Over the past two weeks, it’s become increasingly clear that when Hillary Clinton takes on Donald Trump in the general election this fall (insert usual caveat here about the primary not being over) she will focus her fire not on his amorphous here-today, gone-tomorrow set of policy positions, but rather on Trump’s public and self-image, which appear to be pretty much one and the same.
The Clinton campaign’s reaction to the release of internal documents from the controversial Trump University program is a case in point. Hundreds of pages of material disclosed as part of a class action lawsuit against the now-defunct operation detail high-pressure sales tactics meant to identify potential “students” with significant liquid assets -- or the ability to go into debt -- and to convince them to hand over their available cash to Trump University in exchange for courses that many former students say offered far less than advertised.
Within hours of the documents going public on Tuesday, Clinton and her supporters had begun hammering Trump as a “fraud” and a “con man.”
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee has cultivated his personal brand over the course of decades, devoting every bit as much time and attention to it as to his signature hairdo. Trump, according to Trump, is a wildly successful businessman, a shrewd dealmaker and a guy who does what he says he’s going to do.
While detractors would challenge all those claims, it has largely worked for Trump, who parlayed his supposed business acumen into a hit reality television show and an endless parade of branded products, from department store neckties to bottled water.
The documents released by the court include depositions from former Trump University employees who described their personal disgust at the pressure to push vulnerable people into purchasing products that they couldn’t afford.
In a storm of social media posts as well as public appearances, Clinton pounced on the revelations Wednesday, hammering home the idea that Trump is exactly the opposite of what he purports to be.
“The New York Attorney General is suing Donald Trump for fraud,” she told a crowd in Newark, New Jersey. “His own employees testified ... you can’t make this up ... that Trump U was a fraudulent scheme where Donald Trump enriched himself at the expense of hardworking people.”
She added, “This is just more evidence that Donald Trump himself is a fraud. He is trying to scam America the way he scammed all those people at Trump U.”
For Clinton, there are two different beneficial things operating here. First, though she doesn’t command the media attention that Trump does, in large part by design, she still has a prominent pulpit. And constantly challenging Trump’s portrayal of himself on the public stage will serve to further increase his extremely high negatives in public opinion polls. (To be fair, Clinton’s own negatives are also pretty high -- just not as high as Trump’s.)
The second is more of a psychological game. Trump has shown himself to be incapable of ignoring attacks by his opponents, particularly those that strike at his public image. And his responses are frequently intemperate and ill-considered. Clinton knows this and will continue goading Trump at every opportunity between now and November.
While his angry outbursts when he’s challenged likely won’t dent his core support, that core support was only enough to earn him the Republican presidential nomination in a fractured field of candidates. It’s far from what he needs to win a general election. Clinton’s strategy is not about cutting into Trump’s existing support so much as denying him any more.
What Clinton is counting on is that every time Trump lashes out in reaction to her attacks, he’ll do so in a way that causes another fraction of the electorate to doubt the wisdom of handing him the keys to the White House. So far, he seems, if not happy to oblige, at least unable to help himself.
Crooked Hillary Clinton is a fraud who has put the public and country at risk by her illegal and very stupid use of e-mails. Many missing!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 1, 2016