Donald Trump and his campaign seem convinced that Hillary Clinton’s comments last week at a fundraiser calling half his supporters a “basket of deplorables” is a damaging gaffe they can capitalize upon.
But after a brief and limited apology, Clinton and her campaign have doubled down upon the core of the argument, sparking some political commentators to wonder if the “gaffe” was actually a trap that Trump walked into.
On Sept. 9, Clinton said, “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, Islamophobic — you name it.” That weekend, she issued a statement expressing regret for saying “half” his supporters fit into that camp.
But since then, both Clinton and her top surrogates have kept at the “deplorables” theme, even as Trump and his team have relentlessly hit her on the comment as proof she is out of touch.
“I have said Donald Trump has run a deplorable campaign,” Clinton said in a radio interview with Tom Joyner that aired Sept. 15, her first day back on the campaign trail since she revealed she had pneumonia on Sept. 11. She vowed to keep “calling out the bigotry and hateful rhetoric” on the trail.
Clinton also mentioned that former KKK leader David Duke and other white supremacists support the GOP nominee. “His running mate, Mike Pence, wouldn’t even call a former KKK leader ‘deplorable,’” Clinton said, referring to a CNN interview in which Pence was asked about Clinton’s comments and would not concede that description of Duke.
These kinds of questions to Pence and Trump are a boon for the Clinton campaign.
Republican political strategist Liz Mair said the comments “force attention” on the more unsavory people who support Trump. “A lot of voters are only just now tuning in, so they may not be aware of the fact that David Duke, various KKK organizations, the ‘alt-right’ en masse, Vladimir Putin, and other foreign authoritarian enemies of America — people who really are deplorable — are supporting Trump,” Mair said.
Clinton’s surrogates are also not backing down from the line. Her running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, said in a Sept. 13 speech in Michigan that he’s “happy to be on a ticket with somebody who’s not afraid to call out bad behavior.” He used the word “deplorable” several times. “If you cannot call out bigotry, if you cannot call out racism, xenophobia, anti-immigrant — if you can’t call it out and you stand back and you’re silent around it, you’re enabling it to grow,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign has continued to rail against Clinton over the comments. Earlier this week, the campaign released an ad featuring Clinton’s statement, running it in several swing states. And Trump told a crowd of his supporters, “You can’t lead this nation if you have such a low opinion for its citizens.” He has included the “deplorables” issue in nearly every speech since, and his advisers think it’s a winning argument for him because it paints Clinton as elitist and out of touch.
“We’ve heard for months, from some pockets of liberal media, that Trump’s message is dark — yet it is Hillary who, on the weekend of 9/11, in a room full of rich elites, chose to insult half of America as either bigoted trash or desperate, jobless, dead-end folks while Mr. Trump continues to take his message of hope to the masses,” Trump senior adviser A.J. Delgado told Yahoo News.
But the Clinton campaign has arguably used the word “deplorable” even more than Trump has. The campaign released an ad using his own past statements against him, making a supercut of Trump asking “how stupid” people are. The Clinton campaign then released another ad with the footage of Pence refusing to call Duke “deplorable.”
“Half might not be the right number, but it ain’t far off,” said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a surrogate for the Clinton campaign. “Should she bash the electorate? Probably not. Is she going to lose votes over it? I doubt it very much.”
It’s also unclear if Clinton’s comments were unintentional, as she used the phrase “deplorables” in an earlier interview with an Israeli TV station (though she didn’t peg “half” of Trump’s supporters in that category then).
“Sometimes what happens, and what happened here, is we get into a campaign fundraiser, we’re fired up and to them you say some obvious truths, but sometimes you might go a little bit overboard,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y. “But it’s obviously true that the candidate is deplorable and many people who support him are deplorable.”