On Wednesday, Hillary Clinton’s campaign released two new attack ads against Donald Trump. The first shows a string of prominent Republicans denouncing Trump, including Ted Cruz calling him a narcissistic bully and Marco Rubio labeling him a phony. In the second ad, Clinton simply plays a series of Trump’s most controversial soundbites, from lines about anchor babies to his classic “bomb the shit out of them.”
The new anti-Trump ads have been called “straight-up savage” and “devastating.” The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent said that the first “brutal” ad “shows the shredding machine that awaits Trump.” Slate called the ads a “one-two punch” that seem like a “good plan.”
But to the contrary, these ads are a horrible plan. They’re the worst possible plan. And the fact that the Clinton campaign can believe they’re useful demonstrates just how minimal their understanding of voter psychology is, and reveals them to be woefully unprepared to deal with Trump in a general election. If this is the sort of material that the Hillary campaign has up its sleeve, the Democrats should be very worried indeed.
The essential problem is that, but for a few small tweaks, the Trump campaign itself could have put out these ads. Trump loves to be called names by Mitt Romney, Ted Cruz, and Lindsey Graham. He’s proud of it. Stringing these clips together just showcases what Trump himself says: establishment Republican losers hate him. That ad makes him look like a rebel: stuffed shirts like Mitt Romney hate his guts. (I’m a socialist, but I literally found myself warming to Trump as I watched him driving these conservative blowhards apoplectic.)
The ad also erodes the coherence of Hillary’s own campaign. Not only does it not hurt Trump, but it actually damages Hillary, by muddying her own politics. If she’s a progressive Democrat, then why would she give any credence to what Ted Cruz thinks? Shouldn’t being loathed by Ted Cruz reflect incredibly positively on someone? If the Democrats believe that conservative Republicans have policies that are essentially just as heinous as Trump’s, why should Hillary believe denouncements of Trump by Republicans carry any weight? If we produced a set of clips of the numerous times that right-wing Republicans have said nasty things about Clinton, would she want us to listen to that? Of course not. Because nothing said by Lindsey Graham should be given a shred of attention or credence by anyone. (And indeed, it isn’t.)
One of the key flaws in these ads is that they assume the viewer already agrees with them. Anyone who supports Trump is going to already know that the rest of the party hates him; that’s part of his appeal. Likewise, they’re also going to know that Trump says extreme and uncouth things; that’s another part of his appeal. Every single person who believes Trump was “destroyed” by this ad hated Trump already. This ad is about as effective as John Oliver calling Trump “Drumpf.” It does absolutely nothing to persuade people who do not already dislike Trump. All it does is congratulate people who agreed from the start.
That means that Hillary Clinton is basing her anti-Trump strategy on a dangerous premise: that merely by telling people what they already know about Trump, they will be motivated to show up to vote for her. Clearly, she believes that she will forge a coalition between the Republicans who hate him for being a nihilistic showboating vulgarian, and the Democrats who hate him for being a vicious bigot and possible fascist.
At first, this may seem smart. But it’s actually just complacent. It shows a failure to absorb the lessons that were learned too late by the other Republican candidates. They, too, believed that all you needed to do to turn people off of Trump was to point at him and say “Look at him, he’s… well, he’s TRUMP!” As if that, in itself, was sufficient. But all Trump had to do was reply “I’m Trump. So what?” and they would be left stammering. “Well, well, just look at him!”
This tactic relies on the voter already sharing your fixed opinion of Trump. Meanwhile, you’ve given nobody any actual reason why they should vote for you instead. So Hillary Clinton offers not a single argument in her own favor, she merely campaigns by holding up a picture of Donald Trump’s face, hoping that will be enough. And perhaps it will be, at first. But meanwhile, Donald Trump is slowly out converting people. And every time he does so, holding up a picture of his face seems less and less effective, is met with more and more responses of “So?”, and ever more resembles an advertisement for Trump rather than an attack on him.
Political causes fail when they act as if they can win simply by existing, without the need to convince the unconvinced. This is something Republicans actually discovered for themselves when they went after Bill Clinton during his presidency. Conservatives would say “But he’s an adulterer!” assuming that all they needed to do was point this out, and Clinton’s support would collapse. But since they had nothing prepared to answer the follow-up question “And why should that matter to me?”, and he himself remained charming and kept his cool, the attacks ended up boosting Clinton further. This is also one of the reasons liberals often lose political arguments. They believe that to point out that something is offensive is sufficient to convince people that it is bad. But they end up unable to deal with the person who simply replies “Well, what’s wrong with a thing being offensive?”
If Hillary Clinton’s entire case is going to be “I’m not Trump,” she’s going to have a hard time knowing what to do when he comes back with “Well, I am Trump. And Trump is great.” She’ll have no agenda of her own; in fact, she can’t have one if she hopes to say that supporters of Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders alike should rally behind her. All she can do is pray very hard that Trump’s unfavorable ratings don’t begin to erode, taking her entire argument with them.
I’ve previously written about the unique disadvantages that Clinton faces in a race against Trump. She has a tendency to flounder when attacks begin, and her background provides perfect fodder for his brand of primetime sleaze-slinging. She is also not well-positioned to criticize Trump on a number of his most important weaknesses, like shady business dealings; for every dubious quid-pro-quo of his, he’ll bring up nine of hers. One can already see her heading for charges of hypocrisy: in the second of the new ads, Trump is depicted as crazy for refusing to take the nuclear option “off the table”, but Clinton herself is notorious for having refused to take “any option off the table” in regard to Iran. Half the things Clinton will say of Trump (evasive, narcissistic, opportunistic) are equally true of Clinton herself; the difference is that Trump owns these qualities and is proud of them. He’ll get points for honesty, despite being one of the most prolific liars in the country.
The one strategy that might work against Trump is an attempt to neutralize his attention-seeking through the promotion of a positive agenda. This is why I’ve argued before that Bernie Sanders may have been the more effective candidate against Trump; if you can focus single-mindedly on your principles, and avoid being dragged down to Trump’s level, you may stand a chance of forcing him to get serious (and therefore lose his schtick, which is the basis of his appeal). But if you get down in the gutter with him, as Marco Rubio found out, you’re toast. If you start bashing him, he will bash you back, and he will be funnier and more shameless than you are. Trump will always win a battle conducted on Trump turf. If Hillary Clinton is committed to pursuing the “You’re a racist and Republicans hate you” line, instead of working to appear stately and above the fray, she might be walking directly into Trump’s gaping trap.
Already, liberals are beginning to count their chickens and confidently predict a Clinton victory. One might expect more humility given how many pundits were just humiliated over their certain predictions that Trump would lose the primary. But this is especially dicey given how vulnerable and clueless the Clinton campaign is now hinting it will be. If these ads are any indication, Clinton, like so many poor souls before her, has no idea how to stop Trump.