Why Hillary is so helpless in battling Trump

When you think about it, we’ve seen this movie before, but recognizing the actual situation is so painful that it will be a long time before the Clinton campaign and its media auxiliaries dare face the truth. Allow me to explain.

The New York Times today features key Democrats fretting over Hillary’s inability to grapple with the Trump phenomenon. In a front page, above the fold, Sunday New York Times article ("Unusual Race Tests Playbook For Clinton Bid"), major Democrat powers are letting it be known that Hillary Clinton has not figured out how to gain traction against Donald Trump.

Amy Chozick, Alexander Burns, and Jonathan Martin write:

…key Democrats say they are growing worried that her campaign has not determined how to combat her unpredictable, often wily Republican rival, to whom criticism seldom sticks and rules of decorum seem not to apply.

They have a right to be worried.

The sense of nervousness crystallized this week when Mrs. Clinton devoted campaign events across California to hitting Mr. Trump for not releasing his tax returns and depicting him as a cold corporate titan who profited off the housing crisis. Such charges helped undermine Mr. Romney four years ago. Yet Mrs. Clinton’s remarks received little in-depth coverage in the news media, while cable channels went live with Mr. Trump’s rat-a-tat recitation of “Crooked Hillary,” his favored nickname for her.

Key people like Chuck Schumer and Al Sharpton offer their thoughts on what is being done wrong. 

“As soon as she clinches the nomination, we need a high-level person in the campaign whose sole job is to respond to Trump, almost on an hourly basis,” said Mr. Schumer, who has begun conversations with Clinton officials about who could fill that role.


“Sometimes, you get the feeling that they’re in a professional boxing match and he’s in a street fight, and they’re coming in with their gloves on,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, expressing dismay over the Clinton operation’s apparent lack of appetite for combat.

“This is a street fight with a guy with a razor and a broken Coca-Cola bottle,” he added, “and you’ve got to fight him like that.”

They see part of the problem. But they cannot bring themselves to admit what is really going on. Hillary Clinton is playing Margaret Dumont to Donald Trump’s Groucho Marx. 

While Trump is no mere comedian aimed at getting laughs and nothing more, he is mining the same vein of public sentiment that Groucho did: near universal resentment over phony pretentiousness. In the 1930s and 1940s, it was social conventions related to class – opera goers who lacked any real interest in music, but were signaling their status with expensive clothes and tickets to lavish productions.

Today, the stakes of pretentiousness and phoniness have escalated to the point where they deeply affect everyday lives. Political correctness about welcoming un-vetted Muslims by the tens or hundreds of thousands can endanger our lives. As was vividly illustrated by recent events in San Bernardino, where locals were reluctant to speak up out of fear of being labeled Islamophobic.

Just as Margaret Dumont could only make her situation worse by responding to Groucho’s mind-bending mockery:

Debates have broken out in Mrs. Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters over the best approach to take. Some advisers worry that by running against Mr. Trump as she would a traditional Republican candidate, Mrs. Clinton is actually making the reality-television star appear more legitimate.

Donald Trump’s comfort with the media gives him a fluidity that is akin to Groucho’s ability to change the framework of a conversation on a dime, leaving poor Margaret sputtering and unable to follow the pace as fast as the audience could:

For now, her aides appear to be throwing ideas against a wall to see what sticks, including trying out different monikers after the Democratic National Committee’s “Dangerous Donald” flopped. An internal favorite is “Poor Donald,” with its implication that Mr. Trump, famously defensive about his net worth, is not nearly as wealthy as he lets on.

This won’t work for the same reason that Margaret Dumont was perpetually the object of ridicule. The audience (and today’s voting public) has had its fill of being lied to, of being manipulated, of being expected to engage in virtue signaling when a more authentic response lives in the collective gut.

The best movies of the Marx Brothers are among the rarest of comedy classics: popular worldwide and across the decades. The reason is that they address something fundamental: that we all resent having to toe the line dictated by our social (and political) overlords, and we cheer for cheeky fellow who refuses to play that game and turns the conventions against those who normally wield them to enforce their own version of order.