Confronting the deplorable: A look at media sensationalism

Matthew Raskob

A political firestorm was ignited last Friday night. At an LGBT fundraiser in New York City, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton remarked that “half of Trump’s supporters” could be put “into what I call the basket of deplorables.” These people, she asserted, are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamophobic” and she excoriated Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, for embracing and empowering them. The appetite of the mercurial and sensationalistic press for conflict was whetted and reporters went to work forthwith depicting the comment in the worst possible light. Clinton’s frank words were soon circulated ad nauseam, accompanied by professions of astonishment that a candidate for public office would dare portray a segment of America as bigoted. Forgotten was the rest of her speech, in which she went on to express empathy for those Trump supporters who are motivated by economic and social distress. Ignored was the fact that Clinton had used virtually the same words on at least one prior occasion. Her opponents saw their chance and pounced gleefully, declaring that Clinton had unfairly denigrated millions of hard-working, patriotic Americans — at an exclusive fundraiser, no less.

This comment and the reactions it precipitated provide copious opportunities for deliberation and reflection. Consider, for instance, that when Donald Trump vilifies entire groups of American based upon their color or creed, it is often brushed off as mere showmanship and further evidence of an unconventional candidate’s authenticity. When Hillary Clinton makes a blunt assertion about a portion of Trump’s supporters, on the other hand, it is a scandalous indiscretion that reveals deep-seated disdain for the unpretentious, industrious inhabitants of Middle America. Consider that a few outspoken sentences uttered by Clinton have garnered hours of coverage on cable news and prominent placement in every newspaper and blog. In contrast, Trump’s plethora of scandals and disturbing pronouncements languished in relative obscurity. For instance, are Clinton’s remarks really more newsworthy than the Trump Foundation’s illegal gift to Florida’s Attorney General, who shortly thereafter dropped an investigation into Trump University? Should they really concern us more than Trump’s recent threat to fire upon Iranian patrol boats shadowing U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf?

What I believe is most interesting to explore, however, is what the entire contretemps reveals about our collective inability to come to grips with the role bigotry plays in our politics. Almost immediately after Clinton inelegantly placed half of Trump’s supporters in “the basket of deplorables,” political journalists breathlessly began to opine upon what this slip portended for her political fortunes. Rarely, if ever, was there any discussion of the veracity of her comments. This is indeed unfortunate, for Clinton made the point the media and far too many voters have failed to grasp. Donald Trump, his platform, and some of his most ardent proponents are anything but mainstream. This has been disregarded by the press, which has overwhelmingly chosen to treat Donald Trump like a mainstream politician, albeit one with a colorful style. Alarmingly, voters have followed the media’s lead. While Trump’s favorability ratings may be the lowest of any major party presidential candidate in history, they are only slightly lower than those of Hillary Clinton. In another disturbing development, Republicans and a good deal of independents have lined up behind Trump as they would for any ordinary Republican nominee.

However inconvenient it may be for the prim and proper gatekeepers of political discourse to admit, Donald Trump’s campaign is based upon ethnic, religious, and racial animus of the vilest sort. Lest we forget, Trump owes his prominence within the Republican Party today to his active role in questioning the citizenship and legitimacy of the first African-American president. He launched his campaign by defaming Mexican-Americans as drug dealers, murderers, and rapists, and later pledged to ban all Muslims from the United States. Part of the movement that has sprung up around Trump is a motley crew of neo-fascists, Islamophobes, anti-Semites, and longstanding white supremacists who, eager for a rebrand, have collectively christened themselves the “alt-right.” At Trump’s rallies, the bigotry, racism, and xenophobia of the mogul’s diehard supporters are on full display. Numerous incidents of violence against protesters have occurred, and attendees habitually join in hateful chants encouraged by the nominee himself.

Furthermore, as ThinkProgress, a left-leaning blog noted, opinion polls show that sizable numbers of Trump’s supporters hold beliefs that can only be described as bigoted and discriminatory. One such poll from Reuters found that 40 percent of Trump supporters believe that African-Americans are more “lazy” than whites and 50 percent believe that African-Americans are more “violent.” Another, conducted by YouGov, discovered that a third of Trump supporters approve of the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. Clearly, deeply racist and xenophobic views are no longer confined to the fringe of American politics, but rather have found a wide constituency among the supporters of Donald Trump. If these sorts of actions, beliefs, and people are not “deplorable,” I know not what is.

Many Trump supporters are not “irredeemable” Islamophobes, misogynists, racists, and xenophobes, as Hillary Clinton herself eloquently explained later on in her now infamous remarks. This “basket” of Trump supporters is comprised instead of struggling Americans in need of solicitude and assistance. The jobs that once offered them financial stability have disappeared, casualties of automation and globalization. They are suffering both mentally and physically and, as a result, experiencing rising morbidity and mortality in midlife. They are not so much voting for Donald Trump as for radical change of any sort. All of this, I might hasten to add, does not excuse their support of a candidate, but it does demonstrate that they are far from evil at heart. The Democratic Party must acknowledge the concerns of these voters and reach out to them with an agenda that appeals not to their darkest fears and prejudices but to their aspirations and inherent decency.

Those who refuse to confront the deplorable truth about Donald Trump and the malignant forces behind his campaign deserve no such sympathy, however. Once we accept a candidate and a political movement based upon racism, sexism, xenophobia and outright white supremacism, we accept actions and policies motivated by those views. Horrific acts of discrimination, both those perpetrated by individuals and those sanctioned by the state, become not only chillingly plausible, but likely. However impolitic it may be, we must identify deplorable beliefs and individuals and refuse to tolerate their intolerance as a society. Hillary Clinton’s remarks may have been a gaffe, but only if, as Michael Kinsley famously observed, a gaffe is when “the spin breaks down” and “a politician tells the truth.” She should be commended, not censured, for her uncharacteristically forthright words.

*This article has been edited from its printed form