The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Spare me the phony outrage over Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’ remark

"To just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the 'basket of deplorables,'" Hillary Clinton said. (Video: Video: The Washington Post / Photo: AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Donald Trump and his spinners are outraged — and some reporters are murmuring their disapproval — because Hillary Clinton said this at a fundraiser last night:

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables’. Right?” Clinton said to applause and laughter from the crowd of supporters at an LGBT for Hillary fundraiser where Barbra Streisand performed. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.”
“And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up,” she added.

Let’s stipulate at the outset that this kind of generalization is not defensible. Clinton should not have described “half” of Trump’s supporters this way. People have all kinds of reasons for supporting their candidate — party loyalty; reflexive negative partisanship; genuine distaste with the alternatives; meaningful, legitimate support for certain aspects of the candidate’s agenda, and not others; and so forth.

A Clinton spokesperson qualified these remarks in a series of tweets, pointing out that Clinton was talking about Trump’s rally crowds, and noting that half of them appear to be alt-right types. But even so, Clinton doesn’t know what ultimately is motivating “half” of Trump’s rally attendees, and she should not claim to.

But if there is one group of people who should take their outrage about Clinton’s comments and stuff it in a very dark place, it’s Trump and his paid apologists, who unloaded in a series of tweets this morning. Trump’s campaign even put out a statement claiming that Clinton “revealed her true contempt for everyday Americans.”

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

Oh, please. Two things can be true at the same time: First, Clinton overgeneralized about what’s in the hearts and minds of Trump supporters. Second, her underlying characterization of the general nature of many of Trump’s campaign appeals — and her related observation that they really are successfully playing on the baser instincts of an untold number of Trump’s supporters — are 100 percent accurate.

Every single reporter and commentator closely following this race knows full well that Trump’s campaign is fueled, at least to some degree, by tacit or even overt appeals to bigotry or efforts to encourage a sense among many Trump backers that white identity and white America are under siege. We’ve all seen the polling data and the reporting. Many Republican voters agree with the highest-profile Trump statements and items on the Trump agenda, the ones that are most prominently intertwined with those appeals and messages:

1) Poll after poll after poll has shown that majorities or pluralities of Republican voters support Trump’s proposed temporary ban on Muslims from entering the United States. When CNN and NBC News interviewed Trump supporters at a rally in South Carolina, they found a lot of support for the ban.

Is this “Islamophobia,” as Clinton suggests? Well, many leading Republicans and conservatives evidently think so. Paul Ryan denounced Trump’s Muslim ban as a “religious test” that is an affront to conservatism, and in so doing, he went out of his way to characterize Muslim-Americans as patriots and defenders of American freedom, which conservatives hailed as an act of great moral courage. Never-Trump conservative twitter widely denounced Trump’s attacks on the Khan family as naked bigotry.

2) Poll after poll has shown that majorities of Republican voters support mass deportations. Some polling has shown substantial overlap between Trump backers and support for mass deportations. One poll found that a large majority of GOP voters thought Trump was “basically right” in describing Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug haulers, while perhaps not agreeing with his exact language. And yes, in all of these cases, Democrats who believe these things are equally “deplorable.”

Trump himself has knowingly crafted obviously racist appeals as an entree into the consciousness of GOP primary voters. This is why he fashioned himself the world’s most famous birther. The New York Times recently reported that before running, Trump “recognized an opportunity” to exploit “discomfort” over the “first black president,” which he “harnessed” for “political gain,” using it to spark “his connection with the largely white Republican base.” Even GOP leaders have described some of Trump’s comments as racism: Ryan denounced his drawn out assault on a Mexican-American judge as the “textbook definition of a racist comment.”

Trump’s campaign CEO is Stephen Bannon, who has described himself as a creator of “the platform for the alt-right,” by which he means Breitbart, which one former Breitbart insider described as a “gathering place for white nationalism.” White nationalists themselves believe Trump’s elevation of Bannon heralds the displacement of the old GOP worldview with their own, and they hear a lot to like in Trump’s message. They feel as if Trump has “lifted them up,” as Clinton put it. So, yes, Trump’s campaign is functioning as a vehicle for mainstreaming fringe sentiments.

The American people know what Trump is doing. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that American voters say by 59-36 that “the way Trump talks appeals to bigotry.”

In the end, this flap inevitably leads us back into the endlessly debated question at the heart of Trumpism. Are Trump’s appeals resonating because of many voters’ own raw bigotry? Or is their susceptibility to bigoted appeals rooted in legitimate economic and cultural grievances? No question, many Trump supporters may be motivated by nothing more than dissatisfaction with our trade and economic policies, or anger at Washington’s dysfunction, or reasonable objections to current terrorism or immigration policies. In this context, people are missing the importance of the Clinton remarks that came after the incendiary ones. Clinton also said:

“That other basket of people are people who feel that 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. They are just desperate for change. Doesn’t really even matter where it comes from.”

In other words, Clinton is also saying that many Trump supporters are not motivated by bigotry, i.e., that many people supporting Trump have legitimate anxieties. Trump is trying to prey on those anxieties by scapegoating Muslims and undocumented immigrants, but this might not be why many support him.

Clinton should not have overgeneralized about the other “half” of Trump’s supporters, and she may apologize for it or further clarify it at some point. She shouldn’t have called all these voters “deplorables.” But the underlying argument here — that Trump is running a bigoted campaign that tries to prey on legitimate grievances and bigotry alike by scapegoating minority groups — is inarguable, and the reality it identifies is far worse than Clinton’s broad-brush overreach was. If anything, “deplorable” is too mild a word for it.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign comes to an end

MANHATTAN, NY - The morning after loosing to Republican Nominee Donald Trump in the general Presidential election, Democratic Nominee for President of the United States former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accompanied by former President Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, Senator Tim Kaine and Anne Holton, speaks to supporters and campaign staff in a packed ballroom at The New Yorker Hotel in midtown Manhattan, New York on Wednesday November 9, 2016. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)