Rhetorical Recap: “Dangerous incoherence” … and ignorance

Hillary Clinton's deft foreign policy speech focused on Donald Trump's thin skin—which he promptly displayed, in San Jose.

Yesterday Hillary Clinton presented a serious, scrupulous, sustained, and semi-satirical case against Donald Trump’s fitness to be president and commander-in-chief in particular. It’s a good time for her to go after him, and it was smart to focus on Trump’s ignorance about foreign and military affairs, because that’s also a weakness of Bernie Sanders, who is close to Clinton in the polls for next Tuesday’s California primary. (She did not mention Sanders, but touted her knowledge and experience in this area.) Clinton also decided to go after Trump’s temperament. It stretched the text, but Trump took the bait later that day.

Clinton declared that Trump’s ideas are “dangerously incoherent.” “They’re not even really ideas,” she elaborated, “just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies.” Her head bobbing in that “I know I’m right” manner we have seen for decades, Clinton ticked off eleven examples culled from the Trump catalog of impetuous comments. Some were indeed incoherent and would have seemed more so had she expanded the quotes or paired them to expose contradictions. But in other instances the danger resided in their coherence, their simplistic nativism. So as a potential catch-phrase, “dangerously incoherent” is actually too narrow to apply to the things Trump says.

A better umbrella term for this speech would be “dangerously ignorant.” Clinton closed the segment with the summary charge that “Those are the words my friends of someone who doesn’t understand America or the world.” Each example supported this claim.

She pivoted into a recitation of her qualifications and policy proposals, contrasting them with his lack of ideas. An extended example about alliances and allies worked particularly well. In South Korea and Japan, she said, America has allies that China and Russia can only envy.

[So] it’s no small thing when he suggests that America should withdraw our military support for Japan, encourage them to get nuclear weapons, and said this about a war between Japan and North Korea – and I quote – "If they do, they do. Good luck, enjoy yourself, folks." I wonder if he even realizes he’s talking about nuclear war.

Clinton defended the Iran deal, again hitting Trump’s lack of knowledge. Climate change, nuclear proliferation, the folly of a trade war, his praise for tyrants, and, the topper, his counterproductive approach to ISIS in calling for a ban on Muslims. Ignorance times five.

In an aside that cried out for exemplification, Clinton said “And by the way, Mr. Trump – every time you insult American Muslims or Mexican immigrants, remember that plenty of Muslims and immigrants serve and fight in our armed forces.” Since there were no soldiers or veterans on the stage with her, she missed an opportunity to show off the present-day American greatness of which she spoke.

It is likely that this “major” foreign policy address (aren’t they all billed that way?) was aimed partly at dissuading business-class Republicans from supporting Trump, if not crossing over to support her. Having her alone on the stage hurt here, too, although public endorsers at this stage of the race may be harder to find than military personnel. Actually, Clinton was introduced by Ellen Gustafson, “a San Diegan and proud military spouse” who has worked with the United Nations Food Program, but she departed the stage.

A sub-theme of the speech played to the familiar “seconds to decide” crisis scenario in which a president must choose whether or not to fire nuclear weapons. Clinton twice referred to Trump’s “thin skin,” and asked her audience whether they wanted a president who would “roll the dice with America,” turning the casino brander into a gambler. She did not play what could justifiably be labeled the “man card” and tie his untrustworthiness with the proverbial button to his male ego.

Trump’s recklessness is not as apparent from his record as his ignorance. However, he yelled and blustered wildly in his San Jose speech that night, bearing out the incoherence and temperament as well as the ignorance charge she made against him. He is lucky the news was less about his remarks than the protests outside the hall where he spoke and Speaker Ryan’s op-ed endorsement of his candidacy.

A footnote: Clinton asked listeners to imagine a president faced with making decisions when “a revolution threatens to topple a government in a key region.” It’s worth pointing out in that regard that none of the candidates nor President Obama has shown leadership by speaking out squarely about the current situation in Venezuela.

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