Aaron Bernstein / Reuters
RENO, Nev. — In a speech tying Donald Trump to the white ethno-nationalist movement known as the “alt-right,” Hillary Clinton came closer than ever in this election to a subject she’s been reticent to broach: his character.
For 30 minutes on Thursday afternoon, Clinton unleashed a dark and blistering assessment of Trump as “a man with a long history of racial discrimination,” a man who believes every word he’s said and every policy he’s proposed, who knows exactly what he’s doing when he peddles conspiracy theories, treats the National Enquirer “like Gospel,” elevates white supremacists and anti-Semitic slurs, reinforces “harmful stereotypes” and offers “a dog whistle to his most hateful supporters.”
For months, she has described her opponent’s statements as racist or bigoted. But Clinton has always shied from making judgements on what those comments say about Trump himself, telling reporters she would “let others comment on his character and his motivation and his behavior.”
Thursday’s speech didn’t contain the name-calling Trump has engaged in — “Hillary Clinton is a bigot,” he told voters Wednesday — but it offered a sweeping evaluation of Trump as no better than the racist ideology and fringe supporters he’s elevated with his campaign.
“There’s an old Mexican proverb that says, ‘Tell me with whom you walk, and I will tell you who you are,'” Clinton told a crowd of 1,100 here in an atrium at Truckee Meadows Community College, where “USA” posters lined the walls. “Well, we know who Trump is.”
“He says he wants to ‘make America great again,’ but more and more it seems as though his real message seems to be ‘make America hate again.'”
Look at the people he’s allied his campaign with, Clinton said, citing the conspiracy-theory friendly radio host, Alex Jones, whom Trump has praised, and the executive at Breitbart, Stephen Bannon, whom Trump recently brought in as campaign CEO.
“This is someone who retweets white supremacists online,” she said, voice rising, “like the user who goes by the name ‘WhiteGenocideTM.’ Trump took this fringe bigot with a few dozen followers and spread his message to 11 million people.”
What he’s doing, Clinton said, is “sinister.”
Clinton argued that Trump has “a long history of racial discrimination” — a case she had never made directly until Thursday — drawing a line from his 2016 campaign to the birther movement he helped fuel four years ago, to the fine he received at his casinos for “repeatedly removing black dealers from the floor” and the Justice Department suit he was served for refusing to rent apartments to black and Latino tenants.
“Throughout his career and this campaign, Donald Trump has shown us exactly who he is. And I think we should believe him,” she said. “There’s been a steady stream of bigotry coming from him.”
The speech here in Reno, billed as a major address by Clinton’s campaign aides, was the candidate’s most aggressive use of a tactic she’s employed before: using Trump’s own words against him. Perhaps not since her speech in San Diego two months ago — a brutal critique of Trump’s foreign policy credentials that drove cable news coverage for days and had an immediate resonance on the campaign trail — has Clinton’s team invested so much in a speech.
The setup here did not resemble a campaign rally: Voters in the audience remained seated, and the sound of a formal band replaced the campaign’s usual stable of Katy Perry and Sara Bareilles songs.
Withholding the attacks she used to lob across the aisle, Clinton instead mourned what she described as the effective fall of the Republican Party to the white nationalist movement known as the alt-right, an informal but sprawling network of activists who have gained particular notoriety for their online harassment of Jewish and minority writers across both parties.
(Bannon, the new CEO of Trump’s campaign, has described his news site Breitbart as a “platform for the alt right.”)
Clinton conceded that there’s a history of “fringe” politics in the United States, but argued that Trump represents something different — “a major party stoking it, encouraging it, and giving it a national megaphone.” She addressed and dismissed conspiracy theories about her health, and the outlets that have promoted the rumors. She cited former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke’s elation with the turn of events, and charged that while the label may change, the core philosophy remains the same: “Racists now call themselves ‘racialists.’ White supremacists now call themselves ‘white nationalists.’ The paranoid fringe now calls itself ‘alt-right,’” she said, “But the hate burns just as bright.”
As she frequently now does, Clinton made a pitch to disaffected Republicans alienated by Trump. The speech on Thursday — praising earlier actions by politicians from Bob Dole to George W. Bush — seemed more explicitly that than previously. “Every day, more Americans are standing up and saying ‘enough is enough’ — including a lot of Republicans,” she said. “And I am honored to have their support in this campaign. And I promise you this: with your help, I will be a president for Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.”
And, as her campaign has done in recent days as Trump has signaled that he might attempt to modify long-held positions, she made the case that her campaign has hammered again and again. “Now, I know some people still want to give Trump the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “They hope that he will eventually reinvent himself — that there’s a kinder, gentler, more responsible Donald Trump waiting in the wings somewhere. After all, it’s hard to believe anyone — let alone a nominee for President of the United States — could really believe all the things he says.”
“Here’s the hard truth is: There’s no other Donald Trump,” she said. “This is it.”