What an amazing and weird moment in political history we’re living through. We all saw something on Thursday night that, in over 200 years of American existence, no one had ever seen before: a woman accept a major-party nomination for the presidency. That’s an incredible achievement, attained by the nominee through years of struggle, setbacks, and steady forward motion. The magnitude of Hillary Clinton’s accomplishment guarantees her a spot in the history books, and those of us who witnessed her make that history won’t soon forget the impression it left.
The weird counterpoint to the Democrats’ elevation of a candidate who represents continued social progress is, of course, the Republicans’ nomination of Donald Trump. The Democratic convention was intended to serve both as a response to the fear and disunity offered by Trumpism, and a push to steal from the Republicans all the themes and campaign messages Trumpism eschews: optimism, patriotism, and a sense of shared purpose. Clinton’s speech accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination was the capstone of that effort, serving as a call to unity, offering an outstretched hand to those alienated by Trump, and sketching out an optimistic vision of America’s future.
Hillary’s provocations of Trump were relentless. She said he “wants to divide us from the rest of the world and from each other.” She quipped that “he’s taken the Republican Party a long way: from ‘Morning in America’ to ‘Midnight in America.’” Trump’s megalomaniacal declaration that “I alone can fix it” was slung around his neck as Clinton framed it as fundamentally alien to the American tradition. “He’s forgetting every last one of us,” she said. “Americans don’t say: ‘I alone can fix it.’ We say: ‘We’ll fix it together.’” In tackling Trump’s fitness for the office, Clinton made enthusiastic use of The Zinger. “Imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis,” she said. “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” The obvious intent behind all this was to goad Trump into responding and validating the attack. (His surrogates tried responding to the speech in real time, and they faceplanted in characteristic fashion.)
The Trump flensing also provided the necessary contrast for Hillary to sketch out her bright-and-happy vision for the country. After ticking off a laundry list of intractable problems – rising inequality, decreased social mobility, stagnant wages, and persistent gridlock – Hillary went long on optimism:
But just look at the strengths we bring to meet these challenges. We have the most dynamic and diverse people in the world. We have the most tolerant and generous young people we’ve ever had. We have the most powerful military. The most innovative entrepreneurs. The most enduring values. Freedom and equality, justice and opportunity. We should be so proud that these words are associated with us. That when people hear them, they hear America.
So don’t let anyone tell you that our country is weak. We’re not. Don’t let anyone tell you we don’t have what it takes. We do.
No one heard anything like that at the Republican convention, and voters didn’t hear much in the way of sustained optimism from any Republican candidate this cycle. So Hillary grabbed that ball and ran with it, making a direct appeal to voters who’ve been left cold by the GOP’s embrace of Trump: “Whatever party you belong to, or if you belong to no party at all, if you share these beliefs, this is your campaign.”
It was a bold move on Clinton’s part, not least because there are a lot of voters who don’t feel especially optimistic right at this moment for all the reasons Hillary laid out in her speech: stuck wages, limited mobility, and exclusion from economic growth. As an answer to these frustrations, Clinton explicitly acknowledged that the Democrats have been kinda terrible at speaking to those concerns. “Some of you are frustrated, even furious. And you know what? You’re right,” she said. “Democrats are the party of working people, but we haven’t done a good enough job showing that we get what you’re going through, and that we’re going to do something about it.”
All told, Hillary Clinton’s speech to the 2016 Democratic National Convention was a singular moment in American politics. We saw the first female presidential nominee from a major party telling voters that things will be better, and that we can all do better, and that the best way to get there is to reject the allure of a would-be strongman and work together. We saw a woman reach an unprecedented height in American politics and offer herself as the alternative to a candidate who busily plumbs new depths. It was quite a thing to see.