RENO, Nevada — The speech that Hillary Clinton delivered on Thursday was the one that many Democrats had been waiting for.
It was a blistering attack on Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric that left no gaffe or alleged dog-whistle unmentioned, framing him as a vessel for hate speech, a champion of conspiracy theories, and a representative of the far-right fringe of the Republican Party.
Race has long been an unsettling undercurrent of the 2016 presidential race. But this week, the two major candidates forced that debate into the open with Clinton’s speech linking Trump to the “alt-right” movement, and Trump’s new charge that the former secretary of state is “a bigot” who has pandered to minorities with feckless policies as part of a calculated quest for votes.
Clinton was clearly seeking to reframe the campaign debate as a referendum on Trump’s fitness to be commander in chief during a week in which she has dealt with an onslaught of allegations that she used her influence as secretary of state to help donors to the Clinton Foundation.
“From the start, Donald Trump has built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia,” Clinton said during her speech at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada. “He is taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party. His disregard for the values that make our country great is profoundly dangerous.”
Clinton described Trump as a candidate “with a long history of racial discrimination, who traffics in dark conspiracy theories drawn from the pages of the supermarket tabloids and the far, dark reaches of the internet.”
At a time when Trump seems to be attempting to adopt a more inclusive tone, Clinton reminded her audience that Trump opened his campaign by suggesting that some undocumented immigrants from Mexico were rapists and criminals. And she seized the opening that Trump gave her earlier this month when he hired Steve Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart News, as his campaign’s chief executive.
At her rally in Reno, Clinton charged that Trump has essentially embraced the ideas of the so-called “alt-right,” an amorphous movement closely tied with white nationalism that has been criticized as racist, misogynistic and anti-Semitic. Alt-right thinkers and writers, she noted, have found a home at conservative news sites like Breitbart.
Alleging that Trump is trying to bring a hate movement into the mainstream, she noted that the real estate magnate’s admirers include members of the Ku Klux Klan; that he was slow to disavow praise from former Klan leader David Duke during the Republican primaries; and that he has retweeted comments from white supremacists online.
“Through it all, he has continued pushing discredited conspiracy theories with racist undertones,” she said.
There was little subtlety in Clinton’s speech. In a moment that drew gasps and jeers from the Reno audience, she read a series of recent headlines from the Breitbart website. Among them: “‘Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” and “Hoist It High And Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims A Glorious Heritage.”
Trump responded to Clinton’s speech during an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, arguing that his campaign was “bringing love,” not hate, and that his rallies are packed with Americans who have been left behind.
Calling Clinton a “third-rate politician,” he argued that African-Americans are just realizing that the Democrats who have “run” the nation’s inner cities have left them behind.
Trump also rejected the notion that he was embracing the “alt-right” movement. “Nobody even knows what that is,” Trump told CNN’s Cooper. “There is no alt right or left.”
When Cooper noted that Bannon, Trump’s new campaign chief executive, has used the term “alt-right,” Trump professed ignorance.
“I don’t know what Steve said,” he said in the interview on “Anderson Cooper 360,” before pivoting back to Clinton and her email controversies. “She is all talk, no action. … She should be ashamed of herself.”
Trump made those comments at a time when he is trying to expand his outreach to African-Americans and Hispanics, who widely disapprove of his rhetoric, his denunciations of undocumented immigrants, and his more outlandish proposals — like a wall along the Mexican border that would be paid for by the Mexican government.
Given their sky-high unfavorable ratings, both Clinton and Trump hope to make the campaign a referendum on each other.
While Clinton wants to blunt any inroads that Trump might make with minority communities, she was also making the case for her candidacy on Thursday to moderates, independents and Republicans who are alarmed by Trump’s associations with the more nefarious elements of the internet.
Throughout her speech, she praised Republicans, like former GOP presidential nominee John McCain, for standing up to hate speech.
Trump did his best to refute Clinton’s attacks on Thursday as he attempts to rescue his poll numbers in key swing states.
During an interview with WMUR, a New Hampshire television station, Trump was asked whether he wants white supremacists to vote for him.
“No. I don’t at all,” Trump replied. “This is not about hate, this is about love. We love our country; we want our country to come back; we want our country to be strong again.”