Hillary will never survive the Trump onslaught: It's not fair, but it makes her a weak nominee

Clinton backers who tout their "realism" need to get real about how she'll handle the shitstorm coming from Trump

Published March 14, 2016 9:35PM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump   (Reuters/Stephen Lam/Jonathan Drake/Photo montage by Salon)
Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump (Reuters/Stephen Lam/Jonathan Drake/Photo montage by Salon)

There are many nauseating aspects of the new reality TV series, "America Picks a Prez," which airs around the clock on every single channel on earth: the cynical, open-air conspiracy between our Fourth Estate and Donald “Ratings Viagra” Trump. Ted Cruz uttering the word "prayerfully" while not exploding into a cloud of synthetic piety. Caucasian patriots heroically exercising their right to punch people of color.

Among these, let me nominate one more: listening to Hillary partisans explain to those of us who support Bernie Sanders just how naive we are. Only Hillary, we are told, has a real shot at winning in November. She’s the only one with a realistic grasp of how Washington works, whose moderate (and modest) policy aims might, realistically, be enacted. It often sounds as if Clinton’s central pitch to voters isn’t that she has a moral vision for the country, but that she owns the franchise on realism.

Bernie, meanwhile, is just a sweet-shouting rube whose quarter-century as a congressman and senator has somehow failed to instill in him an appreciation for the twin plagues of grift and gridlock.

For us benighted hippies, the standard counter-argument at this point is that our man understands all too well the magnitude of Washington’s dysfunction, which is why he’s calling for a political revolution: to obliterate the most heinous aspects of the status quo, starting with corporate-sponsored elections.

I happen to agree with this. But there’s a sadder and more pointed response to Hillary’s reality brigade. Namely, that they need to face the reality of what the 2016 election is going to be like with Hillary at the top of the ticket.

Before I outline that particular shitstorm, let me issue a few sure-to-be-ignored (and therefore pointless) caveats. First, I myself was a Hillary supporter until Sanders entered the race. (More precisely, until I read his policy positions.)

Second, I will enthusiastically support Hillary when and if she is nominated. Years ago, I interviewed the secretary and I say now what I said then: She is a brilliant and compassionate public servant. If presidential elections in this country were based on policy positions and moral intention, on how each candidate hopes to solve common crises of state, Clinton would win going away.

Alas, the reality is that Hillary is among the most hated politicians in America. There is, to begin with, her dismal favorability rating, which stands at 53 percent, with a net negative of 12 percent. (Sanders has a net positive of 12 percent.)

But even more important is the intensity of the animus against her, and the sad mountain of baggage she carries with her as a candidate.

No matter who the GOP nominee is, the battle plan against Hillary will be the same: a tawdry and unrelenting relitigation of all the phony scandals cooked up by the “vast, right-wing conspiracy” that she identified nearly two decades ago.

Cue up the Pearl Jam, folks, because we’re going all the way back to the '90s: Whitewater, Travelgate, Troopergate, Lewinskygate, with a little Vince Foster Murdergate, for a dash of blood. But wait—those are just the golden oldies! You’ll also be hearing about the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Pardons. Of course, what respectable slander campaign would be complete without the new material? Benghazi, the private email server, the Wall Street speeches?

The dark corporate money and talented propagandists aligned against Hillary will make the Swift Boat Veterans look like toy soldiers.

And because our Fourth Estate is driven at this point almost entirely by the desperate promotion of scandal narratives and conflict, every one of these paid attacks will be amplified by so-called free media, or what us starry-eyed hippies used to call journalism.

I’m not blaming Hillary for this sad state of affairs. I’m just trying to be—what’s the word I’m looking for? Ah yes, here it is—realistic about how it’s going to go down.

Republicans tend to lose when they have to talk in specific terms about policies, priorities and solutions. They win when elections are reduced to brawls and/or personality contests. (See Reagan/Carter, Bush/Kerry, et al.)

But if Donald Trump is the nominee, as seems most likely right now, he will also enjoy two genuine lines of attack against Hillary.

The first is the same one Bernie just used to upset her in Michigan: the fact that free trade pacts are wildly unpopular with many Americans. Trump has been full-throated (and, as usual, somewhat full of shit) in his condemnation of free trade, and it has been one of his most successful pitches. You can bet your bottom yen that he’ll hammer Hillary on this, as if she personally whipped votes for NAFTA. He’ll excoriate various forms of crony capitalism (deals cut with big pharma, bogus military contracts, etc.) that Democrats such as Hillary either endorsed or enabled through timidity. And he’ll blast her for backing our trillion-dollar boondoggle in Iraq, too.

These accusations will be framed in terms of a larger narrative: that Hillary represents business as usual in Washington, that she’s just another career pol beholden to the donor class and to the Wall Street swells who paid her millions to deliver her secret speeches.

Trump may be a sexually insecure adolescent with a penchant for inciting racial violence, but the one undeniable aspect of his appeal is that he recognizes the toxic nature of the status quo and will, by sheer force of personality, bring it down.

This promise is about as flimsy as a Trump University diploma. But it’s resonating with voters who feel Washington’s carnival of corruption is beyond redemption.

All of which brings us back to that credulous waif from Brooklyn, by way of Ben and Jerry’s. Donald Trump can holler all he wants about how Crazy Bernie is a socialist. But he (and the super Pacs) won’t be able to distract voters by digging up scandals in his past. Nor will Trump be able to portray him as a corporate stooge.

In fact, the shocking success of the Sanders campaign is predicated on many of the same essential frustrations Trump is exploiting: corporate influence, wage stagnation, trade. This is why polls consistently show Sanders beating Trump more convincingly than Clinton does.

The right wing knows how to go after Hillary, because they’ve been doing so for 30 years. Within the media and a significant portion of the electorate, the neural pathways have already been carved out. Hillary is defensive, programmed, ethically suspect.

They are going to have a more difficult time smearing a candidate whose biggest liabilities are his “extreme” policy positions, most of which sound more like a common sense corrective to the excesses of capitalism. Higher taxes on corporations and the super-wealthy? Healthcare as a right? A higher minimum wage? Increased funding for education and infrastructure? Good luck demonizing those positions, Big Donald.

None of this is to suggest that Hillary won’t beat Trump, if they wind up as the nominees. Nor that she won’t be a great president. But if Hillary supporters want to claim the mantle of realism, they should start by accepting very real liabilities of their candidate.

By Steve Almond

Steve Almond's new book is "Against Football." Follow him on Twitter @stevealmondjoy.

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