By David K. Shipler
If Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator, as his admirers enjoyed saying, then Donald Trump is the Great Manipulator, with an uncanny eye for the voters’ nerves of fear and yearning. If criticisms slid off Reagan as if he were coated with Teflon, every one sticks to Hillary Clinton as if she were covered in Velcro. If Trump gets better at what he does, and if Clinton doesn’t unglue the labels of dishonesty and opportunism, the election could be close.
Trump is dangerously clever at reading the electorate, at least the part of it whose anti-government anger and economic despair have been energized by Republican radicals who now wail as Trump rides the wave that they produced. Talk-show personality Glenn Beck, who incites furious extremism, compared Trump to Hitler in 1929 and warned Americans against voting in anger. “When you’re really angry, you don’t make good decisions,” Beck told a rally for Ted Cruz. “Don’t drive drunk, don’t vote angry.” That’s sage advice from a model of calm reason.
But if Trump grabs the nomination, it would not be amazing to see him temper his insults, smooth his sharp edges somewhat, and stress the virtue of “flexibility,” a word he used a few times in the last debate. His bare-knuckled bullying appeals to some but repels others, even those who want a tough-guy act in the White House. If he managed to time his evolution deftly, he might just appeal to the wishful thinking of Republicans who want to beat Clinton at all costs. And costs there would be.
So here’s a prediction: Trump the Republican nominee would alter his demeanor just enough to gain support from mainstream Republicans—“mainstream” now being very far to the right—without eroding his base of coarse, whites-only, terrified Americans. Many of those folks, having lost their professions to the sucking away of jobs and their homes and other assets to the Great Recession, envision no means of recovery, no matter what the economic data say. Obama did too little politically to woo them, listen to them, and convince them that he was acting on their behalf.
Although Trump disdains a campaign’s usual tools, including its own polling and focus groups, he is not dense. He displays a visceral connection with the disaffected and discounted, despite his enormous wealth. However long or short his fingers are, he will be able to put one of them to the wind to sense that if he adjusts enough to look like a winner, most Republicans will want him to win. Perhaps it would be different if they didn’t detest Hillary Clinton as much, or if she were not distrusted by many in the broader electorate. But professional Republican operatives understand her vulnerabilities.
Clinton would make a much better president than her detractors believe. On day one, unlike any of the other candidates, she would hit the ground running in foreign policy—although she might be less restrained than Obama in projecting military force into messy conflicts. She would press for a more just society economically and racially—although her ties with high-rolling financiers would prevent her from adopting the corporate-bashing revolution of Bernie Sanders. She would embrace the task of curbing the planet’s disastrous warming. She would probably play politics more skillfully than Obama has—although she would be mostly foiled by a Republican-controlled House as obstructionist as the current Congress.
But she is afflicted by an ethical blind spot, a certain greed, and a tin ear for what ordinary people need to hear from her. There is an odd carelessness about her conduct that is puzzling from someone so seasoned in the political world. These flaws weave the Velcro that make most allegations and suspicions stick to her, even if some are patently absurd. One absurdity is the unfounded charge that her negligence allowed US officials to be killed by terrorists in Benghazi, Libya.
Her actual missteps weaken her, however. Her private email server, used thoughtlessly for convenience, now haunts her campaign, thanks to both the Republicans and the FBI, which is investigating the sin—perhaps the crime—of harboring classified information in an insecure account. Her exorbitant $674,000 fees for three speeches to Goldman Sachs, which she said she accepted because “that’s what they offered,” have more impact on voters than Trump’s wheeling and dealing for billions. Few seem to mind that he won’t release his tax returns; many seem to mind that she won’t release the transcripts of her Goldman Sachs speeches.
The Clinton Foundation, which does a great deal of good, nonetheless cozies up to autocrats when lucrative. It’s hard to imagine Republicans failing to cite the most disturbing example, exposed last April by The New York Times, which documented Bill Clinton’s role in facilitating a major uranium deal between a Canadian financier, Frank Giustra, and a mining company in Kazakhstan, one that ultimately led to Russia’s takeover of one-fifth of the uranium production in the United States.
The cascade of events began when the former president visited Kazakhstan with Giustra in 2005 (before Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State), and the two dined with the dictatorial president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, a leftover from the Soviet era. Days later, Giustra’s small company “signed a preliminary deal giving it stakes in three uranium mines controlled by the state-run uranium agency Kazatomprom,” the Times reported.
The following year, Giustra donated $31.3 million to the Clinton Foundation. The year after that, 2007, Giustra merged his firm with Uranium One, a South African uranium company. After Clinton became Secretary of State in 2009, Uranium One received an investment by Rosatom, the Russian atomic energy agency. Investors in Uranium One and Giustra’s former company gave additional millions to the Clinton Foundation.
In 2010, four months after Bill Clinton was paid $500,000 by a Kremlin-connected Russian investment bank for a speech in Moscow, the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment—on which the State Department has a seat—approved Rosatom’s majority ownership of Uranium One. In 2013, Rosatom took full control of Uranium One, which owns mines in the U.S. and around the world, bringing Russia close to “controlling much of the global uranium supply chain,” the Times concluded.
If you’ve never heard about this, you will. Trump must be salivating with eagerness to get into the ring with Hillary Clinton.
The Clintons’ ethical shortcuts have taken Hillary into unwelcome territory where the shadows of suspicion and distrust are long. Even staying in her marriage after her public humiliation over Bill’s sexcapades in the Oval Office is seen by some voters not as strong and centered, but opportunistic. Maybe so, but she’s no weakling.
If it’s Trump vs. Clinton in November, then, it’s dangerous vs. flawed—an obvious choice.