Gaffe or Strategy, Hillary's "Deplorable" Words Have Shaken Up the Race

The Tweet: Gaffe or strategy, Hillary's words focus attention on who Trump is, and the fringe groups that will march into the White House with him if he wins.

It just seemed like an incredibly dumb thing to do. Regardless of what one thinks of the xenophobes and racists that constitute a fair share of Donald Trump's base, how could Hillary call a large share of his supporters deplorable?

I understand that polls suggest that 65% of Trump supporters believe President Obama is a secret Muslim, and that 59% buy into Donald Trump's Birther theory. It does not surprise me to read that 40% of Trump supporters believe that Blacks are lazier than Whites, that 31% support banning gays from the United States, or that 16% are white supremacists. Not one of those figures surprise me. This is America; it is an enormous country and full of people whose views I disagree with. And many whose views I find deplorable.

Donald Trump has pandered to the most chauvinist elements in the country from the opening minutes of his campaign. He just made an impresario of the alt-right--that loosely knit community of white nationalist, white supremacist, anti-semitic, nativist and other reactionary groups that live at the far right fringe of American politics--the head of his campaign. He has turned the nation's politics into a Kindergarten sandbox of name-calling and spite.

Donald Trump's fragile ego, his erratic narcissism, and his wanton affiliations with the most extreme reactionary groups in our country constituted Hillary Clinton's single greatest competitive advantage. Why then, in one scripted moment, would the Clinton campaign give away the moral high ground by resorting to partisan name-calling? As much as her supporters might claim that the data above supports her words, insulting the electorate is something you just don't do.

It all makes no sense. It is hard to fathom how a woman who has been mentored for decades now by Bill Clinton could make such a stupid mistake. Bill Clinton was weaned in the real world of politics--southern politics at that--not some imaginary world where people all believe and behave as we might wish they would. He did not berate voters he disagreed with, instead, he famously felt their pain, and then pandered to them when electoral realities warranted.

Bill Clinton's welfare reform, his Sister Souljah moment, and his crime bill were all tailored to appeal to the prejudices of the white working class voters who are now flocking to Donald Trump. Hillary's denunciation of Black "super predators" was supposed to mark her own rite of passage into the realpolitik world of dog whistles, that well honed art of pandering to the less educated white electorate whose votes have been critical to both major political parties for decades.

With that history, it seems inconceivable that Hillary's words were an off-the-cuff gaffe. This was not Barack Obama caught talking off camera eight years ago, with his prescient description of the Trump electorate: "They get bitter, they 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." Hillary's words were in the written text of her remarks, they were loaded into the teleprompter.

That is to say, they were deliberate, pre-meditated. Given the incendiary nature of the content, using that language had to have been a strategic decision.

Hillary Clinton is not the only one who disdains the xenophobes, homophobes and racists--as she describes them--who are flocking to Donald Trump's banner. A large share of the electorate of both political parties has been disgusted by Trump's success in dragging the presidential race down into the deepest gutter of our politics, while elevating those whose views are most repugnant to a new level of respectability. This was the point Hillary made right after the controversial "basket of deplorables" comment:

"And he [Trump] has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people -- now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks -- they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America."

This, indeed, has been Donald Trump's seminal achievement. He has elevated and legitimated truly odious political forces, even has he has moved in recent weeks to elevate his own stature and respectability. One has to imagine that as the Presidential race tightens and moves into its final weeks, the intention behind Hillary's remarks was to refocus media and public attention on who Donald Trump is--who he was as the champion of the Birther movement, who he was during the most egregious moments of the Republican primary season, and who he was when he chose Steve Bannon, the chairman of Breitbart Media and champion of the alt-right movement, to be the head of his Presidential campaign.

Campaign tactics are not always what they appear to be. Over the past several weeks, Donald Trump has reached out to the black community, with visits to Detroit and Philadelphia, yet the focus of those efforts was about improving his standing among educated white Republican women, a demographic that he is losing badly. Looked at from that perspective, Clinton's words look like a deliberate tactic to remind voters--particularly those same educated white Republican women who dislike the racial and anti-immigrant tenor of the Trump campaign--exactly who they are getting in bed with.

Donald Trump has reacted predictably to Clinton's words, arguing that the disrespect that she showed for his voters should disqualify her from public service. But he is on shaky ground. The more vehement he becomes in defense of his most angry and loyal voters--who wildly cheer his most egregious comments--the more he risks proving Clinton's point, and in turn alienating other potential voters.

Each time the Trump campaign struggles to disavow their strong support among fringe right wing groups, it is one more reminder that the influence of the alt-right now permeates the Trump campaign organization. This week, Mike Pence struggled to explain away the support of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, even as he refused to acknowledge that Duke's views are deplorable. David Duke's response on Twitter applauding Pence's words could only add fuel to the issue.

The race has been tightening, as this graph from 538 politics suggests, with momentum swinging in Donald Trump's direction. His high negatives remained evident in newly released polls, but the impact of his most outrageous comments has been fading. Hillary's campaign knows that her best chance of winning is if the race is a referendum on Donald Trump. Her words may have been a gaffe, or it could have been part of a strategy--albeit a risky one--to refocus voter attention on who Donald Trump is, and who will be marching into the White House with him, should he win this November.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.