It took the Hillary Clinton campaign a day to figure out their candidate had made a big mistake when she took a shot at supporters of Donald Trump. And, as is often the case, with unforced errors, it was a little too little, too late. Clinton’s statement at an LGBT fundraiser—“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables.’ Right?”—had all the hallmarks of a classic gaffe and immediately raised comparisons to Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” remark in 2012. Her partisans insisted from the moment they learned of that the whole thing was either no big deal or a spasm of wondrous truth-telling, but just like their dogged insistence that her emails don’t matter to voters, the spin fell flat.
This will stick to Clinton because (like Romney’s remark) it illustrates the contempt she has for all those who don’t support her. If, as the tape shows, her audience laughed on cue when she prodded them to agree, it’s because they share her belief that their opponents aren’t merely wrong but unworthy of respect as fellow citizens. If, as liberals keep insisting, they are fighting for a culture of civility against right-wingers spreading hate, it’s hard to see how that cause is advanced when Clinton continues to speak this way.
But while such statements are to be deplored as a matter of basic civics, this was a gift to Trump at a particularly inopportune moment. Clinton’s had a bad few weeks as the steady drip-drip-drip of information about her email scandal has continued to expose the lies she’s been telling about what she’s done ever since the story first broke. The challenge to her credibility has hurt her in the polls and caused a race that had seemed hers to lose in August to tighten. On Friday she provided yet another reason for voters to doubt her.
Worse than that, this line of attack is just what Trump needs to consolidate Republican support. One of his greatest weaknesses is the reluctance of mainstream Republicans, especially college educated voters and women, to fall in line behind a candidate that they not only don’t like but also disagree with on many major issues. But if there’s anything that helps promote party unity, it’s the sort of indiscriminate slur against all GOP voters like the one that Clinton employed to the snickers of her liberal backers.
We have repeatedly pointed out here that Trump has much to answer for with his dog whistling and open flirting with racist elements on the right. His numerous indiscriminate attacks on Hispanics and Muslims have empowered alt-right propagandists that believe Trump is signaling that he is their champion. His rise has caused these forces, which openly promote a form white nationalism and anti-Semitism, to crawl into the mainstream from the fever swamps where they had previously been confined. Trump’s choice of Breitbart.com’s Steve Bannon as his campaign CEO has opened him up to even more criticism on this score.
But to describe the millions of people who have voted for him in the primaries and the many more who will do so again in the general election because he is, like it or not, the nominee of their party, as “deplorables” is to cast the election in the kind of terms that do more to promote division and hatred than to bring us together. Her subsequent backtrack to say that she didn’t mean to say “half” of Trump voters were hate mongers isn’t nearly good enough. How many of them does she deplore? A third? A quarter? A tenth? Any way you slice it, if she wanted to provide a reason for those considering voting for Trump only because of their dim opinion of Clinton, she gave them another.