The Deplorable Basket Case

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Asheville, North Carolina, U.S., September 12, 201
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Asheville, North Carolina, U.S., September 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Hillary Clinton made a deplorable basket case this weekend. That is, she made the case that "half" of the supporters of Donald Trump belong in a "basket of deplorables." It just sounds funnier to say it the first way, that's all.

Kidding aside, though, while the language Clinton used is being criticized, the point she was making was worth a little political risk. She walked part of her comment back almost immediately, saying she was wrong to use the word "half" -- but not wrong to call some Trump supporters "deplorables." Which means she's definitely trying to accomplish some political goal by saying such a provocative thing. Indeed, she's used the basket metaphor more than once (she only said "half" once).

This is a risky tactic, to state the obvious. Clinton's language breaks two cardinal rules for politicians, in fact, which exist because the risk is so plain to see. First, there are two types of politicians in the world: those who split people into two groups, and those who don't. This is a snarky way of saying: "Don't use 'two types of people' metaphors on the campaign trail." It is simplistic to do so, first and foremost, but it also shows a certain "us and them" divisiveness that turns off many voters. Especially paired with a word like "irredeemable," which is rather pessimistic (another thing voters don't usually respond well to).

The second cardinal rule of politics Clinton is breaking by wandering down this particular path is: "Don't talk about your opponent's supporters, because it usually doesn't help you at all." There are two other prime examples of this which many have been pointing out this weekend, and which are worth quoting in full. The first came from Mitt Romney:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.... These are people who pay no income tax... my job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

The second was uttered by Barack Obama on the 2008 campaign trail:

You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then 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.

Both showed elitist disdain for a large portion of the country's voters. Obama overcame this comment and went on to win. Romney did not. Interestingly enough, Obama's quote could now be updated with "...and they also fell through the Obama administration." Even Obama didn't have any magic wand to wave to make the problem of disappearing manufacturing jobs go away, in other words. The other interesting thing about his quote is that Obama was describing people who are now most likely Trump voters. If you take out the "cling to guns or religion" part of that last sentence, it's a perfect description of Trump's entire campaign, in fact.

Even so, Hillary Clinton is risking a backlash by not only talking about her opponent's supporters, but by also dividing them into two "baskets" -- redeemable and irredeemable. The initial outcry from the right over her statements has been kind of laughable, since (after all) Donald Trump rose to power by "not being PC" and "telling it like it is." Clinton just did that, and now they're shaking at the knees? Please.

At heart, Clinton is entirely correct. Some of Donald Trump's supporters are deplorable. Clinton noun-ized their status into a new political term (that is also causing some merriment online): "The Deplorables." She apologized for saying "half" -- a mistake she won't make again -- but whatever the actual fraction, Trump has indeed energized the alt-right and anti-immigrant communities throughout the entire election cycle. Far from denouncing their support, Trump hired the head of Breitbart (an alt-right site) to run his campaign. Clinton has every right to call him out on this.

Whether doing so is a good political tactic still remains to be seen. Clinton's comment is part of her larger campaign strategy, which is to make Trump an absolutely unacceptable choice to the largest possible number of voters. Part of this means confronting reasonable and moderate Republican voters with the ugliness of a large part of the Republican base. Xenophobia isn't exactly a new thing, in other words -- Republicans have long used "dog whistle" language to court such voters, in fact. Trump is just doing so right out in the open, that's the only real difference. But a portion of the Republican electorate has, up until now, convinced itself that there simply aren't any bigots within their own party, and that their conservative policies are the real answer to all the racial problems which still exist. That's what they have believed for a long time, and Clinton is rubbing their face in the fact that a portion of the Republican base actually does believe some pretty odious things. This has been most shocking to the Establishment Republicans and the conservative punditocracy, two groups known for staying mostly within their Beltway and New York City circles and not getting out to flyover country much at all. These folks' attitudes, pre-Trump, might be summed up as: "Well, I've certainly never met any bigoted Republicans in the cocktail parties I go to!"

The problem is, there's a world outside this cocktail party circuit. And remember -- these were all the people who assured themselves over and over again that Donald Trump could not possibly win their party's nomination. It was unthinkable to them, right up until it actually happened.

What Clinton risks by talking about base Trump voters, however, is creating a backlash among the very voters she's supposed to be courting. She's trying to appeal to "redeemable" Trump supporters, but even using such language is rather off-putting. Clinton is an outsider to the Republican Party (obviously), and it's never pleasant to have an outsider point out shortcomings of an insular group. Change, if it is going to happen, must take place from within. The "redeemable Republicans" already know Trump is unacceptable. Most of them are pretty horrified by what Trump has exposed within their own party. But hearing it from the opposition doesn't help them in their struggle with the new reality.

Clinton is trying to convince moderate voters who have usually voted Republican that it is not just Trump, but the entire Republican Party that is now irredeemable. So far, this hasn't moved the needle all that much. Pollsters are surprised that there may be a lot more split-ticket voters this year than we've seen in a long time. Ticket-splitting was supposed to be a thing of the past, when voters would vote a straight party ticket but then choose the other party's presidential candidate at the top. If Hillary Clinton wins the White House, her coattails might not even be long enough to flip the Senate to Democratic control. This is what some polls are now saying, although there are enough close races that neither party is currently confident they'll hold the Senate next year.

There is another option for moderate Republicans this time around, too. They can vote a straight Republican ticket and then vote for Gary Johnson instead of Trump. A lot of people are now saying that's exactly what they intend to do on Election Day, although whether they do so or not remains to be seen. In most elections, third-party support crumbles by Election Day, and most of these voters wind up voting for one of the two major party's candidates. This year may be different, but nobody really knows.

Long-term, the problem Clinton identified with her basket metaphor is a big headache for Republicans. The same cocktail party crowd is now assuring themselves that "Trumpism" is a one-time thing, and will disappear immediately after the election, when the Republican Party returns to being mainstream and not so driven by conspiracy theories. I seriously doubt this is going to happen, personally. I think the Trump followers are going to be a pretty major faction within the Republican ranks long after the 2016 votes have been counted.

What Donald Trump has proven is that stoking the fears of Republican base voters works. Will other Republicans in the future reject this strategy? It's hard to see them doing so, or at least it is hard to see all of them doing so. And as Trump proved, it only takes one such candidate catching fire to wipe out all of the other GOP candidates in the race. That's a powerful argument for someone slightly less controversial (and with a tad more self-control) to follow the same path Trump took to the nomination.

Clinton is saying in no uncertain terms: "This is your Republican Party. Deal with it. Own it." By doing so, she hopes to entice Republican voters who can't stand Trump to vote for her instead. Clinton had to be the one to point it out because prominent Republicans are too scared to do so, for the most part. It's pretty hard for a politician to denounce a large group of their own voters, after all, because that leads to "getting primaried" and losing your job. Republicans have already had to deal with the Tea Party within their own ranks, and they will likely be dealing with the Trump-loving segment of their party's base for a long time to come as well.

Clinton broke two political rules of thumb with her basket analogy. Setting herself up as the arbiter of who is and who is not redeemable isn't exactly going to endear her to many Republican voters (even the redeemable ones). But she pretty much had to break the other rule of thumb to make her case. There are strains within the Republican Party that many Republicans inside the Beltway have long denied even existed. They have risen to the surface in this election more prominently than any time in the past few decades. They're pretty hard to ignore, in fact. The conventional "attack your opponent not his supporters" tactic is impossible to use when pointing out what the Republican Party itself has become in this election. Donald Trump certainly didn't create them -- they were around long before he decided to run (as Obama previously pointed out, immediately after the "guns and religion" phrase he used). Republican politicians are terrified of confronting bigotry in their own base, because then that very same base will refuse to re-elect them. Most of the Republicans who have denounced Trump's appeal to bigots are already out of politics (a whole lot of "former officeholders," in other words). The ones that are still in office are going to have to deal with the basket of deplorables within their ranks in one way or another. All Clinton did was point this out. And no matter whether Clinton pays a political price or reaps a political benefit, that basket is still going to exist after the election is over.

 

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