Memo to candidates: Stop generalizing and psychoanalyzing your opponents' supporters. It never works out well for you.
The latest to fall into that trap is Hillary Clinton. The Democratic nominee, at a New York fundraiser Friday night with liberal donors and Barbra Streisand, said "half" of Trump supporters fit into a "basket of deplorables," while the other half are people who feel the government has let them down and need understanding and empathy.
The comments have rocketed around the Internet, infuriated conservatives and threaten to once again throw salt in the wound of the American cultural divide in a presidential election that has seen vitriol and insults, fueled by Donald Trump, that have become the norm. The remarks also remind of inflammatory remarks in recent presidential elections on both sides — from Barack Obama's assertion in 2008 that people in small towns are "bitter" and "cling to guns or religion," to Mitt Romney's 2012 statement that 47 percent of Americans vote for Democrats because they are "dependent upon government" and believe they are "victims," to his vice presidential pick Paul Ryan's comment that the country is divided between "makers and takers."
Here are Clinton's full remarks, per reporter Ruby Cramer at Buzzfeed:
"I know there are only 60 days left to make our case — and don't get complacent, don't see the latest outrageous, offensive, inappropriate comment and think well he's done this time. We are living in a volatile political environment.
"You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? [Laughter/applause]. The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people, now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now some of those folks, they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.
"But the other basket, the other basket, and I know because I see friends from all over America here. I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas, as well as you know New York and California. But that other basket of people who are people who feel that government has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they are just desperate for change. It doesn't really even matter where it comes from. They don't buy everything he says but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won't wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroine, feel like they're in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well."
Elitism and generalizations
Clinton's remarks, like Obama's in 2008, smacked of liberal elitism — liberals talking to liberals about a group of people they don't really know or hang out with, but feel free to opine about when talking to each other.
It's always problematic to speak in generalizations, something liberals would be the first ones to point out. At the point in which you hear yourself saying that you might begin talking in "grossly generalistic terms," it's probably best to re-think what's coming next. That's especially true when you don't have data to back up your point.
The biggest problem in Clinton's statement is that she said "half" of Trump supporters are racists, xenophobes and otherwise bigots. Half means equal or near-equal parts. There's no data to support such a specific number.
Clinton acknowledged that Saturday afternoon in a statement:
"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. It's deplorable that Trump has built his campaign largely on prejudice and paranoia and given a national platform to hateful views and voices, including by retweeting fringe bigots with a few dozen followers and spreading their message to 11 million people. It's deplorable that he's attacked a federal judge for his 'Mexican heritage,' bullied a Gold Star family because of their Muslim faith, and promoted the lie that our first black president is not a true American. So I won't stop calling out bigotry and racist rhetoric in this campaign. I also meant what I said last night about empathy, and the very real challenges we face as a country where so many people have been left out and left behind. As I said, many of Trump's supporters are hard-working Americans who just don't feel like the economy or our political system are working for them. I'm determined to bring our country together and make our economy work for everyone, not just those at the top. Because we really are 'stronger together.' "
Trump picked up on Clinton's Friday remarks in a tweet:
He elaborated in a statement, saying Clinton's statement was "disgraceful" and called her original comments "the worst mistake of the political season." He said Clinton is "unfit and incapable" of serving as president and that he would "be President for all of the people."
Clinton would have been on firmer footing if she had stuck to the kinds of careful caveats used in her speech about the alt-right. As recently as Thursday, Clinton used the "basket" analogy. And on Sunday, Politico wrote about the analogy, noting Clinton's attempts to appeal to Republicans — in the other basket:
"Former California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman even introduced Clinton at multiple closed-door August fundraisers in California. There, the candidate explained her approach to Republicans interested in Trump, according to one Bay Area attendee. Clinton divides Trump voters into two baskets, she said: the everyday Republicans — her targets — and what she called 'the deplorables' — the 'alt-right' crowd she excoriates and has no hope of wooing."
Neither instance received much attention, because of her wording. Note the lack of "half."
Clinton's latest remark comes at a time when Clinton was beginning to open up with the press more and planning to speak in more personal terms around issues, in an effort to reduce her near-record unfavorable ratings. (Only Donald Trump has worse ratings for a presidential candidate).
She took questions from reporters at length three separate times this past week. And the reason reporters know what Clinton said Friday night is because it was one of just six fundraisers that has been open to the press out of more than 330 she's done in this campaign.
The impact of similar remarks: Do they doom or just damage?
Romney's presidential campaign was severely damaged by his "47 percent" remarks, because it revealed a different kind of elitism for many — that of a wealthy person who appeared to look down his nose at those who weren't as well off.
It fit a narrative that may have deeply hurt Romney's campaign. But even at that point Romney was down in the polls. (His remarks were revealed almost four years ago to the date — Sept. 17, 2012.)
Exit polls on Election Day showed that for voters who said it mattered most to have a candidate who "cares about people like me," Obama won them 81 to 18 percent. Romney lost in an electoral landslide to President Obama.
On the other hand, President Obama won in 2008 despite his "bitter" remark.
Obama's comment was specifically about those affected by job losses in small towns in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. He said they feel left behind and "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."
Obama still wound up winning Pennsylvania, many states in the Midwest and the election in an electoral landslide. That's because the political environment was very different and clearly favored Democrats. George W. Bush was wildly unpopular, the war in Iraq had gone wrong and the economy cratered.
That's not to mention demographic change. The country is becoming more diverse, and that's helped Democrats in the last two presidential elections. (More on the impact of demographic change in this election below.)
Still, Obama's "bitter" remarks resulted in days of bad news for him, years of bad feelings and arguably made governing more difficult for the man who proclaimed there was no red or blue America. Yes, there was staunch and calculated GOP congressional opposition against him, but his remarks made it easier to galvanize those forces.
Often in the 2008 campaign, the most energy on the GOP side was with Sarah Palin, John McCain's vice presidential pick — and the very people who took the most offense to Obama's remarks. When the GOP ticket lost, it was, well, bitterness toward Obama that, in part, gave rise to the Tea Party. His "bitter" remarks became a mantra for many of these activists.
For the right, Clinton's "basket of deplorables" remark has become an "ah ha" moment, much like Obama's "bitter" remarks. (Just check out #basketofdeplorables on Twitter.)
The Trump campaign put out a statement from communications adviser Jason Miller that reads:
"Just when Hillary Clinton said she was going to start running a positive campaign, she ripped off her mask and revealed her true contempt for everyday Americans. Tonight's comments were more than another example of Clinton lying to the country about her emails, jeopardizing our national security, or even calling citizens 'super-predators' — this was Clinton, as a defender of Washington's rigged system — telling the American public that she could care less about them. And what's truly deplorable isn't just that Hillary Clinton made an inexcusable mistake in front of wealthy donors and reporters happened to be around to catch it, it's that Clinton revealed just how little she thinks of the hard-working men and women of America."
A backdrop of animosity, conspiracies and unease with demographic change
But let's not be Polyannish about this: Donald Trump has benefited from animosity toward Obama that had its roots in the 2008 campaign and the Tea Party; conspiracy theories, many of which he's propagated — and many of his supporters believe — against Obama and Clinton; and unease with demographic change.
The backbone of his candidacy has been a steady barrage of insults and innuendo for anyone who disagrees with him. And that's something that has animated his base, about two-thirds of which believes the U.S. is becoming too soft and feminine and is bothered by immigrants who don't speak English. (For more on that, see the PRRI/Atlantic poll below.)
On conspiracy theories, a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll from this spring, for example, found:
"Trump supporters are also more likely to think that Clinton knew about the Benghazi attacks before they happened, with 50 percent saying that she 'definitely' knew that the consulate was going to be attacked. This figure is far higher than the 12 percent of Sanders supporters who say the same, and the 23 percent of Americans overall who do so. Once again, belief in this conspiracy among Trump's supporters outpaces those of Cruz supporters (43 percent) and Kasich supporters (40 percent). While Republicans in general were more likely to endorse these conspiracy theories than Democrats, Trump supporters were much more likely to do so than other Republicans."
Most notably, Trump was at the forefront of the "birther" movement, which propelled him to right-wing fame, questioning whether Obama was born in the United States. (He was.) That was an effort to de-legitimize a president who has faced unfounded suspicion about his youth and origins — not only his place of birth, but also whether he was perhaps an "Arab" or Muslim. All of that is false. (It was always ironic that Obama could be cast as a Muslim, while also facing criticism for having a radical Christian preacher.)
The FDU poll found Trump supporters more likely to be suspicious of Obama's background — 40 percent of Trump supporters said they "definitely" believed Obama was hiding something about his background and early life. That was higher than for supporters of other GOP candidates.
Obama's birth is not something Trump has made a focus in this campaign. It's something he's been reluctant to talk about. But it's also something he has not disavowed in this campaign, even as he has tried to reach out to the black community. Rudy Giuliani claimed on MSNBC this week that Trump no longer believes it, but given multiple opportunities to say so in this campaign, Trump hasn't.
Rather, Trump has fanned the flames of discontent with demographic change. Even as the country has become more diverse, especially more Latino, Trump has angered Latinos with his comments about immigrants in the U.S. illegally, likening them to "rapists" and criminals in his announcement speech. He said a judge presiding over a Trump University fraud case couldn't be fair to him because he was "Mexican," even though the judge was born in Indiana. House Speaker Ryan called what Trump said the "textbook definition of a racist comment."
Trump has also called for a temporary ban on Muslims coming into the U.S., something he later re-framed to be about people coming from countries with a "proven history" of terrorism. He also took on the family of a Muslim-American soldier critical of his rhetoric. That landed him in perhaps his strongest backlash from Republican leaders in this campaign.
He tried to "soften" his tone in the past month, calling for criminals to be the focus of deportation, and he said he had "regret" for some of his comments during this campaign — though he didn't say what specifically.
Trump's attempts to shift his approach, however, have faced a backlash from influential supporters. Eventually, he backed off and went back to a hard-line stance.
There's reason for this. Half of Trump's supporters say they "strongly" support him, according to an August poll from the Pew Research Center, and 59 percent of them believe falsely that immigrants in the U.S. illegally are more likely than U.S. citizens to commit a serious crime. (As an NPR fact check of Trump's immigration speech noted, "Multiple analyses have found that immigrants commit violent crime at a lower rate than those born in the United States.")
For context, of the other half of Trump supporters, a lower percentage (42 percent) believe immigrants in the U.S. illegally are more likely to commit violent crime. Just 13 percent of Clinton supporters believe that.
According to a Pew report from May, 69 percent of Trump supporters believe immigrants are a burden on the U.S., and 64 percent believe Muslims should be subject to more scrutiny.
What's more, a PRRI/Atlantic poll this spring found that Trump supporters are more likely than others to say that:
- The U.S. is becoming too soft and feminine (68 percent),
- It bothers them when they encounter immigrants who do not speak English (64 percent),
- The government has paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities (55 percent)
- Men and women should stick to more traditional gender roles and tasks (50 percent),
- Discrimination against women is no longer a problem (46 percent)
All of those were higher than supporters of other Republicans running for president. And for those who say economic concerns are a great motivator for Trump supporters, the poll found that they are no worse off than Americans overall.
As Ron Brownstein wrote of the poll:
"With his signature proposals to build a border wall, deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, and to temporarily ban Muslim immigration, and with his spirited defense of police against 'black lives matter' protesters, Trump has aligned unreservedly with the priorities of the voters most anxious about demographic change."
Trump's policies with regard to tightening immigration — and his rhetoric in calling out Latinos and Muslims specifically — has inspired the white nationalists and alt-right movement that Clinton has highlighted. It's true that several white nationalists and white supremacists have come forward to say they support Trump.
David Duke, former Klansman whom Clinton noted in her statement about her remarks, is running for the Senate in Louisiana. He told NPR's Steve Inskeep that he believes there's a "massive racist, racial discrimination against European-Americans" and a "very vicious anti-white narrative."
He's supporting Trump, and he said that his campaign's polling shows 75 to 80 percent of Trump voters in Louisiana are supporting him.
Jared Taylor, described as an intellectual leader of the alt-right, told WAMU's Diane Rehm that he supports Trump because his policy proposals are "congruent" with the alt-right:
"Donald Trump, I think, has stumbled onto a number of policy proposals that are congruent with those that would be supported by the alt-right not because he has any sophisticated understanding of race, but simply because his instincts are that the country is changing in disagreeable ways," Taylor said. "When he wants to stop all illegal immigration, when he wants to send home all illegal immigrants who are here now, when he wants to stop birthright citizenship, when he wants to take a hard look at Muslim immigration on the assumption that perhaps we don't need any more Muslims in the United States, these are policies that appeal in a powerful way to many ordinary Americans who see their country slipping through their fingers."