The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

The Nasty Racial Politics of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

Both candidates want voters to think America is teetering on the brink of the apocalypse. And it sure feels like we are.
June 10, 2016, 4:20pm
Anti-Trump protesters clash with Donald Trump supporters outside the Anaheim Convention Center during a rally for the Republican candidate. Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

If one thing is clear after this week's primary races, it's that Americans are in for a brutal summer and a horrible fall. The 2016 general election is going to fill the country with a negativity that will suck the life out of us, and perhaps inflict lasting damage on the country's political system.

On one side, there is Donald Trump, the reality-television tyrant who became the Republican nominee on a wave of support from angry, white men, tapping into their racial anxiety and feeding their egos by giving them common enemies to attack. His campaign has an almost apocalyptic subtext—a message that the world is coming to an end, for white people at least, and that Trump, like some Fifth Avenue William Wallace, is the only one who can save it.

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On the other side, Hillary Clinton is running an almost Seinfeldian campaign that hasn't seemed to be about anything, other than the campaign itself. Unlike Trump, the presumptive Democratic nominee has real policy ideas—but there's no broader mission behind her candidacy, no sense of purpose higher than Clinton's own advancement, which she justifies with her deep political knowledge and experience.

But nature abhors a vacuum, and so it has provided Clinton with a galvanizing issue that makes her campaign about something bigger: The idea that she alone can save America from the coming Trump apocalypse. In short, both sides want voters to feel as though we're teetering on the brink of the end of the world. It sure feels like we are.

For Clinton, this means she has to attack Trump—a lot. In a national security speech delivered in San Diego last Thursday, she came at him hard, attacking his temperament, his hypocrisy, and his basic understanding of the world. "This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes," she said, "because it's not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin." In a biting, sarcastic tone that suggested she's decided not take Trump seriously as a leader or a thinker, Clinton dismissed his foreign policy ideas as "not even really ideas, just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies."

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After effectively winning her party's nomination Tuesday, Clinton leveled a similar missive of personal attacks, denigrating Trump's character and highlighting his long history of racist and sexist remarks. As the race moves forward to the general election, we can only expect much more of this. "Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit to be president and commander in chief," she told a crowd at a victory rally in Brooklyn. "He has abused his primary opponents and their families, attacked the press for asking tough questions, denigrated Muslims and immigrants. He wants to win by stoking fear and rubbing salt in wounds. And reminding us daily just how great he is."

Americans always say they want elections to be about policy, but usually, we get a personality contest. This year, though, we're in for a barroom brawl. There's little value in attacking Trump on policy—his major proposals are like congressional fan fiction, so for Clinton to tangle with them would be pointless. His campaign promises—that he will build a wall between the US and Mexico, ban Muslim immigrants, and generally make America so beautiful again—exist only to frame him as tough and binary. Clinton is right to understand that she gains little from deconstructing these ideas, and more from character attacks that make Trump sound like a dangerous lunatic.

Of course, character attacks are among Trump's favorite things. He responded to Clinton's speech last week with gleeful trolling. "Bad performance by Crooked Hillary Clinton!" he tweeted. "Reading poorly from the teleprompter! She doesn't even look presidential."

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You can already see how their pas de deux will go: She will point out his character shortcomings, and his racism, and he will respond by calling her names. Then he'll launch into an attack on Clinton's age, or the way she walks, or her husband's extramarital affairs. As NBC's Chuck Todd reported, the two candidates did not publicly congratulate each other on wrapping up their respective party nominations this week, a customary courtesy at this point in the race.

But how could they? Clinton claims Trump is fundamentally unfit to be president; Trump says Clinton belongs in jail. It's the beginning of a low-down, muddy campaign that will pump venom into our democratic system, and likely drive people to hate politics even more than they already do.

All this is further complicated by the way the candidates are exploiting the racial demographics of their supporters. On one side, Trump's coalition is overwhelmingly white, and it seems like his campaign strategy will be to drive up turnout among these voters. Clinton's coalition, meanwhile, is multiracial—she performed well in primaries where black voters accounted for more than 10 percent of ballots cast, and also enjoys strong support among Latinos.

While recent presidential elections have had similar racial undertones, the divisions in seem to be more insidious, and potentially dangerous, this election. That has become increasingly clear in recent weeks, as Trump doubled down on his racist attacks against the federal judge in a suit involving Trump University. Despite pleas from other Republicans, the candidate continues to refer to the judge, Gonzalo Curiel as "Mexican," even though he is an American born in Indiana. Trump believes Curiel's Mexican heritage "proves" he is biased against Trump.

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Trump is referencing a perception that people of color know well—that race is somehow proof that you are less capable than your white male peers, who are automatically assumed to be competent. He's also touching on the idea that the judge's background somehow makes him different from other Americans—and that Trump's white, European ancestry doesn't create its own bias.

From the start, his campaign has been full of comments that would have instantly disqualified virtually any other presidential candidate. But for a man who has cast himself as a champion of white men, the remarks are a feature of his campaign, not a bug—they are central to his appeal.

Clinton and her surrogates have predictably deployed this as a line of attack, seizing on Trump's racism and bigotry as a powerful tool to turn out black and Latino voters she needs to win a general election. This will, of course, make the race even nastier. But the effect will also go beyond that, making the election about whiteness, and the deployment of it. On one hand, Trump is using his whiteness as a weapon to mobilize people; on the other, Clinton is deploying hers as a tool to prove her competence, and to underscore her power to help others.

A racialized campaign like this is likely to unearth some deep pain and tensions about race in America. It will pit black and Hispanic people who still feel left out of the American dream against whites concerned that the country's rapidly shifting demographics will strip them of their economic power and social privilege.

As we head into the general election, voters will increasingly be at odds, drawn into public arguments ignited by the candidates they support. Even worse, given the country's growing political polarization—and the fact that voters face a choice between the two least-liked major party nominees in history—half of the country will simply reject the outcome, no matter who wins. The result, I fear, will be an election that leaves scars on the national soul—an election in which the only sure loser is America.

Follow Toure on Twitter.