Hillary Clinton’s speech on the racial bigotry and white grievance that pollutes Donald Trump’s campaign should turn out to be the most consequential address of the campaign, even of the decade. We have to go back to Barack Obama’s 2008 Philadelphia speech to find such honesty about race and racism and, in Clinton’s case, about the way one campaign in particular has used it to divide the country in the last year.
I confess, I had some worries about the speech. I didn’t want her to get down in the filth of what’s called the “alt-right,” a sewer-level playground for white supremacists, anti-Semites, and racists. I wasn’t sure how deftly she could link their nihilism and nationalism to Trump. She did it very well, grounding her speech in Trump’s own words and Trump’s own history. She derided his current “appeal” to African Americans for the way it plays on right-wing stereotypes of black people and black neighborhoods as ravaged by crime, disease, poverty, and ignorance. “He doesn’t see the success of black leaders in every field. The vibrancy of black-owned businesses…. Or the strength of the black church.… He doesn’t see the excellence of historically black colleges and universities or the pride of black parents watching their children thrive.”
She tied the ongoing struggles of black Americans to the pervasiveness of discrimination—including discrimination perpetrated by Trump himself, going back to his having to settle claims of racial bias against black tenants in his housing developments in the 1970s and ’80s. Clinton let details tell the story. “Their applications would be marked with a ‘C’—’C’ for ‘colored’—and then rejected,” she said, with a quiet, building disdain.
Walking the crowd through Trump’s long personal history of bigoted appeals, she began with his claim that President Obama wasn’t born here, “part of a sustained effort to delegitimize America’s first black president,” she told the crowd. “He described Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. And he accused the Mexican government of actively sending them across the border. None of that is true.” She ticked off the racism of saying Judge Gonzalo Curiel can’t do his job because “he’s Mexican,” which even House Speaker Paul Ryan, she said, called “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” She reminded us of Trump’s penchant for retweeting white supremacists and anti-Semites, and his claim that he didn’t know anything about David Duke and his career as a white supremacist. In fact, he’d denounced Duke as a white supremacist back in 2000 when the former KKK grand wizard joined the Reform Party.
Only then did she turn to Trump’s affiliation with the so-called “alt-right,” observing, “Look at who he put in charge of his campaign.” She explained new Trump CEO Steve Bannon’s affiliation with Breitbart News, which he’s called “a platform for the alt-right,” and shared some ugly Breitbart headlines, including “Hoist It High And Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims A Glorious Heritage,” which she noted “came shortly after the Charleston massacre,” in which nine African-American churchgoers were murdered by a white supremacist who wrapped himself in the Confederate flag on Facebook.