This Is Critical: Hillary Can’t Back Down

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton attends a National Security working session at the Historical Society Library in New York, Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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Let me take a moment to address this “basket of deplorables” comment because I think it’s critically important to get this right. Hillary Clinton has simply said what is the premise of most election coverage of the 2016 campaign: a big chunk of Trump supporters are haters. Racists, misogynists, people who are angry at the social and demographic changes in the country that most Americans see as progress. They want to stop it in its tracks and they want payback for what has happened already. To emphasize the point, this is not just what she and likely the great majority of her supporters believe. It has been the premise of most reporting on the campaign and validated by a vast cache of public opinion data confirming these points.

It may have been easier not to say this and left herself vulnerable to a faux-populist counterattack. But she did say it. She cannot unsay it. And since it is not only basically true but in fact a matter of central importance to the entire election, it is truly critical that she not back down.

If there’s nothing else we’ve learned from this cycle we should have learned the centrality of ‘dominance’ politics. Campaigns are performative displays of strength, resolve. To back down, apologize or cower would not only play into Trump’s dominance politics routine, it would make Clinton look weak. It would deepen suspicions that she has no beliefs or will change them out of convenience. Far more importantly though, backing down would demoralize her supporters since it would amount to apologizing for or backing down from and delegitimizing what is in fact a central truth of the election.

Donald Trump has not only brought haters into the mainstream, he has normalized hate for a much broader swathe of the population who were perhaps already disaffected but had their grievances and latent prejudices held in check by social norms. This isn’t some minor point or critique. It’s a fundamental part of what is at stake in this election, what makes it different from Obama v Romney when we had a critical election but still one that was mainly about different policy directions for the country. This election has become a battle to combat the moral and civic cancer Trump has injecting into the body politic. (I know that sounds like florid language but it is the only fitting and valid way to describe it.) Backing down would make Clinton appear weak, accomplish nothing of value and confuse what is actually at stake in the election.

She should also focus on the part of the quote her enemies are leaving out – that the other half of Trump diehards are people who aren’t haters but feel frustrated, left behind and want change – almost regardless of where the change comes from. Democrats need to be talking to those people even if they’re unlikely to get many of their votes.

There was a critical moment in the 2004 election when John Kerry, after dodging and mealy-mouthing the question for some time, was finally forced to answer whether he thought the Iraq War was a mistake. I don’t think it ended up being terribly consequential to the outcome of the election and there were various reasons why Kerry likely didn’t feel able to say what I think he must really have thought. But he said, no: it wasn’t a mistake.

This was, mind you, going on three years into the war when it was clear to most people, although many were yet to admit it, that the whole thing had been a colossal mistake. That answer had the effect of having many of his supporters say, “Wait, what? Like if that’s true what are we even doing this for?”

He confused and demoralized his own supporters.

It may be tactically wise to shift off “half” or emphasize that what she’s talking about are his core supporters. Remember, only about 14 million people have voted for Trump. Half is 7 million people. Her opponents are interpreting this as referring 1/4 of the population of the contrary, which is ridiculous. It’s the “half” that has made her vulnerable.

So if I were counseling her I’d recommend saying that it’s his true supporters that she’s talking about, not every Republican who simply feels duty bound to support the party’s nominee. And the exact percentage of those supporters isn’t the point – 40%, 50%, or 60%. The point is that Trump is changing, corrupting who we are as a nation by bringing the deplorables mainstream and normalizing their kind of thinking for tens of millions of Americans.

Look at the polls. As much as GOP elites don’t want to admit it, Vladimir Putin has become dramatically more popular among Republicans over the last two years. Various racist beliefs have also grown more prevalent among Republicans. Trump is damaging and corrupting who we are. It didn’t start with him but he’s taking it national, he’s taken it mainstream.

We know what Trump advises: never apologize. This is a key element of Republican dominance politics, a language which I have said most Republicans know but which is Trump’s native language. There is a great political strength to this and one Democrats should partly take to heart. But there is also a moral and political weakness. It is after all why Trump still appears locked in the low 40s in national polls. Critical segments of the population believe he is devoid of empathy and conscience. In other words, he has many characteristics of a sociopath. What Democrats should take to heart, given the inherent damage of ‘backing down’ is that you should never back down from something you’ve said, even if inartfully, if you’re right. Or to put it more narrowly, if it is what you and your supporters believe to be true and critical to the fight you’re waging.

In this case, it is undeniably that. Democrats (I think rightly) thought Mitt Romney and John McCain would be terrible for the country. Wrong policies, wrong agenda. But I don’t think many thought either man might irreparably damage or even destroy the country. Trump is in the midst of a making one of the country’s two major parties into a white nationalist hate group. These things are all matters of the gravest consequence. This is what she believes. It’s what Democrats believe. It’s true. She may want to pivot here and there on the margins. But rather than back down she need to see this controversy as an opening to expand and elaborate on the point. Donald Trump is not a normal candidate. He’s bringing the haters into the mainstream. He’s making hate and the thirst for revenge into a normal part of the political dialogue.

Late Update 2:24 PM: About an hour after I wrote the above, the Clinton campaign released this statement …

Statement from Hillary Clinton

“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.’”

More “regret” than I’d have liked and think is wise. But I think she does use it to move off the “half” line and then double down on the larger point. So not all bad. I hope they continue pressing this broader argument.

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