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The Trump Trap

Why Hillary Clinton’s speech bashing her opponent may have felt great to deliver but didn’t go far enough.

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Donald Trump is a gift to Hillary Clinton. And a trap. Because as good as it was (and as satisfying as it was to hear), it fell into the pattern of every other phase of this campaign so far, which is making everything about Trump. For Clinton to win, she needs to energize the electorate about what she is for and not just what she is against, or the outcome may well be very much like that experienced by Trump’s opponents thus far.

Clinton’s foreign-policy address in San Diego Thursday was certainly effective as far as it went. In fact, it was so effective at enumerating Trump’s flaws as a potential commander in chief it revealed a somewhat different challenge Clinton and her speechwriters face: Figuring out how to keep such speeches short enough so that audience members could get home in time to tuck their kids into bed.

“Donald Trump’s ideas aren’t just different,” she said in one of her many effective, slashing assaults on the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee. “They are dangerously incoherent. They’re not even really ideas — just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies.” In those brief couple of lines, you can see the beauty of opposing a human toxic waste dump like Trump: No hyperbole is necessary. Just tell it like it is, and it should be clear to any listener with a third-grade education that Trump has no more business being president than he would have teaching a course on humility.

When she said Trump is “temperamentally unfit to hold” office, no one who has watched him can doubt it, but listing his idiocies — from suggesting more countries have nukes to actually arguing it wouldn’t matter to us if they used them, from singing the praises of the North Korean regime to suggesting we hand over Syria to the Islamic State — drove home the point with precision. And if her onslaught wasn’t enough, a day or two earlier that same North Korean regime actually endorsed Trump’s candidacy, an act that on its own speaks volumes about just how unfit Trump really is. North Korea wants to bring down America, folks. And its leaders know the surest way to do that is to put The Donald into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

No, it was clear Clinton’s advisors saw giving a foreign-policy speech as a special opportunity because Trump has made himself so stunningly vulnerable in that respect. (Not that his racism, misogyny, and lack of relevant experience doesn’t do that on domestic issues as well.) And she delivered it well. So well that we are sure to hear these lines again, and the same case will be made over and over. The prospect of Trump’s finger on the nuclear button is so horrifying that it alone makes the case that Clinton must be president because the only way to stop him is by voting for her.

The problem with beating Trump — to paraphrase Clinton about her former boss Barack Obama’s foreign policy — is that simply being against him is not a foreign policy. (She once suggested Obama’s “don’t do stupid shit” “insight” was not enough to constitute a foreign policy. And, of course, there is no doubt that electing Trump would be the stupidest shit of all.) But that alone is not a vision for America’s future.

Nor — and perhaps more importantly — is that platform alone likely to inspire more voters to see the positive reasons for voting for Clinton. Voters deserve a better speech than she gave Thursday, and if she wants to counter the wave of irrational emotion that is the only thing that could sweep a man like Trump into office, Clinton is going to have to start making people more passionate about why they should stand and vote for her, rather than why they should be against the creep the GOP now seems to be uniting around. (See: Paul Ryan’s statement on Thursday … one he will certainly live to regret.)

In order for Clinton to inspire in voters the same kind of passion, she must make clear how the ideas she stands for are new and different and why she is the right person to be president at this moment, the person with the vision to imagine and realize a new world for our children and our children’s children. We need — and she needs — a few big, new ideas. And though it was expert in its dissection of Trump, Thursday’s speech was workmanlike, bland as oatmeal about her own foreign policy, and ultimately devoid of big, new ideas.

There was nothing objectionable in it, of course. The points she raised — how the United States needs to be fostering strength at home, cultivating alliances, using diplomacy and development, being “wise with our rivals,” having a plan to defeat terrorists, and staying true to our values — were solid ones. It was just what you would expect from a professional who has years of familiarity with these issues. But as another professional who has been dealing in this space for a while, I have to admit, I wish they weren’t all so familiar.

Once upon a time, many moons ago, when I was a bright young thing in a past Clinton administration, I had a boss who wanted to give a speech. I was his No. 2 and responsible for that sort of thing, so I said I would write it for him. I slaved at it, crafted language carefully, stared off into the middle distance regularly looking for inspiration, and delivered him what I thought was the speech about international economic policy Winston Churchill would have given if he had cared about such things. I handed it in and waited for the praise to start pouring in. Clocks ticked. Birds chirped. And, finally, my boss came back in. “That’s a terrific job,” he said. “It’s well-written. It’s thoughtful. It’s very solid. I can’t use it.”

I looked at him dumbstruck. Where had I gone wrong? Or, more likely, where had he gone wrong? After all, I was pretty sure it was great. “There’s nothing new in it,” he said. “I’m not going to give a big talk and not break new ground. Why do it otherwise?” I was crestfallen. But he was right. And I’ve never forgotten the lesson. That’s what leaders have to do. They have to lead. They have to take us some place we have not gone before. And in her remarks Thursday, Hillary Clinton did not do that.

The gap between what we got and what we need was evident on each of her points. Yes, America needs to be strong from within — but how do we create jobs in an era of hyper-productivity and new technologies that are upending our old notions of work? How do we create a lifelong learning model of education that takes advantage of new technologies and does not leave behind entire swaths of the population (like inner-city minority students) as we are now doing? How do we undo growing inequality? What kind of infrastructure do we need for a new technological reality, and how do we pay for it? How do we fix our broken tax code so it is both competitive and fair?

Yes, we must strengthen alliances. But how do we reinvent the trans-Atlantic alliance for a new era? What is the basis for a new vision for our role in the Indo-Pacific region? How do we remake the alliances Obama has broken in the Middle East? What will they look like? How do we help them lead? How do we ensure they are addressing not just the problems of the recent past but also those of the emerging future — from China and Russia’s involvement in the region to the rise of a new generation of leaders?

Of course, refocusing on diplomacy and development is smart. But referring to the Iran deal is probably not the best place to start, given that despite its good intentions it is likely to someday be seen as having been misplayed, having empowered Iran at the expense of the countries we need to counterbalance it and that have a more constructive vision for the future than do the theocrats who still rule in Tehran. When it comes to development, for example, how will we rebuild the Middle East? It’s a multibillion-dollar question that must be answered if we are to have lasting peace in the shattered countries of the region. Who will pay? What institutions do we need to ensure that happens? (A regional development bank will be essential.)

Being “wise” with Russia and China makes sense, of course. But we could use specifics and, while we’re at it, less reflexive China and trade bashing on the campaign trail. It creates a tension that Bill Clinton discovered. It’s easy to blame trade problems on foreigners. But it is also wrong, and when in office, he reversed on these issues as his wife is likely to discover she must also do. But we can go further: We need a doctrine of interdependence with China that recognizes it as a vital ally, as well as a potential rival, one that harnesses better our common interests. And we need to find a new path forward to ensure our deteriorating relationship with Russia does not get worse — even while sending a message that a new administration will not be as feckless in opposition to displays of raw Russian aggression as Obama has been.

Of course, we need to defeat terrorists — which means a shift from playing whack-a-mole with an ever-evolving array of terrorist groups to combating extremism more broadly. That means not just knowing what we are against in the Middle East and elsewhere but what we are for. (And that means not only finding models and “green shoots” in the region to cultivate … but stepping away from reflexive campaign trail language in support of an Israel that is drifting ever-more dangerously to the right and toward a demographic crisis with a growing Palestinian population that will soon have our key ally having to choose between being a democracy and being a Jewish state. The Israelis are looking like they’re making the wrong choice on that front, and we need to be frank with them as friends are to one another that we support them, but not always, not unconditionally, and not if their values shift out of alignment with ours as they have been doing the past few years.)

As for being true to our values — yes, yes, of course. But which values? Obeying international law is a good one, but will that extend to reinventing international institutions and creating new or better ones where they are needed most (the economic and security realities of a connected world, the environment, combating proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, etc.)? One of America’s core values is to assume the responsibilities of leadership that accrue to its role as the world’s most powerful nation. Obama has shrugged off many of these. How will Clinton reassume them?

Leadership is about both knowing where to go (this is where new ideas and new faces come in) and getting others to follow (this is where inciting passions is critical). These factors define the parameters of the Trump trap. It may seem like it is enough to simply be against him. But it is not. Because that becomes a distraction, creating the illusion that new ideas (and the risks inherent in them) may not be necessary. It also, consequently, makes it less likely that we will see from Clinton why she will be the transformational president these times require, how she will inspire, how she will go beyond the rhetoric of her predecessor to effectively produce the vital changes and strength America needs on the international stage as well as at home.

It is not too late. It is only June. There are still five months left in this campaign. Frankly, that’s more than enough time for a whole campaign (or two). Trump is bad and must be stopped. The only way to do that is to vote for Clinton. But if she does not reach for the big ideas, surround herself with new faces, make certain voters know that she is not just the face of an establishment that fears a Trump presidency (for good reason), she may not win the support of enough voters to actually win. Trump is tapping into passion and frustration with Washington. She can’t help but be seen as part of the system … unless she makes it clear that her experience has not only convinced her massive, fundamental change is needed but that she has the ideas and the people around her to help produce that change. Experience, intelligence, and steadiness are great traits in a president. But they are not enough for a candidate. A candidate needs to inspire, to resonate with the electorate not just in their heads but in their hearts, and to give them real hope, and the one candidate capable of doing this has yet to begin doing so.

Perhaps Thursday’s speech was a necessary step — outlining the Trump threat. If so, good enough, but we can’t wait too long for the follow-up speech, one that describes the promise of a Clinton presidency and moves us to stand behind it.

Warner Bros/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration

About the Author

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is <i><a href="https://www.amazon.com/Great-Questions-Tomorrow-TED-Books/dp/150111994X/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=">The Great Questions of Tomorrow</a></i>. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.

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