From the moment Hillary Clinton began speaking Thursday night, it took her more than 20 minutes to get around to talking about herself. First she praised her daughter, son-in-law, and grandkids. Then her husband, the rest of her family, and her friends and supporters. Then President Obama, Michelle Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden. Clinton lauded her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine, and the man who had battled her for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders. She praised them all and thanked them for their service. She talked about the American founders and the motto—“out of many, one”—that united them. She called on everyone to work together to improve the country.
Donald Trump’s speech to the Republican convention was quite different. It took him less than five seconds to begin talking about himself. He went on to tell the audience that “I am your voice” and “I have made billions of dollars in business making deals. Now I’m going to make our country rich again.” Trump insisted that the political system was rigged. “I alone can fix it,” he said.
This contrast—Trump’s “I” against Clinton’s “we”—is the fundamental choice in the 2016 election. Until Clinton spoke, I had dismissed her convention theme, “Stronger Together,” as a cliché. I don’t anymore. It fits the candidates and the moment. Trump wants the election to be a contest between two people. He’s the charismatic figure, the entertainer, the brash CEO. Clinton rejects that framework. She’s not running against him for the same job. She’s challenging his view of what the job is. Her vision of the job—humbler, less autocratic, more collaborative—is better. It’s more effective. It’s more American.
Clinton’s approach is a better fit for the challenges of our time. At home, we’re divided. Many people are angry about police shootings of black men. Others are alarmed about black men shooting police. There’s widespread unrest over wage stagnation. Politicians are blaming immigration. Latinos feel targeted. Trump’s answer is a wall, deportations, and a president who imposes “law and order.” Clinton’s answer is a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and rebuilding trust between police and minorities. Her answer is better. It gets people working together toward common goals.
It’s also a better fit in foreign affairs. Trump, in his address, called for “Americanism, not globalism.” He wants to renegotiate relationships, suspending commitments to our allies unless we get a better deal. Clinton believes that a strong web of trusting relationships, even if they’re favorable to our partners, serves us better than a series of hard bargains. “We are stronger when we work with our allies,” Clinton argued. “I’m proud to stand by our allies in NATO against any threat they face, including Russia.”
The “we” approach suits Clinton’s personality. It reflects what she learned from her mother’s childhood—that “no one gets through life alone”—and the philosophy of good works Clinton was taught in church. It echoes the message of her book, It Takes a Village, and her collaborations with Republicans on legislation to promote adoption and health insurance. Clinton wants global progress toward controlling climate change. No leader can do that alone.
The “I” approach, conversely, captures what’s wrong with Trump. He’s a natural antagonist, picking fights with Sen. John McCain, Gov. John Kasich, Megyn Kelly, and others who don’t please him. He uses race, ethnicity, and religion to smear people who get in his way. In Atlantic City, New Jersey, Trump ditched investors and contractors to whom he owed money. “Donald Trump has a passion,” Kaine observed in his speech to the Democratic convention on Wednesday. “It’s himself.”
Nearly three months after the GOP declared him its presumptive nominee, Trump is still bragging about how badly he beat his Republican opponents. A primary that began with a unity pledge dissolved into a convention that most of Trump’s rivals refused to attend. The runner-up spoke but refused to endorse the nominee. Meanwhile, a Democratic convention that began with bitterness in the Sanders camp advanced toward unity, thanks in part to Clinton’s sympathy and grace. “We wrote it together,” Clinton said of the party platform. “Now let’s go out there and make it happen together.”
There’s a feminine edge in Clinton’s emphasis on collaboration. But there’s also a muscular reward. The United States is stronger when we listen to one another and work together. “Donald Trump says—and this is a quote—‘I know more about ISIS than the generals do,’ ” Clinton said. “No, Donald, you don’t.” She explained that presidents make better military decisions when they take strategic advice. Often, they can leverage more power through economic and diplomatic cooperation than through the unilateral use of force. “We put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program without firing a shot,” she pointed out.
The “I” approach looks tough, but it makes the president weak. It fractures the country and our alliances, inviting aggression by Vladimir Putin and other wolves. Trump’s ego, Clinton observed, doesn’t make him strong. It makes him one of the “little men, the ones moved by fear and pride.” She concluded: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”
Trump sees the “we” approach as timid and liberal. But Clinton, like Obama, hears echoes of the anti-government message of Ronald Reagan. “Our founders fought a revolution and wrote a Constitution so America would never be a nation where one person had all the power,” Clinton warned. Obama, in his speech to the convention, issued a similar rebuke: “Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way. We don’t look to be ruled.”
Framed this way, the election isn’t a choice between Trump and Clinton. It’s a choice between authoritarianism and self-government, between a man and a team. Clinton can’t match Trump’s ego, and she doesn’t have to. She just has to offer a better alternative. The alternative is a different conception of the presidency, one that’s less imperial but gets more done. It’s less about the president and more about us. The choice isn’t left versus right, or him versus her. It’s Trump versus America.