Clinton Just Played Trump's Game. Can She Beat Him At It?

Spotlighting the racism of his crowds shouldn't be controversial. But, as she found out, she has to choose the right words.
Clinton's "deplorables" comment was characterized as tone deaf.
Clinton's "deplorables" comment was characterized as tone deaf.

Let’s stipulate that Hillary Clinton is at least partially right.

When the former secretary of state appeared at a fundraiser on Friday night and said that a chunk of Donald Trump’s supporters were “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic,” it wasn’t a feat of groundbreaking analysis.

There is a massive amount of publicly available polling showing that the backers of the Republican nominee believe that President Barack Obama is not American and that blacks are more violent than whites. Most Jewish reporters can attest to receiving anti-Semitic quips from Trump fans in their inboxes or Twitter feeds on a regular basis.

And in a bit of cognitive dissonance, many of the same Twitter accounts expressing shock with Clinton’s remarks had, moments earlier, helped make viral a news clip of NBC’s Katy Tur tutoring former Rep. Jack Kingston (a Trump surrogate) on the often racist and Islamophobic tone of Trump events. 

All of this is evidence enough of Clinton’s point. And this doesn’t even broach the topic of Trump’s own words and the people he has chosen to run his campaign.

Let’s also note that the formulation used by Clinton at the Friday fundraiser isn’t new. She gave a heavily billed speech denouncing the rise of the alt-right movement and pegging it to Trump’s candidacy. And she continued from there. In a recent interview on Israeli television she copped to being “grossly generalistic” in breaking down Trump supporters into “two big baskets,” one of which she called the now infamous term: “the deplorables.” 

So it was bewildering for many Clinton supporters to see that ― after talking about this issue for weeks and highlighting a plainly observable feature of Trump’s rise ― Clinton was being called to task. The question they commonly asked was why, seemingly, was it more outrageous to call out the presence of racism than it is to actually spout those racist views? 

It isn’t, of course. 

But by morning, it was also clear that Clinton’s comments posed problems, both for the awkward word choice ― what exactly are “deplorables,” and why are they being put in a basket? ― and because she had said that half of all Trump supporters resided in that basket. (There likely would have been no controversy at all had she simply said that “a portion” did).

Party officials were worried that, absent an apology, coverage would distract and unnerve the campaign and risk ceding some of the moral high ground Clinton enjoys. 

“It’s one thing to attack your opponent, another to attack the people supporting him in such denigrating terms,” said Lis Smith, a top aide to former presidential candidate Martin O’Malley and a critic of the comment. “It’s fair game to note that he has the support of white nationalists, but saying that half of his supporters are deplorables is tone deaf and off the mark.” 

What Clinton’s campaign chose to do was to take a third route. They played Trump’s game, apologizing without an actual apology for speaking in controversial terms about a certain demographic. In a statement offered on Saturday, Clinton said she regretted estimating the percentage of Trump supporters who are “deplorables” but not the use of the word itself. 

Last night I was ‘grossly generalistic,’ and that’s never a good idea. I regret saying ‘half’ ― that was wrong. But let’s be clear, what’s really ‘deplorable’ is that Donald Trump hired a major advocate for the so-called ‘alt-right’ movement to run his campaign and that David Duke and other white supremacists see him as a champion of their values.

In copping only to a gross generalization, Clinton’s campaign assured that the discussion over deplorables would continue.

This wasn’t the final step of some grand plan charted weeks ago. After all, she has been using this formulation for some time without notice. But it would also be wrong to say that Clinton’s team is entirely displeased with how the conversation developed after its initial rough launch.

Debating what percentage of Trump’s base is racist certainly is preferable to talking about email protocols. But beyond that, the campaign’s goal, since the convention, has been to cleave moderate Republican voters away from Trump. An extended discussion of his incendiary comments, his campaign and his own nature is not the worst vehicle to do that.

That strategy is not without risk. Trump, with little sense of irony, attacked Clinton for bigotry and hatred for her “deplorables” comment. And even some Democrats worry that Clinton leaves this dust-up looking smug (that she made the comments at a fundraiser featuring Barbra Streisand is, for them, a comical and nightmarish thread to this entire saga). 

For that reason, many commentators have compared the entire episode to Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” gaffe ― a comparison Trump advisers quickly made, though without noting that Trump himself defended Romney in that moment.

But Clinton’s supporters are prepared to litigate this debate precisely because they feel that analogy falls short. Clinton wasn’t talking about half the country, just half of the people who support Trump. And while Romney castigated the poor for being government moochers, she was attacking, well, racists and racism ― terrain that is a bit easier to defend. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Barbra Streisand’s first name as Barbara. 

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.