Hillary Clinton’s ‘deplorables’ comment is not entirely wrong

Top of the Ticket cartoon
(David Horsey / Los Angeles Times)

At some point in every election cycle, a TV news anchor — and more likely several of them — will speak in reverential tones about “the wisdom of the American people.” This expression of clichéd, lazy patriotism implies that the collective choice made by voters when they go to the polls is magically infallible. Unfortunately, that is simply not true.

Consider the man many Americans think of as the country’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln. We got him by chance, not because the people were so smart. Lincoln was elected in 1860 with less than 40% of the vote, the lowest percentage of any winning presidential candidate in U.S. history. If the opposition had not been split three ways, Honest Abe would have gone back to his law office in Illinois and someone who was more willing to let the United States be dismembered or allow slavery to continue would have gone to the White House.

In 1860, the majority of American voters cast their ballots, not with wisdom, but in a way that reflected their prejudices, fears and tribal instincts. Things have not changed much in the subsequent 156 years.

Hillary Clinton has run into a buzz saw of criticism because of her overstatement that half of Donald Trump’s supporters could be placed in a “basket of deplorables.” She said these people are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.” Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, called this a slander on “hardworking Americans” who deserve more respect.


Clinton quickly apologized for using the word “half,” saying she meant to criticize a much smaller cadre of right-wing fanatics who are riding the Trump bandwagon. Still, she was not entirely off the mark. It is clear from evidence gleaned from poll after poll that at least half of Republicans hold some curious ideas. More than 50%, for instance, are convinced that Obama is a Muslim born somewhere outside the United States.

The Vox website has gathered together several national public opinion polls that compared the views of Clinton and Trump voters. They are instructive.

Though Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan deplored Trump’s idea of barring Muslims from entering the U.S., calling it a religious test that violated the Constitution, just under half of Republican voters in one poll said they “strongly supported” the scheme and another 28% gave it tentative approval. Ryan also criticized Trump’s insistence that a judge should recuse himself from a lawsuit against Trump University because of his Mexican heritage, but 43% of Republicans sided with Trump while only 39% were with Ryan.

Polls also show that Trump voters are much more likely than Clinton voters to have negative views of Mexican immigrants — and not just the illegal ones. They also are much more likely to think African Americans are less smart and more lazy, rude, violent and criminally inclined than white people. While 58% of white Americans say they harbor some level of resentment against blacks, a whopping 81% of Trump voters expressed such resentment.

The Vox analysis importantly notes that this does not mean most Trump voters are overtly racist or horrible people. More precisely, these poll results are an indication that a big share — half or more? — of the folks voting for Trump are fearful and angry about social and cultural changes that they believe are shifting the country away from what it has been. “This is why a Trump surrogate warned that if Clinton wins the election, there will be ‘taco trucks on every corner,’” the Vox analysis said. “The worry isn’t that delicious food will be everywhere, but that the cultural makeup of America will dramatically change…”

Those in the Trump camp, of course, would argue this is not fearfulness but wisdom. So, that is what this election has come down to: a furious contest between two very different visions of America’s future. Whichever way the election goes, it will be a victory of one vision over another, but there is no guarantee that it will be a choice that confirms the inherent wisdom of the American people.

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