(Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

This Is What a Shift in Donald Trump’s Rhetoric Looks Like

With the Republican competition eliminated, Donald Trump’s questionable rhetoric now has Hillary Clinton in its sights.

BY Arun Gupta

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Selling angry old white men a blow-up-the-system message was good enough to capture the Republican nomination, but that branding alone won’t get Trump much further against Clinton especially with the GOP embroiled in a civil war.

EUGENE, OREGON—Days after disposing of his final two Republican opponents, Donald Trump had transitioned to the general election against Hillary Clinton—who he is now referring to as “crooked Hillary.” At a rally on May 6 in Eugene, before a few thousand supporters, Trump described his travels around New York State.

It was unbelievable what you saw, the destruction of NAFTA, signed by Bill Clinton, a disaster. You know, he doesn’t get enough negative credit for what he did with NAFTA. NAFTA is a disaster, OK. NAFTA has destroyed big, big sections of our country. If you look at New England, if you look at upstate New York, if you look at Pennsylvania, you look at Maryland and Connecticut , it’s destroyed these places. 

It was a moment of clarity in a torrent of free association that passes for a Trump speech, one in which he alludes to China’s economic impact before dropping it for tales of his negotiating prowess with “CHI-nuh,” then on to Mexico (“We will build the wall”), Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and whatever else crawls across his internal teleprompter.

Trump knows what he’s doing, though. His rhetoric is simple, dramatic, and repetitive.

Saying NAFTA destroyed the economy flips the Clintonian strength of the booming 90s economy into a legacy of weakness. It’s a message that’s easy to remember and repeat. NAFTA is also a clue that Trump intends to make the election a referendum on the Clintons’ dodgy past. Trump’s best chance to overcome his stratospheric negatives is to drag the Clintons into the slime—and there is ample fodder even before he fabricates accusations. He claimed the next day, “Hillary Clinton wants to abolish the Second Amendment.”

In Eugene, Trump stuck to fact, if embellished, about Bill Clinton’s personal history with women. Referring to Bill’s past accusers of sexual assault, he accused Hillary Clinton of being “an unbelievably, nasty, mean enabler and what she did to a lot of those women is disgraceful.” The charges could stick—even the New York Times admits they could hurt Clinton’s standing among female voters.

More significant, amid the junkyard of catch phrases, demagoguery and bloviating, Trump brings up issues neither party’s establishment will touch–the downsides of corporate globalization.

He told the crowd, “We have people that are great people … that haven’t had a wage increase in 18 years. They’re making effectively less money today than they made 18 and 20 years ago.” Two days later he called for an increase in the minimum wage, disavowing his earlier opposition, and said that after he gets companies to bring jobs back to the United States, “the real minimum wage” is going to be “a lot more than the $15 even.” He added that the wealthy would pay higher taxes (apparently all part of his master plan that begins with his proposal to slash the top tax rate by more than 35 percent).

That he is now more effectively picking up the torch of Bernie Sanders over low wages and inequality in America than Clinton (who is associated more with a demand for a $12 minimum wage, though she has said she supported some $15 proposals) is a warning of how savvy and unpredictable he is. It’s also showboating, but that is intrinsic to his appeal.

To understand if he can turn his phenomenal success in the primaries into victory in November, I talked to more than 30 people at the rally, including 18 Trump supporters. Many explicitly stated they showed up to the rally because Trump is “making this fun,” “he’s entertaining,” “history is going down.”

Mike, 56, a retired Sacramento County Sheriff’s Deputy who now lives in Oregon, said, “We are excited. Trump is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my life.” He wanted to see Trump “shake things up” and was “tired of paying everyone else’s bills.” Mike said he supports restrictions on immigration, was “tired of the U.S. policing the world” and wanted “America to stop being taken advantage of like China does.”

Ben, 56, a maintenance worker at a fruit processing plant, hit similar notes. “I just want to be part of this. I want to see a change in the status quo and am tired of catering to all the countries in the world.” He grumbled about “working to support other people’s way of life,” liked “the idea of sealing the Southern border” and wanted to “bring back jobs, instead of losing jobs to others.” Ben was also attracted to Trump’s personality, “I like the idea he is not P.C. When he says something, I can understand him.”

Mariah, in her fifties, came with two other women. For her, “Immigration is the biggest thing—[immigrants] not coming to this country and sucking us dry.” Jessica said, “Bring jobs back,” while Janice, who worked in a wood mill and prospected for gold, wanted someone who would “stand up for the working class” and not allow the federal government “take away our lands.”

Michael, 34, who works as a courier for a delivery service, said, “You can’t just walk over the border and suck off the system—you get food stamps, health care.” His father, Paul, 60, said, “I’m not happy with the last eight years,” and wanted Trump to get rid of Obamacare. Michael said, “Obamacare is bankrupting state after state after state.” Paul added, “We need a businessman.”

Paul, 42, a unionized carpenter, came with his son, a college student. Paul said he’s been “laid off more than I’ve worked the last three years.” He liked Trump because he’s “for the little people” and “not paid off by lobbyists.” Paul said, “It’s time to take America back, bring our jobs back.” He said three friends who’ve never voted before are big Trump fans “because he’s stirring up the pot, making things interesting.”

Steve, 52, who like a handful of others at the rally said they backed Cruz before joining the “Trump train,” said with a hint of disbelief. “We never thought we’d be voting for a reality TV star.” He hoped Trump “as an outsider, whose pockets were not full of lobbyists, maybe could shake things up.” To him, the Bushes and Clintons were all part of the status quo, but he also wondered, if Trump did get into office, “Maybe we’ll wind up with eggs on our faces.”

Richard, 70, retired from the U.S. Air Force, said, “I love Donald. He speaks the way I speak.” He said of the Republicans in Congress, “We’re tired of broken promises. We voted for those guys who said they’d stop Obamacare, and they didn’t. They are part of the club, and he’s not part of the club.” When asked what he wanted to see Trump tackle first as president, he said, “Tear up the Iran contract, secure the border, get rid of NAFTA and stop companies from going overseas.

Millennials cited similar reasons. Nick, 24, a metal fabricator for windmills (who wore a t-shirt reading, “Hillary Sucks But Not Like Monica,” with pictures of Clinton and Monica Lewinsky), said, “Trump speaks his mind. He’s not paid for by everyone else.” Connor, 23, a computer specialist for the Eugene Police Department, said he likes Trump “because he’s a businessman. He doesn’t feed you bullshit. I hope he’ll build the job economy back up and I hope he’ll put up the wall, just for the illegals. I hope he’ll squash the debt that’s in the trillions.” Rick, 29, said he’s not worried about a job because he’s finishing a electrical engineering degree, agreed with Trump’s policies, such as “being against abortion” and building the wall “because illegal immigrants are driving down wages for lower-class workers.”

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What does this all indicate? Foremost, Trump is a classic authoritarian populist whose followers identify directly with him and a burn-down-the-house approach to politics. Many called him Donald or “The Donald.” Cindy, 58, a veteran, said, “We trust him because of his personal success. He has the confidence, therefore we have the confidence.” She added that Trump beat all the Republican opposition by “the sheer power of his personality.” The will-to-power aura about Trump is one reason his campaign has a whiff of fascism.

Trump is smitten with himself, spending much of his hour-long speech touting his electoral or business success. But he lets his followers bask in the narcissism.

“We have a movement going on like has never been seen in this country. … I am nothing more than a messenger. I’m a good messenger. Am I doing a good job as your messenger?” The crowd responded with cheers.

“You go look at the cover of Time magazine. I’m on the cover so much, and it’s not me, it’s what’s happening,” Trump stated. That is all his supporters need to know. That nearly every factual point his supporters asserted was blatantly false is irrelevant: He will bring jobs back, he is a self-made man, undocumented immigrants come here for welfare, Obamacare is bankrupting states, the federal debt is a time bomb, the U.S. military is weak, we cater to the rest of the world. They are anxious and Trump strokes their fears. Then he said, “We used to win—we don't win anymore.” Now he’s winning, which means his supporters are winners, and that will make America a winner again.

Yet Trump would not have gotten so far without feeding off the economic and social anxiety many Americans feel. His supporters regularly mentioned class, saying Trump is for workers, the average person, the working class. Not one person at the rally described a vocation as managerial or professional. It matches with data showing relative to the rest of Republican voters, Trump supporters earn less and are less likely to have college degrees.

It is notable that Americans are speaking the language of class across the political spectrum, but right-wing populism frames class through a racist lens. When his supporters say “Take America back,” the Tea Party movement slogan, it’s code for white America. So is “Make America Great Again,” a revival of a time when whites were so dominant it was the natural order of things. Of the few people of color I talked to at the rally, all but one were vehemently opposed to Trump.

Trump is successful because he’s not selling a new idea. He is flashy new packaging on the 19th century ideology of producerism, which holds that a producing class in the middle is plagued by parasites above and below. Producerism is the glue for the Tea Party movement, painting Obama as a foreign subversive appeasing “Muslim extremists,” welfare recipients, and “illegals” at the expense of tax-paying Americans.

Mitt Romney invoked producerism in 2012 with his coded racial comment portraying 47 percent of Americans as Obama supporters who were “takers” from the rest who were tax-paying “makers.” Historically, producerism has targeted Black people, immigrants and Jews. But reducing Trump to white identity politics or tribalism, as Nate Silver does, utterly misreads what is happening. All of Trump’s supporters see their grievances as economic: about jobs, wages, taxes, social services and debt. The subtext is racial, but like American history itself, class and race are inseparable.

Trump also uses a gendered appeal that builds on a trend within the GOP. His rally wasn’t just white to a face; it skewed older and appeared to be approximately two-to-one male. He complained that he can’t say “strong men” anymore without being criticized in the media. But he still unleashes a barrage of masculine dualisms: losers and winners, smart and stupid, great and horrible, strong and weak. His allusions to weakness in trade policy, in diplomacy, in military power are code for the emasculation of the United States. It helped attract armies of pissed-off white men who propelled him to the top of the Republican heap. He will deploy it double-barreled against Hillary Clinton, calling her weak on policy and weak in her personal life.

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When it came time to apportion blame for wage stagnation, Trump said, “We’re angry at the stupidity and the incompetence of our leaders in this country because other countries are running away with our country, with our jobs, with our money. And it’s like taking candy from a baby. And that’s the way we are, and we’re going to change, and we’re going to change rapidly.” It’s stab-in-the-back language that borrows from anti-Semitic tropes.

For the Right, Clinton embodies elitist treachery, which Trump plays up. “Our trade deficit with China increased nearly 40 percent during the Clinton tenure as secretary of state,” he said at the rally. “She gave away our country, now she wants to run for president. She will be a total disaster, believe me.”

While Trump has paths to victory in the fall, they are narrow ones. He has to tear Clinton down while widening his base. But that will be difficult. Selling angry old white men a blow-up-the-system message was good enough to capture the Republican nomination, but that branding alone won’t get Trump much further against Clinton especially with the GOP embroiled in a civil war. Republicans keep losing ground in the demographic match-up for the presidency—among women, among youth, among minorities.

Nonetheless, Trump has openings against Clinton. His showmanship is bringing in new voters and Republican turnout is up 64 percent over 2012. Clinton is a villain out of central casting for Trump’s America-First message, with her Wall Street lucre, backing of free-trade deals, and Clinton Foundation’s cozy relations with global elites. By running to her left on economic and foreign policy, he clearly hopes to peel away Bernie supporters. Paul, the carpenter at the Eugene rally, said he also supported Sanders.

Near the end of his speech, Trump said, “We want to be unpredictable, folks,” speaking of U.S. military policy in the Middle East. He could have been talking about his stranger-than-fiction campaign and the next six months to come.

Arun Gupta is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York and has written for dozens of publications including the Washington Post, the Nation, The Progressive, Telesur English, and the Guardian. He is the author of the upcoming Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food-Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste (The New Press).

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