trump praised arch-conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who, as Clinton said, claimed that “the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre were child actors and no one was actually killed there.” The speech brought us back to June, when Trump claimed the federal judge presiding over the Trump University lawsuit couldn’t properly do his job because his parents came from Mexico. It recalled Trump’s birtherism and his weird attempt to tie Ted Cruz’s father to the assassination of JFK, and reminded us that none of this is normal for a presidential candidate, no matter how debased the Republican Party has become.
It’s hard to say how Republican officials will respond. Most of them hate the alt-right, which denigrates them as pathetic cuckservatives. But Clinton succeeded in tying Trump to the alt-right in a way that will make it hard to disavow one without the other. Trump, meanwhile, will be tempted to lash out, lest it look as if he’d been intimidated by a woman he derides as weak and frail. His response, so far, was to tweet: “Just watched recap of #CrookedHillary’s speech. Very short and lies. She is the only one fear-mongering!” In fact, the speech could have been twice as long; there’s enough material. But it was long enough to define Trump and his most fervent followers as people beyond the pale of American politics.