Clinton Versus Trump The Script of a Real-Life Tragedy
Trump versus Clinton will go down in American history as the dirtiest campaign of all time. It seemed at times as though script writers had let their imaginations run wild. But the consequences for democracy in the United States will be long lasting. By SPIEGEL Staff
One could imagine the pilot episode for this series beginning with a fast-paced time-lapse video from the Hudson to the Potomac, music rising dramatically in the background. The flight would start over New York, Manhattan bathed in morning mist, before shooting up Fifth Avenue, banking over the 58-floor Trump Tower and heading out over the countryside to the southwest. The route would take us over New Jersey, past Philadelphia and then Baltimore, where the battle that inspired the US national anthem was fought -- land of the free, home of the brave. Finally, we would reach Washington D.C., the river, the Watergate building, the proud Mall with its monuments, the dome of the Capitol and then, the center of power, the White House.
It would make for a dramatic beginning of the series with the working title of "Dirty Duel" or "Sad!" or perhaps, more prosaically, "The Next President." Or simply "Trump versus Clinton." It would ultimately be a tragedy, but one with so many twists and turns, sudden mood swings, absurd side stories and crazy coincidences that it could pass as fiction. It would feel like a television docudrama written by screenplay writers who let their fantasies run wild.
On Tuesday, the final episode of the series will be filmed -- when American voters go to the polls to elect their country's 45th president. Up until a week ago, the race had seemed over. The attempt by New York real estate mogul Donald Trump to transform himself from a political nobody into the most powerful man on the planet looked as though it had failed. This Twitter-clown's dream of launching a cultural revolution and installing his own unique interpretation of American democracy was over. But then, it wasn't.
The bewildering stories about incorrectly forwarded emails and/or emails hacked by Russian agents returned. The head of the FBI suddenly looked like a shady Trump stooge and this other guy from New York, the one who has a penchant for sending obscene selfies to assorted women, returned to the stage together with his beautiful estranged wife, who by a quirk of fate just happens to be one of Hillary Clinton's top advisors. In short, the final days of the campaign became so insane that, as a Washington Post columnist wrote, one feels like the figure in Edvard Munch's famous painting "The Scream." And one is tempted to scream: Stop! Enough!
Hillary Clinton, no doubt, feels the same. On Wednesday, she made another visit to Las Vegas, hoarse and exhausted. There, in a venue on the edge of town, she spoke to a couple hundred plumbers and electricians. The Clinton team had brought along an employee of the Trump Hotel in Las Vegas who beseeched the crowd not to vote for his boss.
Then Clinton climbed onto the stage and held a strangely feeble speech. Instead of using her last reserves of energy to convince her audience to vote for her, she spent far too long talking about her opponent Donald Trump. "Let's face the facts," she said. "A lot of Americans are voting for him, right? A lot of people are still considering who to vote for. I think people who are considering voting for him say to themselves: ... maybe he'll become different when he becomes president." She asked the people in the hall to imagine Donald Trump sitting in the Oval Office. The last casualty of his presidency, she intimated darkly, would be democracy itself.
For the last year, American democracy has become a circus, one in which the most outlandish gag gets the most applause. And it won't be without consequences: The country will have to live with the scars of this ugly campaign for quite some time to come. Make no mistake: When the advances of civilization are set aside, even if only temporarily, fractures are the result and they aren't easy to repair. When arguments don't count and lies are accepted as truth, when politicians have entire teams working to spread disinformation, democracy as we understand it ceases to exist.
Clinton and Trump have managed to drag US politics -- already not the purest of spectacles -- into the muck. With the help of the hysterical media, they have transformed the race into a soap opera, and this time, reality has far exceeded even our wildest imaginations. Five current and two former US SPIEGEL correspondents have re-watched all of the episodes in this series and documented what has taken place thus far.
Episode 1: Huge Expectations
In March 2015, Huma Abedin was driving on the highway along the East River in New York. In the middle of the river, which flows between the boroughs of Manhattan and Queens, the lights of apartment buildings on Roosevelt Island were flickering.
Abedin was 39 years old and had already become a living legend in Washington. For almost 20 years, her entire professional life, she had been working for Hillary Clinton, first as an intern in the White House when Clinton was first lady and later as her personal assistant once Hillary entered politics herself. She was always available, always reliable and by spring 2015, she had become Clinton's deputy chief of staff. If a problem arose that was considered insoluble, it was Huma Abedin's job to solve it. She was perfect for the position: calm, intelligent, unflappable and she looked like a cross between Angelina Jolie and an Indian princess.
Abedin had long known that her boss was considering a run for the White House. She looked across the East River to the lights on the island, named after Franklin D. Roosevelt. If Clinton really did make a run, she was thinking, wouldn't that be a perfect spot to kick off the campaign?
Another candidate had already been kneeling in the starting blocks for two months. At the end of January 2015, Donald Trump had chosen a neo-baroque theater in Des Moines, Iowa to make an appearance, a venue with heavy curtains and satin-covered seats.
The occasion was the annual meeting of Citizens United, a group that is a wing of the Tea Party movement on the right-wing of the Republican Party and about 1,000 supporters had shown up. Trump inveighed against Jeb Bush, the brother of George W., who was also running for the presidency. "The last thing we need is another Bush," Trump blustered. The applause was polite and reserved. There were still almost two years until the election and Trump at the time was seen as an outsider without a chance.
After his speech, he wandered around backstage. There were a couple of cameras, but they weren't trained on him. Three or four bored reporters listened to what Trump had to say, but the rest of the journalists were concentrating on Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, who was speaking on stage.
Trump had come to the event with two bodyguards who seemed strangely out of place because there was nobody who took much of an interest in the man from New York. But Trump kept eagerly talking anyway: "I know someone who can make American great again, and that is Donald Trump."
Make America Great Again. It was soon to become a sentence heard everywhere. And Donald Trump would also have a lot to say. In April 2015, realDonaldTrump, as he calls himself on Twitter, opened his campaign against Hillary Clinton by retweeting the following: "If Hillary Clinton can't satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?" It was a tweet that set the tone for the coming race.
Episode 2: Candidates
It was June 2015 and Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" was pounding through the first floor of the Trump Tower in Manhattan, music that was a good fit for the skyscraper on Fifth Avenue. Finished in 1983, the building has a black facade with pink marble, gold and a three-story waterfall in the atrium. The landlord, now 70, had his best years in the 1980s: He had several large construction projects going, was married to the model Ivana Trump and made frequent appearances in the tabloids.
Back in his tower, Trump gave the thumbs up sign and smiled, his hair in the style once described by a comedian as: "dead squirrel." Next to him was his third wife Melania. Twenty-four years his junior, she was the daughter of a Slovenian car-salesman and a seamstress -- and, again, a model. Behind a podium flanked by eight American flags, Trump formally announced his candidacy.
"Our country is in serious trouble," he intoned. "When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let's say, China in a trade deal? When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo?" He then swung his attention south: "When Mexico sends its people they're sending people that have lots of problems . They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people . It's got to stop and it's got to stop fast."
Many listeners found his words troublesome and there was widespread indignation afterwards. But it was a speech that laid the cornerstone for Trump's presidential campaign. China, Mexico, trade and immigration. Innuendos, speculation, racism and impudence. That was his strategy.
He would go on to bring that strategy to bear against "Crooked Hillary," as he calls her, doing all he can to portray her as the puppet of a hated political caste system, as an out-of-touch pawn of the Washington elite. He, the billionaire, would portray himself as the advocate of downtrodden white men -- and he didn't care about the contempt of intellectuals on the country's East and West Coasts as long as those in the "flyover zone" got his message. The country, Trump said in his speech in the Trump Tower in June 2015, was in need of a leader like Donald Trump.
Trump's announcement came just three days after Hillary Clinton had announced her own candidacy, with the race officially starting for her on June 13, 2015. And everything was just as her advisor Huma Abedin had imagined it. The party, with Bill and Chelsea at her side, took place on Roosevelt Island in the middle of the East River. As usual, Abedin had taken a final look at her speech. Clinton would talk about her mother and then declare her candidacy for US president.
Abedin knew that the day would mark the beginning of a long and difficult journey and that she wouldn't have much time to spend with her son Jordan. But her husband would support her, Jordan's father Anthony Weiner. He owed her that much -- and plus, he didn't have a job. Abedin and Weiner -- his name pronounced like the light-hearted American slang term for the male member -- got married in 2010. At the time, he was considered one of the Democrats' greatest political talents: energetic, sharp-witted, well-informed and gave off the impression of authenticity.
His career, though, was derailed by his dark passions: In 2011, Weiner had to resign from the House of Representatives after sending salacious selfies -- photos of his own penis, covered only by his underwear -- to women in social media networks. Abedin stood by him at the time and proudly watched as he attempted to make a comeback by running for New York mayor. But during the campaign, it was revealed that he had sent yet more revealing selfies, this time under the alias "Carlos Danger."
That was the end of Weiner's political comeback. His wife was forced to endure public humiliation, something that likely strengthened her bond with Hillary Clinton, who had also gone through some rough times with her husband Bill. But Weiner could prove dangerous to the candidate. Clinton, it was said at the time, insisted that Abedin leave Weiner -- unsuccessfully.
But now, Abedin had to focus her attentions elsewhere. Hillary's campaign required all her energy. The task was that of portraying Clinton as a friendly, modest woman, just as she had done in a short video in April 2015 that focused primarily on the candidate's potential voters. The video showed a white woman watering plants and a girl arranging letters of the alphabet; there were gays, African-Americans and Hispanics, who said in Spanish what their concerns were. "I'm getting ready to do something too," Clinton said in the video. "I'm running for president."
Her campaign would become an event planned down to the last detail, a well-oiled machine designed to elevate a professional and intelligent, but only moderately popular candidate to the presidency. Paradoxically, it is possible that her professionalism became her greatest Achilles heel. It helped Trump portray himself as Clinton's polar opposite. On the one hand is a candidate that controls her image down to the last nuance. On the other is a man who tosses aside his manuscripts, exceeds his allotted speaking time and improvises according to his gut feelings. Intellect versus instinct, machine versus authenticity, calculation versus charisma.
Clinton's campaign, in any case, didn't start as promising as had been hoped. And Abedin was with her around the clock, often visiting two cities per day.
Anthony Weiner, who owed her quite a lot, stayed home with Jordan, their son of three-and-a-half years. In the evenings, when he got bored, Weiner would take off his T-shirt and pants and take selfies of his chest and crotch. At one point late in the summer of 2015, he took pictures of himself -- half naked and clearly aroused -- next to his son. He sent the photos to a woman, a Trump fan who supports the weapons lobby and hates Barack Obama. Abedin knew nothing about it.