When Hillary Clinton told a cheering audience that she thought half of Donald Trump’s supporters were “deplorables” she gave the Donald Trump campaign a stick with which to beat her. And boy have they wielded that stick.
Their strategy was clear. Use her careless comment both to energise the existing core Trump support base and to try to expand it. While they may have succeeded in the former aim, they are struggling, if not plainly failing, when it comes to the latter.
Nonetheless, it is a valid strategy as her comment, with its apparent dismissal of up to 20% of the American population, only served to confirm the image of Hillary Clinton as the ultimate out of touch insider, a part of the Washington political elite.
The strategy also assists Trump to portray himself as the bold and brash “outsider, the champion of a middle America that feels their country has lost its way and is now failing to deliver the American Dream for them and – more critically – for their children.
The strategy sits neatly with Trump’s campaign blueprint: present Donald Trump as a willing battering ram which disillusioned voters can use to attack and demolish a broken and unresponsive political system, be it Republican or Democrat. Trump’s core voters are using him everything bit as much as he is using them.
Without a doubt, Hillary Clinton’s comment was an unnecessary and unforced error, but does she have a point? Look at what she said:
“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? – The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”
Take out the word “half”, the specific word for which she has since apologised several times, and put the stress on “grossly generalistic” and it is hard to deny that some of his supporters fall into those categories.
Are these the defining characteristics of his candidacy? No. Has he used some of these dog whistles to exercise certain blocs of voters? Yes, though he would not be the first to do so.
While Trump is undoubtedly playing on people’s fears and concerns, those fears and concerns existed before Trump appeared on the political field. He is merely riding a Zeitgeist which he did not create but which others have ignored. As Prof Simon Schama tweeted in the midst of the anger and turmoil following the horrific Orlando shooting: “…we have a cultural civil war now in USA”.
That cultural civil war is being played out in this election with many of those planning to vote for Trump fighting what they believe is a last ditch battle for an America they can recognise and feel a part of, but which they fear is disappearing.
Since the 1970s the American middle class has shrunk from 61% of the population to 50%, and the American dream has become an increasingly distant prospect for the majority.
There is a smack of the “stop the world, I want to get off” to their concerns, be it globalisation, changing world of work, growing diversity, changing lifestyles.
Race plays a part too. Might there also be a cohort within Trump’s core base who feel (or is it fear) that the changing American demographics means that this is their absolutely last chance to elect someone just like them: old, white and male? His stubbornly high support levels among older white males, especially those with no third level education suggest that this was the first group to embrace him and may be the last group to abandon him.
Might this cohort, who once felt they were the typical average American and were at the core of American society, now feel so alienated that they are willing to forgive Trump any indiscretion in the hope that his election will help them return to the old certainties?
I suspect the answer was: yes, they were, but that they will now gradually start to abandon him as they realise that his flaws and weaknesses are so intrinsic and deep seated that he useless as a battering ram and has no hope of changing anything.
Trump’s defeat will not end the cultural civil war. Neither will Clinton’s election, unless she realises that while the “deplorables” are an irredeemable tiny minority, that the zeitgeist described above needs to be acknowledged.