Even though he has already clinched the Republican nomination for president of the United States, Donald Trump has continued to run a bitter presidential campaign. Last week, in the face of growing criticism over Trump University – a multilevel marketing scheme which is accused of defrauding students – Trump reminded everyone of a salient fact about himself: namely, that he is an unabashed bigot and a racist.
I desperately wish that was just a hyperbolic statement. But it’s not.
In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Trump brought up the lawsuit against Trump University and said the federal judge presiding over the case, Gonzalo Curiel, had an “absolute conflict” because he was “of Mexican Heritage.”
“He’s a Mexican. We’re building a wall between here and Mexico,” Trump said of the Indiana-born judge. Tapper responded by pressing Trump more than 20 times about whether the candidate’s attack was, by definition, racist.
“No, I don’t think so at all,” Trump said, before insisting that “I’m going to do very well with Hispanics.”
Then, on CBS’s Face the Nation, John Dickerson asked whether a Muslim judge would also be biased simply because of his religion. To wit, Trump responded: “It’s possible, yes,” Trump said. “Yeah. That would be possible, absolutely.”
When Dickerson asked, “Isn’t there sort of a tradition, though, in America that we don’t judge people by who their parents were and where they came from?” Trump replied with 11 words that confirmed that he has no respect for the racial, cultural, or religious pluralism that actually make this country great, in its current form.
“I’m not talking about tradition. I’m talking about common sense, OK?”
What’s sad is that this kind of behavior is what we have come to expect from Mr. Trump. Lest we forget, Trump based his 2012 presidential campaign on the notion that our nations first African American president was illegitimate because he wasn’t American. And this year, he launched his campaign with the signature idea that Mexicans are rapists and criminals and that, to “Make America Great Again,” we needed to build a wall to keep them out.
Racially coded language is common in politics. In 2014, for example, Paul Ryan linked poverty to “this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” Those comments elicited a forceful rebuke from Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who decried them as a “thinly veiled racial attack.”
But what Trump is doing is fundamentally different. It is naive to think that we live in a post-racial America. We do not. Racism continues to infect all aspects of American life, including politics. The manner in which Trump conducts himself, though, is fundamentally at odds with what we rightfully expect from our political leaders. Maybe not a racist Republican member of the House of Representatives from a racist distract in Louisiana (see, for example, Steve Scalise). But we certainly do not expect a presidential nominee to openly espouse racism as the central plank of his or her campaign.
“Oh, look at my African-American over here. Are you the greatest? Do you know what I’m talking about?” Trump said to a black man at a rally last Friday. We’ll just leave that one there.
Trump has singlehandedly demolished the paradigm of Left vs. Right and replaced it with that of Right vs. Wrong. And in the face of Mr. Trump’s bigotry and racism, it is easy to become pessimistic. Hillary Clinton has unleashed attack ad after attack ad against Trump, using his own statements against him.
Throughout her political career, Clinton has demonstrated that she is very capable – and maybe even sometimes eager – to sling mud at her opponents. But make no mistake, to win this fall, Clinton needs to avoid the all too easy negative path, and instead run the most positive campaign of her life.
There is research to back this point up.
The conventional wisdom about negative political campaigning holds that it works – in other words, that negative campaigns have the consequences its practitioners intend. That conventional wisdom, however, is wrong – at the very least, it is not supported by the available evidence. Lay et al. (2007) conducted a meta-analysis of the studies on campaign tone and campaign advertising tone and summarized the results by stating that
[a]ll told the research literature does not bear out the idea that negative campaigning is an effective means of winning votes, even though it tends to be more memorable and stimulate knowledge about the campaigning. Nor is there any reliable evidence that negative campaigning depresses voter turnout, though it does slightly lower feelings of political efficacy, trust in government, and possibly overall public mood.
So, negative ads don’t necessarily have the consequences its practitioners intend. And recent research, in fact, has demonstrated that negative ads can have a demobilizing effect under certain circumstances – specifically, after (1) a person is exposed to negativity after selecting a preferred candidate and (2) the negativity is about the selected candidate. But what about positive ads?
Some compelling research published in March 2016 suggests that positive advertising can have a positive effect on vote outcomes. Liam C Malloy and Shanna Pearson-Markowitz (2016), two professors at the University of Rhode Island, found that “the only beneficial results from campaign advertising are generated from advertising a candidate’s strengths and that there are no benefits from attacking one’s opponent, even if the opponent has decided to ‘go on the attack.’” Interestingly, the study’s results indicated that positive ads are most likely to increase the vote share of a particular candidate in areas in which the are either losing or winning by a large margin, but that advertising is “like an arms race” – that is, “[i]f both campaigns are able to advertise equally in a given market, these advertisements cancel out and have no effect.”
A few caveats here. First, political ads are often multifaceted, and sometimes it can oversimplify the matter to label them as either positive or negative. Second, more research on the effects of positive ads is necessary – other studies, for example, have found no systematic difference between the effects of negative and positive messages.
But positivity could be extremely beneficial for Clinton. Clinton suffers from an undeniable lack of favorability among general election voters. A positive message that stirs up hope, pride and enthusiasm would stand in stark contrast to Trump’s divisiveness and hate, and could help narrow the favorability gap considerably. Moreover, Trump’s incendiary comments will stand on their own. There is no way, for example, to interpret the notion that we should institute a “total and complete shutdown” of the country’s borders to Muslims as anything other than intolerant and ignorant. And there is no way to interpret the idea that someone is incapable of doing their job simply because of their race or ethnicity as being anything other than racist. At least in this instance, the media has appeared up to the task.
Clinton has proven that she can do negative and nasty very well. And, of course, she needs to highlight just how frightening the rise of Donald Trump is for America. But she shouldn’t rely on negativity alone. To win the White House in November, and prevent a know-nothing from becoming leader of the free world, Clinton should strongly consider going positive.