Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told the country what she really thinks about many Donald Trump supporters when she lumped “half” of them into a xenophobic, homophobic, racist, and sexist “basket of deplorables” on Friday.
Although she cautioned her comments were “grossly generalistic,” the blunt commentary at a New York City fund-raiser specifically targeted the nebulous alt-right movement that Mr. Trump has courted, whose philosophical leaders in a press conference this week outlined their plans for an ethno-state where Jews might or might not be welcome.
Mrs. Clinton has never painted Trump as holding such views. But she has used the word “deplorable” to describe some of Trump’s rhetoric and last month said the Republican candidate is “taking hate groups mainstream” by turning alt-right websites with 11,000 views to ones with 11 million hits, a notion she repeated Friday night.
But using the quantifier “half” to describe some of his supporters crossed a new line, say critics. It was likened to the 2008 comment by Barack Obama claiming some Americans bitterly “cling” to guns and religion, and Mitt Romney’s 2012 statement that “47 percent” of Americans can be written off as unapologetic welfare moochers.
The flap comes as Clinton’s polling lead, according to a Saturday report by the Reuters/Ipsos States of the Nation project, continues to slide. According to that rolling online survey, the battleground states of Ohio and Florida are no longer considered likely wins for Clinton as Trump has managed to shore up support among white suburban voters. Clinton still has an 83 percent chance of winning the election by an average of 47 Electoral College votes, Reuters/Ipsos reports.
Still, those polling shifts at least partly explain Clinton’s unusually strong assessment of some Trump supporters as part of an effort to let her potential voter base know what’s at stake, especially now that Trump has tapped into what she called some of America’s “irredeemable” impulses.
The harshening tone is part and parcel of one of the most polarized elections in recent history, where two widely disliked candidates are trying to shore up narrow bands of support.
But as Obama and Mr. Romney have found out, calling out any segment of Americans for national scorn is politically risky territory in a country built on the First Amendment right to speak one’s mind without fear.
“The fact is, if somebody tells us to shut up, we’re going to speak as loud as we can,” says Michael Hill, the founder of the white nationalist League of the South. “From her point of view, what Hillary has done is stupid [by targeting Trump’s alt-right support], because she’s legitimizing these people in the minds of folks who may not have been aware that the alt-right existed. She’s basically saying, ‘All you white folks, you’re either going to come with me or go with the alt-right.’ Well, if I have to make a choice, maybe I’ll go look at these alt-right people. And I think that’s happening.”
At any rate, the internet blew up. Clinton supporters found it funny that Trump supporters were offended by a comment that many would say pales to some of Trump’s more politically incorrect quips. “Suddenly NOT being politically correct is a bad thing? Trump detractor Dawn Howard wrote on Twitter.
But Trump saw a clear opening to attack what his campaign characterized as a gaffe for which she should apologize.
“Wow, Hillary Clinton was SO INSULTING to my supporters, millions of amazing, hard working people,” Trump tweeted. “I think it will cost her at the Polls!
To be sure, Trump has made sport out of mocking political correctness, piling up a laundry list of dismissive statements about women, Hispanics, veterans, disabled people, Muslims and blacks.
But while Trump's sentiments are clearly resonating in large parts of the US, Vanderbilt University political scientist Marc Hetherington suggests Clinton is zeroing in a majority sentiment in the US that does skew against the alt-right’s white identity politics.
“It’s really important to keep in mind that there’s a really high percentage of whites who don’t organize their world around their racial identity at all, and in fact find the idea troubling,” says Prof. Hetherington.
At the same time, at least to some critics, the American left is to blame for the rise of the alt-right. Clinton’s "basket of deplorables" is an extension of a tendency by some liberals to demonize conservative thought, which has had the consequence of pushing many American moderates into Trump’s corner.
“By reflexively denouncing as a racist everyone who disagrees with them about economics, and by making every detail of ordinary life into a minefield of hidden racial transgressions, [the left has] burned up their own credibility,” commentator Robert Tracinski wrote earlier this year in The Federalist. “In the process, they have weakened the culture’s immune system against racism and made it possible for a young cohort of racists to repackage their odious creed as resistance to political correctness.”
At any rate, the condemnation of Trump's influence on the body politic has become a key part of the Clinton campaign narrative as Election Day nears. The notion is that Trump is “taking hate groups mainstream” in a way that disregards core American values such as equal rights, which is all "profoundly dangerous."
It's not an easy message to muster. In fact, on Thursday night Clinton criticized Trump for his “conspiracy theories like the lie that President Obama is not a true American.” She then added: "If he doesn't respect all Americans, how can he serve all Americans?"
But after Friday night's comments, Americans clearly saw that Clinton just went down the same road.
At the same time, aside from admitting that she was generalizing, Clinton did empathize with many Trump voters “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 …."
These Trump supporters, Clinton added, “don't buy everything he says,” but “hold out some hope that their lives will be different” with him as president. “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.”