Hillary Clinton's 'Basket of Deplorables'

Paul Sakuma / AP
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The candidate: Hillary Clinton

The gaffe: Speaking at a fundraiser on September 9, Clinton 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, Islamophobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”

The defense: The short version, as articulated more fully by my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates, is that Clinton was factually correct. She partially walked back her statement, saying, “Last night I was ‘grossly generalistic,’ and that's never a good idea,” but also sticking by her basic point: “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.”

Why it matters (or doesn’t): It’s never a good idea to publicly write off a quarter of the electorate as “deplorable,” even if they’re voters that Clinton was never in a million years going to win. This comment is already shaping up to be one of those defining gaffes of a campaign—the narrative-making soundbites that are remembered for years to come, like Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe or Barack Obama’s bitter-clingers moment. The silver lining for Clinton is that those comments rarely make much difference, as I explored here. Also, as Greg Sargent notes, most Americans say they agree that Trump and his campaign are prejudiced.

The lesson: If you describe your opponents as hell in a handbasket, that's where your own prospects might end up.