Donald Trump’s Wednesday morning speech about Hillary Clinton’s record is probably the most unnervingly effective one he has ever given. In a momentary display of discipline, he read from a teleprompter with virtually no ad-libbing, avoiding digs at Bill Clinton’s infidelity or conspiracy theories about Vince Foster’s suicide. Standing in a low-ceilinged conference room bedecked with square chandeliers in the Trump SoHo, a lawsuit-plagued hotel and condo development, Trump spoke for 40 minutes without saying anything overtly sexist. Instead, he aimed straight at Clinton’s most-serious weaknesses, describing her as a venal tool of the establishment. “Hillary Clinton gave China millions of our best jobs and effectively let China completely rebuild itself,” he said. “In return, Hillary Clinton got rich!” He added, “She gets rich making you poor,” and called her possibly “the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency.”
The point is not that this is true; as political analyst David Gergen said on CNN, the speech was slanderous. But the lies in the speech, many taken from Peter Schweizer’s book Clinton Cash, were not obviously self-refuting. At one point, Trump said, citing Schweizer, “Hillary Clinton’s State Department approved the transfer of 20 percent of America’s uranium holdings to Russia, while nine investors in the deal funneled $145 million to the Clinton Foundation.” This has been debunked many times over, including by FactCheck.org.
To explain why it’s not true, though, you have to go into details about Clinton’s role on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which approved the sale of a Canadian-based energy company with American mining stakes to Russia’s nuclear energy agency. It’s a very different sort of lie than the one Trump told at a meeting of evangelicals on Tuesday when he said there’s “nothing out there” about Hillary Clinton’s religion—in fact, her Methodism is extremely well-known even to her political enemies.
Like all skillful demagoguery, Trump’s speech on Wednesday interwove truth and falsehood into a plausible-seeming picture meant to reinforce listeners’ underlying beliefs. In May, Morning Consult polled people with an unfavorable view of Hillary Clinton about why they didn’t like her. Fifty-eight percent said she was too liberal, while 22 percent said she was too conservative. But 82 percent of Hillary-averse voters said she was corrupt, and 88 percent said she was untrustworthy. These are the beliefs that unite her foes across the political spectrum. It’s why Trump, with his devious talent for derisive nicknames, was smart to dub her “Crooked Hillary.”
Some of the examples Trump chose to reinforce this caricature are true. Describing Clinton as “a world-class liar,” he said, “Just look at her pathetic email and server statements, or her phony landing in Bosnia where she said she was under attack but the attack turned out to be young girls handing her flowers, a total self-serving lie. Brian Williams’ career was destroyed for saying far less.” One could quibble about whose exaggerations have been greater, but Clinton’s Bosnia tale really was mostly made up, and it will likely haunt her throughout the campaign.
Trump is clearly hoping to reach working-class whites in places like Ohio, where a recent poll shows him tied with Clinton. “We’ll never be able to fix a rigged system by counting on the same people who rigged it in the first place,” he said. “The insiders wrote the rules of the game to keep themselves in power, and in the money. That’s why we’re asking Bernie Sanders’ voters to join our movement, so together we can fix the system for all Americans. This includes fixing all of our many disastrous trade deals. Because it’s not just the political system that’s rigged. It’s the whole economy.” It was a direct appropriation of the rhetoric Sanders used to woo the white working class.
When the speech was over, I spoke to Carl Paladino, Trump’s New York co-chairman and frequent surrogate, who said that he expects the speech to mollify some of Trump’s Republican critics. “They can’t come griping anymore,” he said. “He’s on the teleprompter, and he’s on message. It’s a lot easier when you’re scripted in your presentation.”
Paladino then provided some of the extemporaneous insults missing from Trump’s speech, deriding Republicans who’ve expressed concern about their party’s nominee. “The press is always going to find some of these screwballs,” said Paladino. I asked if he considers House Speaker Paul Ryan a screwball. “Absolutely he’s a screwball,” he replied. “He doesn’t understand his responsibility to the people. He wasn’t elected by all the people. He was elected by some people up in Wisconsin and put into that office, and that office should have more dignity and understanding that when you have a candidate who’s chosen by the people, you will support that candidate, unequivocally. Paul Ryan thinks he can pass judgment on the specifics of a Donald Trump. He can’t pass judgment.”
Maybe not, but for at least one morning Trump did his best not to terrify his own party, and it was terrifying to watch him succeed.