'Les Deplorables': why some Trump supporters have embraced the label

Hillary Clinton has apologized for remarks last week in which she called half of Donald Trump's supporters a 'basket of deplorables.' But some Trump supporters are embracing the term. 

Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
A member of the audience snaps a photo of the “Deplorables” Darcy Butkus, from left, Becky Love, and Kathy Potts while onetime Georgia lawmaker Newt Gingrich hosts a town hall gathering at Kennesaw State University on Monday, Sept. 12, 2016, in Kennesaw, Ga. Gingrinch mentioned the deplorables in reference to comments made by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton has expressed "regret" for her remarks last Friday that "half" of Donald Trump supporters are part of a xenophobic, homophobic, racist, and sexist "basket of deplorables." 

"Last night I was 'grossly generalistic,' and that's never a good idea," said the Democratic presidential nominee, the day after making the comments at a fundraiser. "I regret saying 'half' – that was wrong." 

But while the remarks initially sparked outrage among supporters of the Republican candidate, some have begun to embrace the label as a rallying cry. 

The reappropriation of terms intended as insults is nothing new in the political world, Pippa Norris, a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email: "This is a common practice over the years as many informal party labels were first suggested as criticisms." 

Dr. Norris adds that "the process of appropriating critical commons is also a widespread process in society," citing as examples derogatory terms originally directed at women and African Americans. 

The adoption of the "deplorables" label may be, for some in the Trump-supporting community, an intentional declaration of an unwillingness to conform, says John Hibbing, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. 

"It certainly reflects that they view themselves as being opposed to political correctness," Dr. Hibbing tells the Monitor in a phone interview. "If the implication is that they’re supposed to sort of change the way they talk and think. I think that's their way of saying look, we are the way we are and we're not going to change." 

In one widely circulated internet meme, the words "Les Deplorables" are imposed over a movie poster for the 2012 film "Les Misérables," implying a connection between current events and the Paris Uprising of 1832, as depicted in Victor Hugo's 1862 novel of the same name. 

The association suggests a perception among Trump supporters that "they're kind of put upon, that they're being subjected to abuse and mistreatment because they’re being forced to kind of talk the language of other people in society," Hibbing says. "They're saying hey, we're not being treated well here."

Some supporters have compared the labels applied to Trump voters today to historic terms such as "enemies of the people," used during the French Revolution, or "bad elements," used during China's Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. 

Throughout history, "specific insults [for political enemies] morph to fit the circumstances and the times, but each insult is designed to have the same effect – to dehumanize and to objectify a group of people in opposition to the dominant group that has seized power and the legal mechanisms of the state," Ron Maxwell, a filmmaker best-known for historical epics including "Gettysburg" and "Gods and Generals," writes in a Tuesday column for Breitbart, responding to the "basket of deplorables" comment. 

Trump supporters, particularly those disenchanted with the state of the economy, may see parallels between the revolutionary spirit of "Les Misérables" and their own kind of rebellion, says Anthony DiMaggio, assistant professor of political science at Lehigh University. 

"There’s this idea that they’re being repressed on a massive scale," resulting in a need for "revolutionary violence or rebellion," Dr. DiMaggio tells the Monitor in a phone interview. 

"A lot of this anger, I think, is being stoked," he continues, by "socialization, the following of right-wing media…and a sort of 'armageddon today, armageddon tomorrow' phenomenon." 

Comments such as Clinton's can contribute to this perception, achieving the opposite of their intended effect, as the Monitor's Patrik Jonsson noted last week.

"[A]t least to some critics, the American left is to blame for the rise of the alt-right," he writes. "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."

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