Following the classic definition of a gaffe as a politician telling the truth, Hillary Clinton’s comment about Donald Trump’s supporters (“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, Islamophobic — you name it”) was the purest and most classic example. The national media has spent a year and a quarter documenting in exquisite, redundant detail the rabid, anti-intellectual nationalistic bigotry of Trump’s hard-core fanbase. But it has taken Hillary Clinton’s affirmation to transform this by-now-banal observation into a scandal.
Back in February, Wall Street Journal editorial columnist Bret Stephens mourned that it had once been a slander that “Republicans were all closet bigots,” but “Not anymore. The candidacy of Donald Trump is the open sewer of American conservatism.” Stephens proceeded to argue that Trump’s carefully hedged disavowal of David Duke failed to dent his support — “If anything it has enhanced it.” Now that Clinton has made the similar point in milder terms, absolving a larger proportion of Trump’s supporters than Stephens did, and choosing the gentler metaphor of a basket rather than a sewer, The Wall Street Journal editorial page is scandalized that Clinton was caught “attributing hateful motives to tens of millions of Americans.” Americans! Hateful! In large numbers! How dare she!
To the extent that Clinton’s comment had any novel quality, it was her loose calculation that the bigoted make up half of Trump’s support. Clinton has dutifully apologized (“I regret saying half”). And, depending on how one calculates it, this could be high. Committed white nationalists comprise a small minority of the Trump vote. On the other hand, it could also be low.
The overwhelming majority of Trump aficionados support his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants — a policy many Republican elected officials opposed as an unconstitutional religious test — while two-thirds of them register unfavorable views of American Muslims. A plurality of Republicans supported Trump’s claim that a Mexican-American judge was inherently biased and therefore unfit to preside over his fraud trial. (In the same poll, a huge majority of Republicans deemed Trump’s comments not racist, despite Paul Ryan’s admission that it constituted a textbook example of racism.) Two-thirds of voters who like Trump consider President Obama a Muslim, and three-fifths of them believe he was not born in the United States.
There is a lively debate as to just what these poll findings tell us. Do Trump’s supporters legitimately share all of his deranged beliefs, or are they merely signaling some kind of tribal affinity? It is a bit of a distinction without a difference. Trump’s supporters are first and foremost authoritarians. They are authoritarians in the sense, identified by Stephens and many others, that they yearn for a strongman who can override the systemic constraints on presidential power. They are also authoritarians in the sense of having authoritarian personalities. Political scientists have found that Trump has capitalized on the trend toward authoritarianism in the Republican electorate, which works in concert with the growing levels of white racial resentment in the Republican electorate.
The combination of these sociological trends has placed Trump in his current role as tribal leader of Red America. In this role, Trump is free of any intellectual accountability so long as he stays loyal to the elemental identity markers of his tribe. He can lie blatantly, reverse himself back and forth repeatedly, or stammer incoherently without consequence because his supporters have placed complete faith in him as an authentic representative of the volk.
Clinton controversially described half of Trump’s supporters as “irredeemable.” Trump earlier this year framed the same idea in a more colorful and perhaps more damning way: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Both statements reflect the same underlying truth: Trump enjoys a hard-core support that lies beyond persuasion, utterly immune to even the starkest factual evidence. Clinton committed a gaffe because she acknowledged a reality that literally every other person in America, including Donald Trump himself, is permitted to speak aloud.