What a difference a gaffe makes. As an unexpected gift from the gods, Donald Trump, pouncing on his opponent's verbal misstep, seizes the high ground---a place he could never, ever occupy on his own.
Following the breath-taking, totally avoidable gaffe Hillary Clinton made at a New York fundraiser, in which she loaded whole classes into a "basket of deplorables"--saying "half" of Trump's supporters were "racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it"--Trump instantly tweeted this in defense:
"Wow, Hillary Clinton was SO INSULTING to my supporters, millions of amazing, hard working people. I think it will cost her at the polls!"
Thus the candidate who's taken American presidential politics on a road lower than it has ever been---with his appeals that are not dog-whistle subtle but blatantly racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it---gets to stand up as The People's Defender.
This is, after all, the man who got a running start at the presidency by promoting the racist "birther" myth, claiming our first African-American president, Barack Obama, is not American-born. And now---deplorably!---damage done and no repentance, Trump acknowledges Mr. Obama is American. The media are flatly using the term "lie." Then Trump lies again by blaming Hillary Clinton for starting the birther myth.
This is a man so sexist he says of Clinton---so insulting---"Does she look presidential, fellas? Give me a break." His xenophobia leads him to attack the Muslim parents of a son who sacrificed his life for his unit in Iraq. Trump's motto "Make America great again" is the siren song of white Americans angry at their loss of primacy, an appeal based on blood rather than our foundational ideals of equality and fair play. Into this dark space the white supremacist alt-right movement has risen to prominence.
Outrageously, ominously, Trump stokes violence. He signals his supporters may have to defend their Second Amendment rights if Clinton is elected and takes away their guns, and now, stunningly, he suggests her Secret Service agents should disarm ("See what happens to her"), all meaning---what?---he invites her assassination?
Truly: "Deplorable" is the word best describing the depths to which Trump has dragged America. But, thanks to his opponent's verbal gaffe, Trump now vaults to the moral upside, again a place he could never normally occupy.
Post-gaffe, Clinton next day tried to walk back her "deplorables" comment, saying she did not mean to demean "half" of Trump's supporters. But, for that news cycle at least, she was on the downside and parsing couldn't help.
Meanwhile, reinforcing his fraudulent claim to the high ground, Trump days later gave a speech in statesman mode, at the National Guard's annual convention, expanding on his defense of working-class Americans "viciously demonized" by Clinton, who "looks down on the proud citizens of our country as subjects for her rule":
"Hillary Clinton is an insider supported by powerful insiders attacking Americans who have absolutely no political power. Hillary Clinton spoke with hatred and derision for the people who make this country run. She spoke with contempt for the people who thanklessly follow the rules, pay their taxes and scratch out a living for their family; a hard-earned living, too."
This from the man who viciously demonizes all opponents. Expect to hear this faux-statesman message non-stop until November.
Rule No. 1 in campaign politics is: Never attack or malign the voter. How could Clinton, a savvy politician with decades in public life---but more to the point, a dedicated humanitarian---forget this basic rule about honoring the voter's humanity? As Democrats know by now (or their campaign managers should), Republicans are quick to cudgel "limousine liberals" who mock "fly-over country."
The proper target for attack, of course, is one's opponent, especially an opponent who maligns America's foundational ideals and draws voters to his skewed view---as Trump is doing with dismaying success. Revealed in this ugly campaign are---deplorable fact---the considerable number of racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, and Islamophobes who do indeed find shelter and fuel in Trump's rancid views (also here and here). Some may be, as Clinton said, "irredeemable."
But another rule of campaign politics is this: Voters are redeemable. Those Trump supporters who are not racist or sexist, etc., but who are hurting in this economy can be reached, and it will take all the former Secretary of State's diplomacy to do it. Clinton gestured to them in the second part of her "deplorables" speech, but nobody heard it. Honoring their humanity, she described them as:
"people who feel that the 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, and they're just desperate for change. It doesn't really even matter where it comes from."
Hillary Clinton can recover from her "deplorables" comment---and retake the moral high ground, where she absolutely needs to get, no more stumbles---by doing proper penance and apologizing for appearing to slur Trump's supporters (in contrast to Trump's non-apology for his birther fraud) and by resuming her attack on Trump himself---and not his supporters---for his bigoted, deplorable campaign.
But more crucially, Clinton needs to unleash her inner humanitarian, to reconnect with voters at their deepest level. Enough with the 10-point plans, show us passion, most especially the passion to change for the better the lives of those working- and middle-class voters she cited who are "just desperate for change."
In these hard and unhappy times, Trump is touted the change agent and Clinton the status quo candidate. But if the status quo candidate became a crusader for change, she could rescue us from the fate---truly deplorable---of a Trump presidency.
Carla Seaquist's latest book is titled "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." An earlier book is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death" and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal." (Archives here.)