Donald Trump: Hillary’s Best Recruiter

January 12, 2016
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There is a particular conspiracy theory that has been circulating the internet for the better part of six months. The theory essentially boils down to this: Donald Trump is a plant of the Hillary Clinton campaign. He is running in the presidential race so as to insure a Clinton victory. While it may sound insane, plenty of people are taking this idea seriously. It has even been discussed in such mainstream media as Slate, the Washington Post, and the BBC.  Jeb Bush recently suggested the same idea in a tweet, although that may be written off as the desperate flailings of a drowning political career more than anything.

The Evidence

But how can anyone believe such a thing? Proponents have actually uncovered a significant amount of evidence for this hypothesis, most frequently pointing to Trump’s donating over $100k to the Clinton Foundation, to the fact that Hillary was in the front row at Trump’s most recent wedding in 2005, and to the private phone call that took place between Trump and Bill Clinton just a couple of weeks before Trump announced his candidacy. 

Now, I don’t currently accept the hypothesis in question–that Hillary Clinton actively persuaded Trump to enter the race for her sake–although I don’t think the idea is inherently ridiculous. Politicians as a whole are not known for their forthrightness and their above-board dealings, and Hillary has shown herself to be quite willing to play the political game. So I don’t think it’s insane to suggest that any Washington insider might be using subterfuge or sabotage to influence the campaign.

Hillary, Sure; Donald, Not a Chance

However, I have reasons for presuming that this is not the case in this particular instance. For example, I see no benefit to playing along for Donald Trump. As he’ll often remind us, he has plenty of money (“Billions! Billions!”) Mere bribery shouldn’t be much of a motivator for him. He might get some attention, which he is obviously quite fond of, but there are easier ways to get attention than to spend a year and a half going through the boring motions required of any campaign. He could voice his same ridiculous, half-formed opinions without running for president, and he would get just as much media coverage as he currently basks in. I suspect that if he were a plant, one three-hour debate would’ve been enough to convince him that it wasn’t worth it–and the man has made it through five of them. No one on Earth is that self-sacrificing, and Donald Trump is definitely not. He’s in it for himself.

Thus, I don’t think that Donald is acting as a Clinton agent in this campaign. But even if he isn’t actively working in that role, it’s important to point out that his candidacy serves as such regardless. Let’s consider why it is that Hillary might be Donald’s biggest cheerleader right now and what evidence we have that would support the notion.

So why might Hillary be secretly celebrating the fact that Donald is the current Republican frontrunner? An answer to this question has to start with a consideration of what Hillary has to accomplish in order to become President (the ultimate goal, obviously.) Her first, more immediate goal is to convince Democrats that they want her to be their candidate more than they want Bernie Sanders or Martin O’Malley. Her next goal would then be to convince the general public that she would make a better president than whomever the Republicans put up. Now with these goals in mind, we can look at why Trump is helping Hillary accomplish her “To Do” list, and we can consider the evidence that supports our theory.

An Unintentional Aide

How might Trump play into Hillary’s strategy for convincing Democrats that she is the best primary candidate? To answer this, we should take a peek at how the primary season has been shaping up. If we look at a graph of Democratic support over time, Bernie Sanders has had a solid, steady increase in support, which would largely correspond with the increase he’s enjoyed in name recognition. (Just ten months ago, 76% of people had no opinion of Sanders, and now, only 16% have no opinion.) So if increased exposure correlates with an increase in support for Bernie Sanders, it stands to reason that Hillary–being the presumed nominee–will most benefit from the public having a poor familiarity with Sanders. (This is also the rationale behind the idea that the pro-Hillary DNC set up the debate schedule so as to insure low viewership.)

So where does Trump come in? The Tyndall Report recently released its findings after analyzing media coverage for 2015. Donald Trump received 234 minutes of network news coverage this year. Bernie Sanders received just 10 minutes. Now, we could accuse the networks of intentionally covering up the Sanders campaign for their own personal gain–and we wouldn’t be completely out of bounds to do so. But we don’t have to assume malfeasance. We can grant the news corporations every benefit of the doubt and suppose that there was absolutely no ill intent on their part. The news is supposed to be about–well, the news. And it just so happens that Donald Trump makes a daily habit of spewing nonsense that grabs attention. So it’s not super surprising that they would be devoting constant coverage to the ever-increasing amount of verbal vomit emanating from him. But news coverage is a zero-sum game: any increase in one area requires a decrease in coverage for another area. And Bernie Sanders happens to be the area that they’re currently neglecting, whether intentional or not. This problem reoccurs every time Trump opens his mouth. If Hillary isn’t paying Trump to say stupid things, she should be.

One Thing Unites When Nothing Else Does

But Trump serves an even bigger purpose than merely hogging the media spotlight. While many of us are in despair over seeing his popularity only climb with each passing insult, it’s still true to say that most of Americans disagree with his general message of bigotry and authoritarianism. As statistician hero Nate Silver points out, Trump’s 30-ish percent of support among Republicans translates to roughly 8% of the total electorate–about the same percentage of the population that believes the moon landing was faked.  Thus, Trump isn’t the big deal that we’re all worried about. In fact, his bigotry can serve a larger purpose: an overstuffed, caricature of a man bleating insanely racist and almost laughable comments provides a public enemy that nearly everyone can rally against. And in fact, nearly everyone has done exactly that. Merely Googling “Trump denounced” gives us these immediate results: Trump denounced by Democrats, by Republicans, by Obama, by the Speaker of the House and the Senate Leader (both Republicans), by Israel, by our allies, and by nearly the entire world (J.K. Rowling compared him to Voldemort!)

By being the most polarizing figure on TV, Trump gets everyone hopping mad, and those heated voters are ready to vote for anyone who is not him. Donald gets people excited to vote for a Democrat in a race where the presumed frontrunner is frequently derided as being unable to do the same. There is no doubt that Hillary is aware of this phenomenon; she knows that by presenting herself as the “anti-Trump” candidate, she is making an appeal to a huge number of US voters. Democrats are not a majority of the country, and neither are Republicans. But people who don’t like Trump are a large majority–57% of the country views him unfavorably. That’s a larger chunk of the electorate than Hillary could reasonably hope to win on her own; she herself has a nearly 52%-unfavorability rating. So it makes perfect political sense that she would try to appeal to the large group of people who despise Trump. And as it happens, we have some evidence that this is exactly what she’s doing.

Looking for Clues

There was an obvious theme in Hillary’s performance at the most recent Democratic debate on December 19th. As I personally watched the debate in real time, I was struck by the feeling that she was working a very particular angle of trying to set up a comparison between herself and the Republicans. Of course, this isn’t the weirdest thing to ever happen; other candidates on both sides do it from time to time. However, Hillary was head-and-shoulders above her two opponents on this front during the debate. She brought up the Republicans on eight separate occasions–in both her opening and closing statements!–while O’Malley mentioned them three times, and Sanders only once. Hillary specifically introduced Trump twice into the conversation, allowing the moderator to turn it into a question that all of the candidates had to answer. 

What’s remarkable about these repeated referrals to the other party is that we’re still in the primary season; we haven’t even started the actual elections! Hillary is running against Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley at this point–no one else. So it exposes a very real fear and an accompanying strategy on the part of Clinton when she devotes all her time to the Republicans instead of using the time as intended, to show us why she is a better candidate than Sanders and O’Malley.

But the most egregious moment of her debate performance came in her closing statement.

“On January 20th, 2017, the next president of the United States will walk into the White House. If, heaven forbid, that next president is a Republican, I think it’s pretty clear we know what will happen. A lot of the rights that have been won over years, from women’s rights to voter rights to gay rights to worker rights, will be at risk.

Social Security, which Republicans call a Ponzi scheme, may face privatization. Our vets may see the V.A. hospital that needs to be improved and made better for them turned over to privatization. Planned Parenthood will be defunded. The list goes on because the differences are so stark.

You know, everybody says every election’s important, and there’s truth to that. This is a watershed election. I know how important it is that we have a Democrat succeed President Obama in the White House. And I will do all that I can in this campaign to reach out and explain what I stand for and what I will do as president.”

Hillary dedicated nearly the entirety of her closing argument to the proposition that Democrats=good, Republicans=bad; it’s not really a point of contention in a Democratic debate. She didn’t need to prove the point to a room full of Democrats. So we can assume it had some other purpose. And if we remember that her goal during this stage is supposed to be to make it through to the general election, we can safely presume that her endless Republican-bashing serves to achieve that goal.

But how does that work? How can someone hope to win a primary election by spending most of the time ignoring her current opponents? Well, as we already pointed out, Hillary was making her anti-Republican remarks to a room full of Democratic voters, and presumably to a TV audience of the same. Insulting the opposing political party is an easy way to get a few cheap points. It’s the age-old trick of finding a common enemy: Democrats are naturally anti-Republican, so by reminding viewers that she is too, Hillary helps people identify with her and like her.

Scared Stiff

But on a much larger and more important level, Hillary uses the anti-Republican sentiments to fearmonger. She wants people to pass on Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley in favor of her, and she apparently believes that requires a bit of scare tactics. At this point in the race, it’s evident that O’Malley won’t be taking down the Clinton machine, but Bernie Sanders has a very respectable chance of doing just that. And Bernie frequently points out that people are supporting his campaign because they are unhappy with circumstances today. They want things to change, and Bernie is the candidate promising that. Hillary is the clear Establishment candidate, the candidate who wants to maintain the status quo. She has made it clear that she wants to continue with the politics of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, making some social progress while pursuing corporation-centered economic policies.

In this day and age, a status-quo platform is going to be a very tough sell. The rise of Donald Trump on the Republican side speaks to the extent of the anti-Establishment sentiment that is rippling through the country, and Bernie Sanders’s own climbing poll numbers reflect that feeling on the Democratic side as well. Thus, it wouldn’t behoove Hillary to come out and sell her platform in a realistic light: “If you vote for me, things will be roughly the same as they have been for 35 years.” When’s the last time a candidate won an election with that message?? So Hillary has to use a different tactic.

Given that Bernie is the candidate who is pushing for drastic change–for a revolution, in his words–Hillary has to convince people that a revolution is not what they want, or at least not what they can feasibly have. Bernie is out there pushing for universal healthcare and free tuition at public universities, and he accurately points out that the rest of the industrialized world is already accomplishing these public services with little problem. it’s not at all a matter of feasibility here, and Hillary is smart enough to know that. So Hillary is left with the immortal strategy of fear tactics. If you scare people badly enough, they’ll freeze. We see this merely from a Common Knowledge perspective. Look at how we describe a bad fright: it renders us speechless; we stop dead in our tracks; we are scared to death; we are stunned; we are scared stiff; we are petrified; we are numb. We can see how fear breeds inaction merely from the language we use to describe the sentiment. And inaction in politics translates to a maintaining of the status quo. Revolutions require passion, action, and movement–they fail when we instead surrender to complacency and timidity.

Hillary in the General

And if Hillary makes it past the primaries, she had better hope that Trump remains the Republican choice. He is the only Republican whom she beats with any regularity in general election matchups at this point–with any other Republican candidate, Hillary either loses or wins by a mere point or two. Even with Trump, she doesn’t always win, and she very rarely wins by more than a few points. Of course, it is early in the year, and those numbers can and will change; but as easily as they can change in Hillary’s favor, they can just as easily change against her. So just based on the current numbers, Hillary’s ideal opponent is Donald Trump, and her chances against him only improve with the more disgusting things that he says.

So where does this leave us? We remember that Hillary’s goal is to make it to the general election, and she is accomplishing this by mentioning the scary Republicans at every turn. She wants to frighten us with images of a maniacal Trump with his hands on the nuke buttons to such a degree that we will forget our ideas about revolution and reform. I’m not the only person to notice that Hillary is focusing unnaturally (for this stage of a campaign) on the opposite party. And Hillary herself is making no effort to conceal her strategy. Her own ads–which in a primary, should be highlighting the differences between her and her Democratic opponents–are concerned with just how scary the Republicans are. She’s even bringing it up in her stump speeches. She spends an absurd amount of time talking about Donald Trump and the Republicans when she is supposed to be telling us what makes her platform more appealing than those of Bernie Sanders or Martin O’Malley. With all of this evidence before us, it’s safe to say that Hillary is using Donald Trump as her primary campaign tool–whether or not she’s paying him for the favor.