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America's Last Hope

Can Clinton's Reason Defeat Trump's Rage?

The bloody attack in Orlando has fueled Donald Trump's campaign of fear and exclusion. Hillary Clinton is the only one left who can stop him, but she is deeply unpopular and many Americans don't trust her. Is she electable?

Thursday, 6/23/2016   01:08 PM

Times of crisis are moments of truth. Moments when leadership qualities can become apparent. Days in which the condition of a country is revealed. And sometimes, it is the true character of a single person that comes to light.

The blood of the victims in Orlando hadn't even dried yet, their lifeless bodies still lay in the Pulse nightclub, unidentified and horrifically mangled by the bullets fired by the attacker, the blue police car lights still bathed South Orange Avenue in an eerie light -- when Donald Trump sent out a tweet. He wrote:

Two days later, on Tuesday evening, Trump was standing on the stage of a sports arena in North Carolina telling his audience where the responsibility for the Orlando bloodbath lies. "Political correctness is deadly," he fulminated. "We have to control the amount of future immigration into this country." Trump was reading from notes, apparently to temper his words. But even his controlled sentences were poisoned, meant to appeal to the baser instincts and fears of the 9,000 people in the arena. There has been "no assimilation" on the part of immigrants, Trump called out.

The audience erupted in ecstasy and began chanting "USA, USA, USA!" The crowd was loud, aggressive and uncompromising -- just like their idol on stage. Trump turned 70 years old on that Tuesday, but there has been no indication that he has become mellower or wiser with age.

Can you really seek to cynically gain political profit from the deaths of 49 mostly gay and lesbian human beings, murdered by the New York-born son of Afghan immigrants? Can you really utter a self-congratulatory "I told you so" in light of the worst mass shooting in American history

Trump can. The question is becoming increasingly pressing as to whether America, a proud, great and powerful country, will fall into the hands of an egomaniac who wants to prevent Muslims from entering the land and to deport millions of illegal immigrants, a man who seeks to limit freedom of opinion and who has threatened to terminate old friendships across the globe. A whiff of 1950s McCarthyism is in the air, emitted by a candidate who is stoking hatred against Muslims and immigrants to a degree never before seen in a presidential campaign. If we "imply that we are at war with an entire religion, then we are doing the terrorists' work for them," US President Barack Obama said following Trump's speech.

The results of this presidential election will have ramifications around the world. It's not just about the construction of walls and societal peace in a divided country, it is also about possible trade wars with Asia, the survival of the trans-Atlantic alliance and America's relationship with the Arab world. In November, the future of the international community is on the ballot.

In the face of the ferociousness of Trump's campaign, his challenger Hillary Clinton seems helpless and debilitated. Thus far, no Trump opponent, including Clinton, has found a way to effectively combat the at times feverish declamations of this political maverick. Just as was the case during the Republican primaries, it again became apparent in the wake of Orlando that Trump's opponents do not have recourse to the same political weapons as Trump does. How can you compete with someone who apparently knows no taboos or inhibitions?

The Voice of Furious Whites

As such, the outcome of this race is completely open. The two presumptive nominees couldn't be any more different from each other. The voice of societal rage against a power-political strategist, an outsider against the establishment, the voice of furious whites against the advocate of a diverse America.

In recent weeks, Trump managed to overtake Clinton in some public opinion polls while the Democratic candidate has the lead in others, most notably in a recent survey released post-Orlando. Trump is shamelessly seeking to take advantage of the uncertainty that has taken hold of American society and is instrumentalizing fears of a new terrorist attack for his campaign. Contrary to expectations, he has not become more presidential or more conciliatory since becoming the presumptive Republican nominee. On the contrary, since Orlando the once hard-and-fast rule -- that the American nation comes together in times of crisis -- seems no longer to apply.

If Orlando was a test of the leadership qualities of a future president, then Trump didn't pass. He broke with the principle of solidarity and brought many of his followers along with him. After Orlando, the US seems to be a country that doesn't even agree anymore on the most American of all values: nationwide support and compassion in moments of tragedy and mourning. In this campaign, society has split into two irreconcilable camps.

Trump is a candidate of rage, supported by the sense many have that something fundamental must change in the United States.

The woman tasked with saving America from Trump is the candidate of reason, supported by the liberal bourgeoisie who want a continuation of Obama's policies of enlightened pragmatism. It isn't yet clear if there is more reason or more rage in today's America.

Clinton is America's last hope. But the longer the campaign lasts, the more questionable it has become whether she can fulfil this hope. Even worse: It is unclear if she is the right candidate for a country in upheaval.

It seems as though Hillary Clinton has always been there. She was first lady, she was a US senator, she was a presidential candidate and she was secretary of state. In 2008, many thought she had a clear path to the presidency -- until she was beat out in the primaries by a virtual unknown by the name of Barack Obama.

She began this campaign too as the presumptive favorite, but stumbled early on over the email affair and faced an unexpected challenge in the form of a 74-year-old senator by the name of Bernie Sanders. His call for a leftist revolution proved surprisingly appealing among many young Democratic voters, including a remarkable number of women who, it had been thought, would gravitate toward the Clinton campaign.

Unequal Means

And now Trump has the initiative, and hasn't proven shy about deriding her and portraying her as a weakling. It is almost impossible for Clinton to reply in kind. She wants to avoid dividing the electorate and is loath to play one group of voters off against another. Reasonable responses are the only possible rejoinder to Trump's baiting of Muslims and other minorities, but her message of conciliation seems fainthearted and impotent against Trump's blustering. It is a battle being fought with unequal means, but what else can she do?

When Hillary Clinton spoke at the Cleveland Industrial Innovation Center on the Monday after the attack in Orlando, she warned in muted tones that it was a day on which all Americans must stand together. She called for limits on the sale of firearms and condemned the wave of violence against mosques that took place after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. And for the first time, she uttered the words "radical Islamism," which Trump had demanded but which she had thus far avoided so as not to discredit all of Islam. Clinton declined to go after Trump. "Today is not a day for politics," she said.

But for Trump, it was. He tweeted:

When Trump told his supporters in North Carolina of his mini-triumph, the audience erupted in cheers. Trump essentially forced Clinton to use the term and Islamism is one of his primary campaign issues. As he did during the primaries, he showed after Orlando that he has the instincts to set the political agenda.

Trump's nickname for Clinton, "Crooked Hillary," is one he uses in speeches, tweets and interviews and it is just as mean-spirited as the "Low-Energy Jeb" moniker he used for Jeb Bush in the primaries, or "Lyin' Ted" for Ted Cruz. But it is a nickname Trump uses to touch on one of his opponent's weaknesses and it helps sow mistrust of the kind Clinton is confronted with everywhere in this campaign, no matter where she appears. Places like Charlie Roesch's deli on a sunny spring day in Buffalo, New York.

The door flies open and Clinton strides into the room. She spreads her arms wide and exclaims: "Charlie!" The butcher and the candidate have known each other for years and he sets down the knife he had just been using to slice roast beef. "My senator from New York!" he says and they kiss each other on the cheek.

Clinton has just spoken in front of 1,200 people in Buffalo and now she's in the mood for a roast beef sandwich. But she is interrupted by a reporter: What is her response to surveys that indicate only 40 percent of Americans trust her, the reporter wants to know. Clinton freezes for a moment and, clutching her bagged lunch in her hand, she searches for an answer. "When I was secretary of state, my approval rating was the highest of any public official," she finally says, as though the survey results could simply be ignored. People have always approved of the job she's doing when she's actually in office, she adds.

Mistrust of the Political Class

It is tempting to recall the way Bill Clinton simply smiled away such questions. In moments like these, it is clear that Hillary Clinton lacks the lightness of her husband, the litheness, the instinct for human nature -- all of those characteristics that have made Donald Trump so strong and dangerous.

Clinton is fighting against something much larger than Trump in this campaign. She is struggling against the widespread mistrust of the country's entire political class -- a mistrust that has gripped the country like a fever. The majority of Americans have lost faith that politics can improve their lives.

Representative democracy was born in Philadelphia and Washington and America -- this "shining city upon a hill," as Ronald Reagan described his country in 1989 -- became a paragon across the world. Today, though, it has lost much of its luster.

American society's current identity crisis has a lot to do with the vast gap between the superrich on the one hand and the middle- and working-classes on the other. The 400 richest Americans own as much wealth as the bottom two-thirds of society taken together and the annual, inflation-adjusted income of an average family has dropped by $5,000 since 1999 to $52,000. The great promise of America -- that it is possible to climb the social ladder if you work hard enough -- sounds to many these days like so many empty words.

Washington, DC doesn't just stand for the hated establishment, but also for the connection between money and politics -- a link few could epitomize better than the Clintons. Indeed, the calculating presidential couple Frank and Claire Underwood from the television series "House of Cards" almost seems like a parody of Bill and Hillary.

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