Hillary Clinton’s observation to a private meeting of financial backers that the majority of her opponent’s supporters are “a basket of deplorables” triggered a tsunami of commentary. Some admonished her; others defended her. Still others advised her to move beyond Trump and lay out a positive vision for the country. And a few to their credit, New York Times opinion writer Charles Blow being one, made mention of the rest of her remarks in which she spoke of the “other basket” of Trump supporters in complex and nuanced ways.
I should elaborate on Blow’s observation, and perhaps I will later, but in this post I will do what others did: focus on the term, “basket of deplorables,” but from a slightly different angle.
The political constituency that catapulted Trump to the top of the Republican Party heap didn’t materialize overnight, nor is it the product of mainly economic distress. There are, after all, a lot white working people who are unhappy with the slow, uneven, and unequally shared economic recovery that don’t show up at Trump rallies or sign on to his politics.
While some new faces, including some traditional Democratic voters and white workers on the losing end of economic change, are in Trump’s camp, the majority of his supporters have long associated with Republican Party candidates and politics. A few surely go back to Nixon’s Southern strategy that carried him into the White House in 1968. Others to Ronald Reagan’s successful presidential campaigns. Still others to the right-wing evangelical movement that climbed on the political stage three decades ago and remains there. And a good number likely had a hand in the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 and the campaign to impeach Bill Clinton a few years later, while even more for sure threw their support to George W. Bush in his successful presidential bids. And, of course, the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 became the political baptism for a new wave of right-wing voters and activists who now find in Trump a kindred spirit and captivating voice for their deeply felt resentments.
In other words, most of Trump supporters – sections of big, medium, and small sized capital included – were the electoral base and motor of the ascendancy of right-wing extremism – an ascendancy that began four decades ago with a mission – still to be realized – to impose on the country a particular brand of neoliberalism that is raw, mean-spirited, bellicose, and anti-democratic in every sense. If anyone is a rookie here – as dangerous, erratic, reckless, hate-mongering, and demagogic as he is – it’s Trump.
Many things provided the adhesive to bind this motley multi-class, far-right coalition together in its battles against its center-progressive opposition, but nothing figured larger than the language and practice of racism. Racism energized the base, as it submerged otherwise competing class and social interests within this heterogeneous political bloc. It’s enough to recall such tropes as “law and order,” “reverse racism,” “welfare queens,” the “Bell Curve,” Willie Horton, “culture of pathology,” War on Drugs,” “post-racial society,” and “voter fraud” to to be reminded of the powerful and enduring function of racist discourse in the unification and mobilization of a grassroots right-wing constituency – and the pushing of U.S. politics to the right – over the past half century.
In recent years, we have seen a surge in racism and racist discourse (more on what triggered this surge in my next post). One of its distinguishing features is that the language (more covert) of “color blind” racism and “dog whistle” politics has increasingly yielded ground to racist rhetoric that is unrestrained and unapologetic. Language that was once spoken in hushed tones and confined to small circles has invaded the public square.
And, no one has done more to amplify and legitimize this surge than Donald Trump. He has no inhibitions in making vile racist pronouncements, no matter what their destructive and deadly consequences. In fact, he takes delight in mocking “political correctness,” and then turns it into his entry point to peddle an unfiltered raw racism as well as sexism, anti-immigrant nativism, homophobia, big power chauvinism, and white supremacy. In doing so, he has become the leader of a loose right-wing populist movement to turn back the clock to times that we thought were long past as well as the poster boy of the Ku Klux Klan and other openly white supremacist groups – the “alt-right.”
Which brings me back to Hillary Clinton. It’s to her credit that she is calling attention to this racist, reactionary, and well financed cancer growing in our body politic and the imminent danger it presents to our democratic rights, institutions, and governance. Late last month, her speech in Reno shined a bright light on this danger in a way that no other politician in the mainstream, including President Obama and Bernie Sanders, has.
And her comment a few days ago that “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables” may have been a bit injudicious, but there is no doubt that she bravely put her finger once more on a truth that should be sobering and disconcerting to most people. For this we should thank and defend her as well as step up our efforts to register, educate, and mobilize people in our communities to elect her – the first woman president in our country’s history. Much hangs on the outcome!