Democrats Set a Nuclear Trap for Trump
Policy + Politics

Democrats Set a Nuclear Trap for Trump

REUTERS/Henry Romero

On the same day that the two major party presidential candidates were due to appear in a back-to-back forums on national security, a political action committee supporting Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton released a brutal attack ad against Republican Donald Trump that intersperses snippets of his own words with images of nuclear blasts and marching ISIS fighters.

The 30-second spot, released by Priorities USA, begins with a clip of Trump saying “I’m really good at war. I love war in a certain way,” played over footage of wounded soldiers being loaded into helicopters. The images appear to come from the Vietnam War, which Trump avoided with medical and student deferments.

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The next thing to appear on the screen is the type of mushroom cloud associated with nuclear blast, as the viewer hears Trump say, “Including with nukes, yes. Including with nukes.”

The two Trump comments were made in completely separate public appearances, but are sewn together in the advertisement to make it sound as though the GOP nominee is advocating nuclear war. Toward the end of the spot, a third Trump quote is played, as background to footage of a nuclear blast wave shredding a building: “Nuclear is just, the power, the devastation, is very important to me.” This came from a third Trump appearance, this time at a presidential primary debate.

The release of the advertisement comes as Trump and Clinton are scheduled to appear in an 8 p.m. EST forum hosted by NBC’s Matt Lauer, at which each will answer questions on national security for approximately 30 minutes.

In preparation, both candidates have, over the past 24 hours, released lists of retired military officers who endorse them. Trump touted a letter from 88 former senior officers on Tuesday, which Clinton countered with a list of 95 former senior officers who have endorsed her.

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Trump also hailed the results of a new poll that show him leading Clinton by 19 points among voters who are current or former members of the armed services.

The strategic release of the new Priorities USA advertisement seems plainly aimed at forcing Trump to spend part of tonight’s forum addressing his comments about nuclear weapons, and it will inevitably be compared to the infamous “Daisy” spot that President Lyndon Johnson ran in his race against Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964. That highly controversial 60-second advertisement showed a little girl counting as she plucked the petals from a daisy, and segued into a man’s voice delivering an ominous countdown that ends in a nuclear detonation.

Unlike the Priorities USA spot, the Johnson ad never mentioned the Republican candidate or even showed his image, relying solely on innuendo with the concluding message, “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

“Ah, but that was the beauty of the Daisy spot,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia said via email. “LBJ didn’t even have to mention Goldwater. Goldwater had created the climate that enabled viewers to draw the line themselves. (The bomb is “merely another weapon”; he’d use on the supply lines in North Vietnam; he’d lob on into the men’s room at the Kremlin, etc.)”

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Even so, the ad was considered hugely controversial when it came out, and was pulled by the campaign after only one broadcast. However, it lived on in news and talk shows and historians consider it a major factor in Johnson’s overwhelming victory over Goldwater later that year.

Priorities USA was far less subtle than the Johnson campaign, titling the advertisement “I Love War” and leaving nothing to the viewer’s imagination. Sabato argues that, more than 50 years after the Daisy ad, that’s not really all that surprising.

“Trump has made all these statements but he makes so many outrageous, intemperate remarks that it’s difficult to remember them all. This ad helps voters remember the ones on nuclear weapons,” he said. “Also, we’ve been hardened since 1964. It didn’t take much to get our attention back then. Today, it takes a lot. The Daisy spot in today’s environment is cake and candy.”

The Trump campaign was not pleased with the spot. Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway called it “irresponsible” in an appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America Wednesday, accusing Priorities USA of "cherry-picking little snippets of what he said and not giving the full context of the sentence let alone the speech.”

In the likely event that Trump is asked to respond to the advertisement Wednesday night, he might want to take a lesson from Goldwater’s experience in 1964. Rather than ignore the advertisement or dismiss it, he treated it with deadly seriousness and devoted a 30-minute televised speech to a response that only served to cement the association between his candidacy and the threat of nuclear war. He went on to lose 44 states in one of the most lopsided presidential contests in history.