Clinton Was Wrong to Generalize About Trump's Supporters

Clinton’s remarks played into the perception among GOP and independent voters that Democratic Party leaders are hateful and smug.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

After getting it horribly wrong, Hillary Clinton got it right.

First, what went wrong: The political world lost its collective mind when the Democratic presidential nominee said this at a fund-raiser last night:

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables’. Right?” Clinton said to applause and laughter from the crowd of supporters at an LGBT for Hillary fundraiser where Barbra Streisand performed. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.”

“And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up,” she added.

Generalizing is almost always a mistake for leaders, and the savvy ones don’t intentionally unleash gross generalizations. Half of Trump’s supporters represents about 20 percent of the voting public, or nearly 30 million Americans.

As liberal writer Greg Sargent wrote in the Washington Post, “People have all kinds of reasons for supporting their candidate — party loyalty; reflexive negative partisanship; genuine distaste with the alternatives; meaningful, legitimate support for certain aspects of the candidate’s agenda, and not others; and so forth.”

Politically, it was a stupid move. Clinton played into the perception among GOP and independent voters that Democratic Party leaders are hateful and smug, a clutch of coastal elitists so dismissive of middle America that they wonder what’s the matter with Kansas, rather than work to reconnect with Topeka.

Like Mitt Romney and his “47 percent” theory, Clinton’s “Basket of deplorables” threatens to become a damning shorthand for the worst of what those voters think about her.

In the 2012 presidential campaign, Romney and his GOP allies lost control of the public relations crisis because they decided to defend the remark. Then they parsed it. They also debated the math and blamed the media. Romney admitted a year later that the situation “did real damage to my campaign.”

What did Clinton do? Nothing at first, though  professional partisans rushed to their comfortable corners. Democrats defended Clinton: some said her math was accurate; others said she exaggerated to make an important point; still others said the flap was overblown. Republicans denounced her: some said she was demonizing all Trump supporters (never true), and others predicted huge backlash from voters.

Trump’s team thought, actually hoped, that Clinton would double down – that she would defend the remark, parse it, and blame everybody but herself. In other words, they expected her to turn to the 1990s Clinton playbook, which worked pretty well for years.

But times have changed. There are no gatekeepers to filter a clumsy comment. There is no collective sense of relevance; all gaffes seem to be created equal. There is no trust; voters today have no patience for glib and guile. And, in the era of hyper connectivity, there is no time to play games.

Clinton had a choice: play by the old rules (like she did with the email scandal), or just get it right.

This afternoon, she released a statement:

“Last night I was ‘grossly generalistic,’ and that’s never a good idea. I regret saying ‘half’ -- that was wrong.

Clinton didn’t apologize, which for some reason is hard for her to do, but she did say the remark was wrong and she didn’t try to excuse it—even as she accurately described the choice voters must make.

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. It’s deplorable that Trump has built his campaign largely on prejudice and paranoia and given a national platform to hateful views and voices, including by retweeting fringe bigots with a few dozen followers and spreading their message to 11 million people. It’s deplorable that he’s attacked a federal judge for his ‘Mexican heritage,’ bullied a Gold Star family because of their Muslim faith, and promoted the lie that our first black president is not a true American. So I won't stop calling out bigotry and racist rhetoric in this campaign.

She added context to a point that is critical for voters to understand if she is to stop a bigoted, sexist, intellectually light and incurious megalomaniac from seizing the White House.

I also meant what I said last night about empathy, and the very real challenges we face as a country where so many people have been left out and left behind. As I said, many of Trump's supporters are hard-working Americans who just don’t feel like the economy or our political system are working for them.

Nobody heard those sentiments last night, and that’s not the media’s fault. It’s hers. Clinton needs to look inside herself and at her staff and ask why she would grossly generalize about such people.

Ron Fournier, associate publisher of Crain's Detroit, is an Atlantic contributor.