On Friday, offering remarks at a fundraiser in Manhattan, Hillary Clinton gave her view of Donald Trump’s supporters and caused a scandal by telling the truth.
“To just be grossly generalistic,” said Clinton, “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.”
She continued: “But the other basket—and I know this because I see friends from all over America here … but that other basket are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures—they’re just desperate for change. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”
Some members of the political press were swift with their judgment. “No. 1 rule of presidential politics. Okay to mock your opponent. Never a good idea to mock the electorate,” said Michael Barbaro of the New York Times on Twitter. “Any more appropriate place for Clinton to make her ‘basket of deplorables’ comment than at a fundraiser with Barbra Streisand?” asked Aaron Blake of the Washington Post. “Memo to candidates: Stop generalizing and psychoanalyzing your opponents’ supporters. It never works out well for you,” wrote Domenico Montanaro of NPR.
Most of this amounts to theater criticism—an analysis of how the remarks look, how they might play with a broader audience. In his take on Clinton’s riff, Montanaro at least begins to broach this question of whether any of it was true. “There’s no data to support such a specific number,” he wrote, taking issue with Clinton’s view that “half” of Trump’s supporters fall into a “basket of deplorables.” And in her response to the criticism, Clinton walked back from that number. “Last night I was ‘grossly generalistic,’ and that’s never a good idea. I regret saying ’half’—that was wrong,” she said in a statement from the campaign.
But “half” wasn’t wrong. “Half” wasn’t a gross generalization at all. “Half” was by all indications close to the truth.
When pollsters and researchers want to measure racial bias, they don’t ask if respondents are “racist”; the stigma of being a racist is strong enough that most people won’t answer honestly, to say nothing of the fact that racial prejudice exists on a continuum. A binary answer doesn’t capture the complexity of bias and bigotry. Instead, they ask proxy questions that try to capture attitudes associated with racism. One such question—asked in multiple surveys by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm—is whether respondents believe President Obama was born in the United States and whether they believe he’s a Muslim. These questions begin to scratch the surface of racial bias. And what are the results? In one survey, two-thirds of Republicans with a favorable opinion of Donald Trump said that Obama is a Muslim, and 59 percent said he wasn’t born in the United States.
There’s other data too. In June, Reuters measured the racial attitudes of Clinton, Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich supporters. A significant number of supporters for each candidate voiced negative attitudes about black Americans. But Trump backers stood out in their animus. Nearly 50 percent said blacks were “more violent” than whites; almost as many said that blacks were “more criminal than whites.” More than 40 percent said that blacks were “more rude” than whites, and more than 30 percent said that blacks were “lazier” than whites.
Perhaps the best data on questions of race and Trump comes from political scientist Jason McDaniel of San Francisco State University and Sean McElwee, a research associate at Demos, a left-leaning think tank. Using the 2016 pilot of the American National Election Study, conducted in January, they drill down on racial attitudes among Trump supporters. Given what we already know, their results shouldn’t come as a shock. More than 40 percent of all Republicans and more than 60 percent of Trump supporters say that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Compared with those who backed other candidates in the GOP primary, Trump supporters have cooler feelings toward blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, and LGBTQ Americans, and warmer feelings toward whites. By sizable margins, according to McElwee’s analysis of ANES, Trump supporters are more likely than non-Trump supporters to believe that blacks, Hispanics, and Muslims are lazier and more violent than whites. More than 60 percent of Trump supporters believe black people are more violent than whites; nearly 50 percent of non-Trump Republicans say this. More than 70 percent of Trump supporters believe Muslim people are more violent than whites; roughly 60 percent of non-Trump Republicans say this. These are deplorable views, and they represent the consensus opinion not just of Trump supporters but of all Republicans in the survey. If the study is at all reflective of the population at large on this score, we’re going to need a bigger basket.
Despite this readily available information, many reporters and pundits are still skeptical that any large number of Americans could hold explicitly racist views. “Saying racists are racists isn’t bigoted. Calling a quarter of the country racist is [obviously] discriminatory,” tweeted Josh Kraushaar of National Journal, overstating the percentage of Trump backers in the general population. (In the RealClearPolitics average of the presidential race, Trump takes support from 42.9 percent of registered or likely voters. Half of that, given more than 146 million registered voters, is about 31 million people—right around 13 percent of all voting-age adults.)
We can debate whether this is blindness or denial, but the data is clear: Large numbers of white Americans hold anti-black or racially resentful views, and for a substantial portion, those views are politically salient. They drive decisions about voting and party identification. Donald Trump did not win the Republican presidential primary because he out-organized or out-campaigned his competitors; he won because he played directly to those views, and Republican elites refused to challenge him.
Which gets to a larger truth: The Republican Party of the Obama years is an ethno-nationalist formation of white Americans. The ideological conservatism of its elites is less important than the raw resentment of its base. Trump has harnessed that and given voice to more virulent forms, to the point where key members of his campaign share neo-Nazi memes on social media.
The dismay over Clinton’s comments—the insistence that it represents some kind of insult and not a statement of truth—reflects the degree to which many of our reporters and observers still shy away from these facts. But this moment demands clarity. Readers don’t need to know whether Clinton made a “gaffe.” They need to know whether she was right. Do millions of Americans hold explicitly racist views? Yes. Do roughly half of Donald Trump’s supporters fall into a so-called “basket of deplorables?” Yes.