The idea that Donald Trump might become President of the United States is unthinkable, but it is no longer implausible. Hillary Clinton has made it possible. This is not to say that she will lose. The electoral map and Trump’s reflexive ugliness–witless and witting–still favor her. And we’re in a pause now before the most crucial events of the campaign: the debates, where I assume her knowledge and demeanor will unmask Trump for the vanity candidate that he is. But Clinton has appeared so wobbly lately–and I’m not talking about her health but her political sense–that she has, amazingly, come to seem an even more wounded candidate than her dreadful opponent.
Her week from hell began with the NBC Commander in Chief forum, where Matt Lauer replayed all the same old questions about her private email server and Clinton seemed unable to extricate herself. She was, as is her wont, ploddingly literal in her response. She could have reminded Lauer that these matters had been litigated to a fare-thee-well, apologized yet again and then teased, “Why don’t you ask me about Aleppo, Matt?” Instead, the next morning she held her first press conference since forever. She launched on Trump, calling him every name in the book, from unfit to unqualified. Clinton’s staff believes it’s important for her to tell people exactly who Trump is, and she has done so, solidly, in three separate speeches this summer. But her daily free-range calumny is undisciplined, diminishing the power of a crucial debate weapon–righteous anger, the ability to shame Trump with a single sentence. Just about all the sentences have been used now. We’re numb to them.
But that’s just a tactical mistake. Clinton is making a more strategic error that goes to the heart of the DNA of the Democratic Party. She seems to see the American people in groups, as a collection–a “basket,” if you must–of grievances, contrary to the strong pretense of optimism conveyed during the Democratic convention. There is no joy to her campaign, no uplift. Her second, more gracious and less remarked upon paragraph about Trump supporters in her “basket of deplorables” speech is a case in point: “That other basket of [supporters] are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change.”
Or maybe not. Maybe they’re just people who think the government has been too active, intrusive and incompetent, trying to solve every problem. Maybe they’re looking for a candidate who celebrates hard work, and the success that usually comes of it. There is room for such a candidate this year.
But optimism is an ill fit for latter-day Democrats and especially, it seems, for Clinton. She actually blames her disastrous caution and mediaphobia on the pressures of trying to succeed as a professional woman: “I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions,” she has said. No doubt, it wasn’t easy to be a female lawyer in Arkansas, even if your husband was the governor. But there are plenty of women who survived and thrived–Elizabeth Warren and Michelle Obama come to mind–and managed to maintain their ebullience, despite the sexist obstacles in their way.
That’s another American truth that comes hard to Democrats: Most people do O.K. in this society. Most blacks are doing better than they were 50 years ago, as are professional women and LGBT-community members. Most Americans, when faced with an obstacle, like the loss of a manufacturing job, will work to overcome it. They will go back to community college and learn a necessary trade, like welding or electronics. They are happy for government help with their tuition, and they are less than patient with those people who don’t make the effort. They don’t buy “society is against me” excuses.
Both Trump and Clinton have emphasized obstacles, not opportunities, in this campaign. Trump’s pessimism is a strategy: it’s what demagogues do. Clinton, by assuming near universal aggrievement, has presented a false view of what this country–in its fabulous diversity and entrepreneurial vigor–is all about. It’s a significant misinterpretation of who her audience is. Clinton is no weakling; she’s proved her public toughness, perhaps to a fault. But there is a clenched quality to her campaign that has now become a major problem. She is an unhappy warrior in a country that, contrary to the prevailing blather, is not an unhappy place.
This appears in the September 26, 2016 issue of TIME.