Hillary Clinton Says Half of Trump Supporters Are ‘Deplorable’

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Clinton, speaking at the LGBT for Hillary Gala at the Cipriani Club in New York City on Friday.Photo: Justin Sullivan

Hillary Clinton, speaking at a New York fundraiser on Friday night, generalized that “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables” referring to Trump’s support among racists, xenophobes, and sexists in America. As might be expected, Trump, his campaign, and others on the right are now framing the remark as proof that Clinton is writing off American voters and their concerns, while many others are backing up Clinton’s point, even though she walked it back a bit on Saturday.

Here’s Clinton’s full quote from Friday, referring to Trump’s support among the “alt-right,” via ABC News:

You know, just to be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people, now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now some of those folks, they are irredeemable. But thankfully they are not America.

Clinton then went on to explain that the other basket of Trump 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. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

In addition to having already spent a considerable amount of time talking about Trump’s support among the alt-right, Clinton has even used the same two-baskets explanation before, as last week Politico reported hearing about it from an attendee of a California fundraiser for the candidate in August, and she referenced “the deplorables” on Israeli TV this week as well. For whatever reason, the Trump campaign didn’t pay any attention to those comments, though Friday night was the first time Clinton had attempted to quantify Trump’s “deplorable” support:

This time, however, the Trump campaign and its allies are making as big a deal out of the remark as they can, and trying to make it seem like Clinton has attacked his supporters en masse:

Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, later added during a speech at the Values Voter Summit on Saturday that Clinton’s remark should be denounced since Trump supporters are “hard-working Americans” and that if she has a such a “low opinion” of them, she should be disqualified from being president. “They are not a basket of anything, they are Americans and they deserve your respect,” he insisted.

And here’s what Trump’s campaign manager said:

On Saturday afternoon, Clinton responded to the criticism, saying in a statement that, “Last night I was ‘grossly generalistic,’ and that’s never a good idea. I regret saying ‘half’ — that was wrong.” As you can see from the full statement, Clinton didn’t apologize, but reiterated the point that Trump is a beacon for bigotry:

And then Trump and Clinton went a round on Twitter:

And Eric Trump tweeted out a fake picture:

And Donald Trump Jr. shared yet another white-supremacist-infused meme on Sunday:

Of course, in addition to the Republican outrage machine kicking into high gear, various news reports about the comment are comparing Clinton’s remark to previous theoretically costly gaffes by candidates, like in Saturday’s Politico Playbook:

In 2008, Barack Obama said people “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” In 2012, Mitt Romney said 47 percent of the population was living off the government. We’re not going to make grand pronouncements about what this will mean electorally – none of us actually know. Obama won, Romney lost and both outcomes probably had nothing to do with their respective comments.

Along that final point:

The 2014 FiveThirtyEight piece linked to in that tweet also points out that gaffes typically mean more to the media than voters, as research has shown the press regularly overstates their impact. It also notes that gaffes can make a difference if they energize preexisting supporters, however, though exactly how much Clinton’s comment motivates either Trump supporters or undecided voters remains to be seen. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump, for instance, is skeptical that the remark is as big a deal as the Trump campaign wants it to be:

[Undecided voters will go one of two ways.] Some may think Clinton was being rude and be less likely to support her. Some may similarly be reminded about elements of Trump’s base that they don’t like and be less likely to back him.

This is a much smaller group than the number of Trump backers, mind you. In the current Real Clear Politics average, Trump backers are about 43 percent of the electorate and undecided voters are about 12 percent. If Clinton sways 5 percent of the (let’s say) 90 percent of Trump backers who aren’t “deplorables” to rethink their support, that’s 2 percent of the overall electorate. If she loses 10 percent of the undecideds, that’s 1.2 percent of the electorate.

That’s assuming the shorthand here doesn’t collapse into “Clinton insulted all Trump supporters.” This is the point that [Michael] Barbaro was making [when he said that the number one rule in presidential politics is that you can mock your opponent but not the electorate.]

Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey, meanwhile, argues that if the Trump campaign plays the remark properly, “it could be the biggest gift basket Team Hillary will provide Republicans in 2016”:

Should it get the “47 percent” treatment? Yes, perhaps even more deservedly than Romney; his (misguided) remarks were about specific tax and safety-net policies, not accusing tens of millions of Americans of bigotry simply for not supporting him. Will it? No, and for one unassailable reason — the media will never start that same kind of feeding frenzy around Hillary. They’ll cover it initially, perhaps even noting what a foolish misstep it was as Don Lemon did in the CNN clip, but very quickly the media narrative will turn to whether Republicans are “pouncing” and “overplaying their hand.” Don’t be surprised if that shift occurs as soon as tomorrow morning’s news shows.

That doesn’t mean that Team Trump has to let it go, though. If they’re smart and well organized, they will soon start pushing “basket” memes of their own — ads that feature the kind of people about which [Salena Zito reported about a few weeks ago,] normal folks who don’t want business as usual in Washington and sneering elites insulting them. Candidates for the Senate and House should do the same, and the RNC should make it a major theme of the cycle.

Then again, considering how mainline news organizations have been covering Hillary Clinton over the past several weeks, Morrissey could be very wrong about how long the story will last. On the other hand, expect to see a lot of these numbers underlined in the future as well:

(For more rundowns on the poll numbers supporting Clinton’s claim, head here and here.)

Whatever happens, Talking Point Memo’s Josh Marshall thinks Clinton is right about Trump’s supporters, as “Trump is changing, corrupting who we are as a nation by bringing the deplorables mainstream and normalizing their kind of thinking for tens of millions of Americans”:

Clinton has simply said what is the premise of most election coverage of the 2016 campaign: a big chunk of Trump supporters are haters. Racists, misogynists, people who are angry at the social and demographic changes in the country that most Americans see as progress. They want to stop it in its tracks and they want payback for what has happened already. To emphasize the point, this is not just what she and likely the great majority of her supporters believe. It has been the premise of most reporting on the campaign and validated by a vast cache of public opinion data confirming these points.

It may have been easier not to say this and left herself vulnerable to a faux-populist counterattack. But she did say it. She cannot unsay it. And since it is not only basically true but in fact a matter of central importance to the entire election, it is truly critical that she not back down.

If there’s nothing else we’ve learned from this cycle we should have learned the centrality of ‘dominance’ politics. Campaigns are performative displays of strength, resolve. To back down, apologize or cower would not only play into Trump’s dominance politics routine, it would make Clinton look weak. It would deepen suspicions that she has no beliefs or will change them out of convenience. Far more importantly though, backing down would demoralize her supporters since it would amount to apologizing for or backing down from and delegitimizing what is in fact a central truth of the election.

For the most part, Clinton’s regret about saying “half” aside, her campaign doesn’t seem to be backing down — at least for now. But taking another angle, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates agrees that Clinton was right, and that what she’s arguing is an essential point about this election, but he also doubts the press is up to the task of lifting up that truth:

Much like Trump’s alleged opposition to the Iraq War, this not an impossible claim to investigate. We know, for instance, some nearly 60 percent of Trump’s supporters hold “unfavorable views” of Islam, and 76 percent support a ban on Muslims entering the United States. We know that some 40 percent of Trump’s supporters believe blacks are more violent, more criminal, lazier, and ruder than whites. Two-thirds of Trump’s supporters believe the first black president in this country’s history is not American. These claim are not ancillary to Donald Trump’s candidacy, they are a driving force behind it. …

Open and acknowledged racism is, today, both seen as a disqualifying and negligible feature in civic life. By challenging the the latter part of this claim, Clinton inadvertently challenged the former. Thus a reporter or an outlet pointing out the evidenced racism of Trump’s supporters in response to a statement made by his rival risks being seen as having taken a side not just against Trump, not just against racism, but against his supporters too. Would it not be better, then, to simply change the subject to one where “both sides” can be rendered as credible? Real and serious questions about intractable problems are thus translated into one uncontroversial question: “Who will win?”

Meanwhile, the Trump campaign seems to be avoiding mention of the substance of Clinton’s remarks entirely, since calling attention to Trump’s real-world deplorable support is probably not a good idea. Using that logic, conservative blogger Allahpundit wonders if Clinton did all this on purpose, since the media loves supposed gaffes so much, and the explosion of coverage elevates her alt-right fire alarm:

Robert Tracinski imagines the media coverage this week: “Are racists half of Trump’s base, or only 10%?” The “deplorables” line is an invitation to the press to amplify the worst elements among Trump’s supporters, starting with the alt-right. That could help Hillary with some minority voters who are reluctant to support her but I think it’s geared mostly at the college-educated whites who have been tilting towards Clinton for the past few months. Her hold on them is precarious; they typically vote Republican and Trump has been at pains lately to reassure them that he’s not a monster by wooing minority constituencies. If college-educated whites start to tilt back to the GOP and Trump’s share of the white vote overall begins to climb, suddenly Hillary’s at real risk of losing this election.

He goes on to argue that at this point, the Clinton campaign knows they are unlikely to drive up enthusiasm for their candidate, so establishing Trump as a monster is thus the easier path to victory. Put another way:

Reagan wanted voters heading into the booth in 1980 to ask themselves, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Hillary wants them asking themselves, “I’m not actually going to vote for this fascist sympathizer and his sleazy David-Duke-fan base, am I?”…

[And] there’s risk to Trump in trying to keep this alive insofar as it’ll invite the media to keep chattering about his alt-right fans as evidence that Hillary’s math may be wrong — they’re not “half” of Trump’s voters — but not her underlying point. His campaign might go on hyping it on the theory that it’ll motivate his core base, whites without a college degree, to register and turn out to teach Hillary and her sneering leftist elitist friends a lesson. But Clinton might accept that as a price worth paying if it helps her lock down a majority among college-educated whites. That’s the real electoral question in a nutshell, I think.

But as The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki tweet-stormed about on Saturday, there’s one more problem with the way this story is being framed: that calling someone a racist or a xenophobe is some kind of personal attack. Indeed, that is the framing that the Trump campaign is counting on, so they can point to Clinton having derided a cross-section of voters, hope that Americans are offended, and work to capture their support. But as Surowiecki argues, calling an actual racist “racist” isn’t an insult, it’s observing a fact about their political views:

What the “deporables” to-do really illustrates is how hard it is to be honest in the U.S. about racism (and sexism, xenophobia, etc.) One reason is that if you call someone racist today, it’s inevitably taken as an insult, rather than simply a description of their views. On the other hand, this is a sign of progress, since it’s a sign that even racists don’t, for the most part, want to be identified as such. But the reality is that there are lots of white Americans — and lots of Trump supporters — who are racist. Saying that isn’t an insult. It’s not dismissing them or looking down on them. It’s simply stating a fact about their ideological views. Racism is an integral part of why many white working-class Americans began voting Republican after 1968. It’s an integral part of why many — maybe not half, but many — support Trump now. As are sexism and xenophobia. If you’re not willing to recognize this, or to say it, then you’re presenting a false picture of American politics. The crucial thing to recognize is that racism is a political view, just like calling for lower taxes or a smaller welfare state is. Keeping the U.S. a white, male-dominated country matters as much to many Trump supporters as cutting taxes does to traditional Republicans. So calling them racist and xenophobic isn’t pejorative. It’s descriptive. And this isn’t a new phenomenon.

Take the Reagan Democrats: the white working-class members who migrated to GOP in 1980 and after. Stan Greenberg did an in-depth study of Reagan Democrats in Macomb County, a suburb of Detroit where lots of United Auto Workers members lived, in 1985. He found that these voters’ “profound distaste for black Americans” “pervaded almost everything they thought about government and politics.” For them, “not being black was what constituted being middle class; not living with blacks made a neighborhood a decent place to live.” Now, Democrats were leery of calling these voters racist, for fear of the same backlash Hillary is getting now. But they were racist, and their racism was political: they wanted leaders who would keep blacks out of their neighborhoods and schools.

I understand that it’s a bad idea politically to be seen as insulting voters, and that Clinton’s accurate comments are being seen that way. But pretending racism and sexism aren’t at work, when they clearly are, does nothing other than help them continue to flourish. Clinton’s phrasing may have been clunky, but she was being honest about Trump’s appeal to many voters. It’d be good if the media did the same.

This post has been updated to include Clinton’s statement on Saturday, additional tweets, and additional commentary.