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Why Donald Trump’s disparagement of Hillary Clinton as a ‘bigot’ won’t work

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There are two prongs to Donald Trump's attempt to embrace African-American voters. The first is to argue that he'll be a better advocate on their behalf (or, at least, that they have "nothing to lose" by supporting him). The second is to argue that Hillary Clinton doesn't really care about their interests.

He put that latter point rather bluntly in a speech on Wednesday night in Jackson, Miss.

At a rally in Jackson, Miss., Republican presidential nominee Donald TRump called Democratic foe Hillary Clinton a "bigot." (Video: The Washington Post)

"Hillary Clinton is a bigot," he said, punching the pejorative hard, "who sees people of color only as votes, not as human beings worthy of a better future."

In case you didn't notice, the woman at lower left had a strong reaction to the statement.

Trump's actually been making this argument for about a week now, though not in those terms. You can see how it evolved to this point pretty easily.

During his speech in Charlotte last week, the speech in which he said that he "regretted" some unspecified past comments, he was supposed to say, "We are going to reject the bigotry of Hillary Clinton, which sees communities of color only as votes and not as human beings worthy of a better future." The key word there is "which" -- disparaging the bigotry, not Clinton.

But that's not what Trump actually said. What he said was:

We're going to reject bigotry and, I will tell you, the bigotry of Hillary Clinton is amazing. She sees communities of color only as votes and not as human beings worthy of a better future. It is only votes. It's only votes that she sees and she does nothing about it. She's been there forever, and look at where you are.

That's a subtle distinction, but it was a noticeable switch even then. Trump wasn't condemning Clinton's alleged bigotry -- he was condemning Clinton.

In his speeches in Dimondale, Mich. and Fredericksburg, Va., Trump stuck to the prepared text, though it had been tweaked a bit. In the latter, it was, "We reject the bigotry of Hillary Clinton who sees people of color only as votes, not as human beings worthy of a better future."

And then, in Jackson, Trump said exactly what was in his prepared remarks: "Hillary Clinton is a bigot."

Part of that shift no doubt reflects the way in which Trump would prefer to deliver an attack: Directly and ferociously. Part of it, too, is probably an effort to get the attack itself more media attention, which has been successful. The media picked up the "Clinton is a bigot" line quickly, though the rationale behind it understandably didn't get much attention.

The question, though, is why Trump is making this bizarre claim. For that, a few theories.

The first is that Trump regularly tries to flip criticism he has received back at his opponents. As our Aaron Blake documented earlier this month, he's done this with the labels "unstable," "bad temperament," and "bad judgment."

Trump clearly has a problem with being perceived as a bigot himself. In the most recent Post/ABC News poll, a fifth of Republican men and a quarter of Republican women said they saw Trump as biased against women and/or minorities -- and that's just within his own party. Overall, more than half of registered voters saw him that way, including a plurality of whites and nearly three-quarters of nonwhites.

The second is that, again, this isn't an actual attempt by Trump to rally support from black voters, it's an attempt to rally white voters, particularly the white Republican women who look skeptically at his candidacy. By pushing a not uncommon argument on the right -- Democrats take advantage of overwhelming support the party gets from black voters -- Trump is hoping to position himself as the real champion of black voters, the guy who will, at last, deliver. (We sussed out why this isn't a great argument -- and is actually a bit condescending -- over the weekend.)

Business Insider's Josh Barro noted one way in which Trump's use of "bigot" might reflect another aspect of frustration on the right.

Sometimes, he notes in a follow-up, liberals do use the term arbitrarily. But the broad point is that there's an aspect of Trump's attack that uses "bigot" as a generalized substitution of "bad person who is bad for nonwhite people." It's probably not going to be an effective fit for Clinton specifically, sort of as though you were to call Trump "low-energy." Whatever point you're trying to make, most people aren't going to nod and agree.

It will be interesting to see if the "bigot" line sticks around. Trump appears to be making a commitment to his black-voter-outreach effort over the medium term, including a planned visit to Detroit alongside Ben Carson next month. Perhaps "Bigot Hillary" will become the new "Crooked Hillary" in his vernacular.

But that comparison, standing alone, reveals why the former doesn't really work. Crooked Hillary, people get. Bigot Hillary? Eh. If the applause isn't there, it's not long for this world. If other audiences (white or black) roll their eyes the way the woman in the animation above did, Trump will happily relegate the line to oblivion.