It didn’t take much longer than a few minutes for the Trump campaign and its allies to seize on Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” quip and spin it as her latest presidential undoing.
“Hillary Clinton’s 47% Moment: Calls Trump Supporters ’Racist, Sexist, Homophobic, Xenophobic, Islamophobic,’” Breitbart (the most pro-Trump media outlet on the internet that has become a haven to the white-nationalist alt-right) proclaimed on Friday. Senior Trump advisor Sarah Huckabee went as far as to say that Clinton’s “inexcusable” moment was actually worse than Mitt Romney’s.
On Friday night, Clinton had torn into supporters of her Republican rival, saying: "To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the 'basket of deplorables,'" condemning the basket as a woefully bigoted one. Throughout the weekend, the Trump campaign repeatedly returned fire, labeling her as the “truly deplorable” one.
At the annual Christian-right Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC, on Saturday morning, Trump’s running mate Mike Pence contended that her characterization of 50 percent of Trump fans was an immediately disqualifying moment for the presidential candidate.
“Hillary Clinton said last night at a big fundraiser in New York City that the American people, the millions of Americans who are supporting my running mate…[they] were described in the most deplorable of terms,” the Indiana Republican governor told the crowd at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in northwest DC. “It's extraordinary to think about. She referred to those people as irredeemable… [Someone who has] such a low opinion of people who support this campaign should be denounced in the strongest possible terms."
“Hillary, they are not a basket of anything,” Pence continued, calling Trump supporters "hard-working Americans," farmers, coal miners, teachers, and so forth. “They are Americans and they deserve your respect.”
Following Pence’s remarks, the organizers of the annual Summit proceeded to play video of Clinton’s “deplorables” comments on the conference’s big screens, as the social-conservative audience booed and hissed at the Democratic candidate’s condemnation.
“She spoke at a Democratic fundraiser with Barbra Streisand,” Gil Mertz, a Family Research Council staffer and summit emcee, told supporters. "I hated to [play you that clip] right before lunch," adding that Clinton’s riff against half of all Trump voters is “going to be a powerful moment that is now going massively viral.”
Gone viral, it has.
“It's never been a well-kept secret that Hillary Clinton has a great deal of contempt for a great number of Americans,” Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist and managing director of the firm Purple Strategies, told The Daily Beast. “Just ask nearly any service employee that worked at the White House in the ’90s. Her arrogance has always been her Achilles’ Heel. This latest incident will make it harder to persuade Republicans and center-right independents disgruntled with the GOP nominee to take the leap and cast a vote for her instead.”
On Saturday, the Clinton campaign attempted to walk back her statement—well, at least the quantification part of it.
“Last night, I was ‘grossly generalistic,’ and that's never a good idea,” Clinton said in a statement posted to her Facebook page. “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.”
This was all explained the day after Clinton’s campaign press secretary Nick Merrill insisted that “Obviously not everyone supporting Trump is part of the alt-right, but alt-right leaders are with Trump”—and that the alt-right’s “supporters appear to make up half his crowd when you observe the tone of his events.”
At this point, Team Hillary’s response to the backlash appears to hinge upon rescinding her assertion that “half” of Trump’s supporters are beyond-the-pale bigoted and chauvinistic. Regardless, whatever the precise percentage, Clinton has made it a recurring theme in her campaign to bash The Donald’s hate-spewing fanboys, particularly those of the alt-right variety.
Last month, Clinton gave a much publicized speech calling attention to the far-right political movement defined largely by racial resentments, raging anti-Semitism, nationalistic giddiness, Nazi memes, and enthusiastic support for Trump’s stand against political correctness and immigrants.
“This is not conservatism as we have known it… these are racist ideas, race-baiting ideas,” she said in August, name-checking the alt-right as “the paranoid fringe.”
“The de facto merger between Breitbart and the Trump campaign represents a landmark achievement for [the alt-right]… which has effectively taken over the Republican Party,” she said.
(For its part, the leading figures of the alt-right were thrilled that both the Trump and Clinton campaigns were helping to make their brand a household term.)
So, yes, there are plenty of (and far too many) rabidly racist, misogynistic, and gleefully prejudiced white-nationalist members of Trump’s electoral fanbase—a genuinely deplorable cadre of bigots who have gained real, outsized influence within the Republican Party through the rise of Trumpism.
Team Hillary is now in a position of hashing out specifics regarding the percentage.
And as the alt-right enjoys yet another round of free publicity, at least one of its most prominent adherents is playing the victim card. Hard.
“For several months, our alt Right political party...has manned a Trump crisis hotline so that bullied Trump supporters have a place to go,” William Johnson, leader of the white-nationalist American Freedom Party and actual former Trump delegate, wrote in response to the “basket of deplorables” comments. “She is now the most high-profile bully in the nation.”
— With additional reporting by Betsy Woodruff.