Donald Trump has proven himself to be something of a political idiot savant. From what I can tell, he knows nothing about how the electoral system works or how to go about running a successful campaign — let alone policy and governing — yet he managed to beat all comers in the Republican nomination race. Perhaps that's more a commentary on them than on him, but now he's heading to the general election, confronting an experienced politician and looking for votes from a much more diverse electorate than he has faced before. And he seems to believe that the path to victory lies in relitigating the arguments of the 1990s.
There may be no greater challenge Trump faces than his weak support among women, who not only have the opportunity to see the first woman president, but have also watched him in all his misogynistic glory over the past year. And now Trump has concluded that the way to win those women over is to tell them that Bill Clinton is a rapist, the theory being that once they hear that, they'll flock to Trump's side.
So this week Trump put up a web ad airing allegations from Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey, who both say Bill Clinton sexually assaulted them (for good measure, Willey also alleges that Clinton sent goons to murder her cat). And Trump has brought up the mother of all Clinton tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories, that Hillary and Bill had their friend Vince Foster killed because he knew too much about... well... something or other. Foster's 1993 suicide was "very fishy," Trump says. "He knew everything that was going on, and then all of a sudden he committed suicide."
You will be shocked to learn that Trump didn't always feel the need to jump to the defense of women who say Bill Clinton wronged them. He once called Paula Jones "a loser" and said of Monica Lewinsky, "People would have been more forgiving if he'd had an affair with a really beautiful woman of sophistication." Yes, that's right: Sensitive feminist Donald Trump thought the real problem with Clinton's affair with Lewinsky was that she wasn't hot enough.
And to repeat: Trump actually seems to think this line of argument (if you could call it that) will win over women voters. To him.
As fruitless as it may be to attempt to plumb the tangled depths of Donald Trump's mind, I have a suspicion about what's at work here.
The first element is Trump's combination of boundless self-regard and his conviction that everyone shares it. "People love me," he says. "Everyone loves me." So it's only a matter of time before women come around, like everyone else. "If I get the nomination, I'll win the Latino vote," he said last year. Why? Because once they see that "I have a great relationship with the Mexican people. I have many people working for me," it'll be in the bag (and for the record, he also has "a great relationship with the blacks").
The second element in Trump's conviction that all he has to do is talk about all the bad things Hillary and Bill Clinton did decades ago (some fictional, some real) and he'll win comes from the odd belief that despite what you might remember from the 1990s, these matters weren't litigated fully enough. The very fact that the two of them are still standing is proof that the American public never got the real truth.
This is an article of faith among many on the right. Because if Whitewater or any of the other faux-scandals had truly penetrated public consciousness, then the good and wise people of America would have cast Clinton out for all time.
You can see similar ideas play out with regard to Barack Obama. In 2012, a group of Republican strategists crafted a plan at the behest of billionaire donor Joe Ricketts to spend millions of dollars on ads about Reverend Jeremiah Wright, believing it was the silver bullet to prevent Obama's reelection. "The world is about to see Jeremiah Wright and understand his influence on Barack Obama for the first time in a big, attention-arresting way," they wrote, despite the fact that four years before there had been approximately 14 zillion news articles on Rev. Wright, prompting Obama to make a highly praised speech on the topic of race.
While partisans on both sides fall prey to the seductive idea that everyone would agree with them on every issue if they could only make their case loudly enough (Bernie Sanders is convinced of that), Republicans are particularly prone to convincing themselves that if the public doesn't share their view about the importance of some scandal or allegation, it can only be because the media hid the truth from them. After all, what other plausible explanation could there be?
The interesting thing about the Lewinsky scandal in particular was that Clinton eventually won that argument precisely because the public knew so much about it. The facts turned out to be relatively straightforward, there was saturation coverage in the media, and you didn't need any kind of arcane policy knowledge to come to a judgment about whether Clinton should have been impeached. Both sides had ample opportunity to make their case, and unlike most disputes where people tend to line up behind their own party's elites, Republicans couldn't even convince all their own voters to take their side.
Even if the 1990s left a residue of scandal around Hillary Clinton that she can't quite escape, in the end all the different controversies couldn't defeat her or Bill. Instead, they only made the Republicans look bad for their obsession with catching the president and first lady in some scandal, any scandal. In the end they couldn't defeat him in 1996, and they lost the 1998 midterm election as well. As legal scholar Garrett Epps later pointed out in perhaps the best one-sentence summary of those years, Clinton didn't destroy his enemies; he drove them insane, and they destroyed themselves.
And now Donald Trump thinks that if we can just play those arguments over again, the result will be exactly the opposite. Good luck with that.