Racism, Accountability and Baskets of Deplorables

In 1998 when Hillary Clinton was the First Lady she famously used the phrase “vast right wing conspiracy” to describe what she saw as efforts to destroy her husband’s presidency. She was widely ridiculed for that sentiment, and choice of words. It was, of course, crazy to suggest there was some kind of vast right wing conspiracy seeking in the US. There was no such thing. Rather, there was a network of ultra-wealthy conservatives ,who behaved secretively, funneling money through various organizations with benign and non-partisan sounding names seeking to influence media coverage, state and local politics and even to train young conservatives. That is, of course, that actual definition of “vast right wing conspiracy.” In 1998, the First Lady caused a stir and was ridiculed for saying something many already believed to be true and that in the following years proved undeniable.

It was difficult not to be reminded of that episode from almost twenty years ago when about ten days back candidate Clinton described half of her opponent’s supporters as being “a basket of deplorables.” Again, Clinton used a memorable phrase to state something that a large proportion of the country sees as patently obvious. And, again her conservative opponents are acting outraged by Clinton’s simple and truthful observation.

While it is probably true that making verbal attacks on a large segment of the electorate, in this case probably 22% or so, is not a wise strategy, Clinton’s statement was accurate and, in many respects, a principled response to the most intolerant, or to use the more accurate, but less pleasant word, racist, presidential campaign by a major candidate since George Wallace’s third party bid in 1968. Clinton may have damaged herself politically, but she did so in the cause of drawing attention to bigotry and seeking to hold individuals, not just Trump himself, responsible for abetting, facilitating and actively engaging in racism.

The reaction to Clinton’s comments is a reflection that in 21st Century America it is considered worse by many to call somebody a racist than to actually be one. This is largely in part to many overly-sensitive European-Americans who chafe at any suggestion that racism is still a problem in the US. However if we do not view Mr. Trump, a man who has referred to Mexicans as rapists, promised widespread religious discriminations against Muslims, advocated violence against African American demonstrators and supported anti-Semitic themes that are older than our country, as a racist, and if we give a pass to his supporters because they are upset about Hillary Clinton’s emails or the economy, than the word has no meaning at all. In other words, if Donald Trump is not a racist, what would somebody have to do to be considered a racist? And, what is the line that cannot be crossed before people who do not abandon that candidate are not themselves racist? For many Americans, it is already clear that Trump has crossed all those lines.

Expressing dismay about Trump’s bigotry, but not recognizing the extent to which his views are supported, even embraced, by many of those who intend to vote for him fails to recognize the depth of the bigotry that still exists in the US. For many liberals, one of the most difficult aspects of the Trump campaign is not that he is a vulgar, demagogic, bigot, but that his campaign has demonstrated that there still is a large constituency for the most extreme forms of intolerance in public life. 

It is also unfair and ahistorical to assert that Trump’s racist campaign is sui generis and without antecedent in modern GOP politics. Racist appeals have been part of Republican campaigns for decades. Additionally, over the last 40 years, Republicans have made few sincere attempts to reach out to African American voters and have crafted policies that have been very damaging for African Americans. However, in most cases, and certainly at the presidential level, Republican candidates have at least sought to be subtle about their racism, and feel vaguely embarrassed by it, rather than celebrate it and place it at the center of their campaign. Trump’s campaign has been different and threatens not just to unravel whatever is left of our delicate social fabric, but to do it recklessly and seemingly with great joy.

If we want a society that is truly free all forms of bigotry, than it is the duty of all of us, but especially those that would like to be our leaders, to draw attention to bigotry wherever it is found and to hold bigots accountable for their actions, even if they are voters. Accordingly, the problem with Clinton’s ”basket of deplorables” statement is not that she said it, but that she said it in a semi-private setting. The American people would have been better served if she had made those comments openly in a public speech.