Let’s start with the obvious: “Basket of deplorables” is a weird turn of phrase. There are baskets and there are deplorable people, but pairing the two is the oddest of linguistic odd couples.
Hillary Clinton said those three words in the final months of her 2016 presidential campaign, making rhetorical and political history. There were two kinds of Donald Trump supporters, she explained: Voters who feel abandoned and desperate, who she placed in one metaphorical basket, and those she called “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and Islamophobic” – her “basket of deplorables.”
Trump – the same man who announced his candidacy by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” – clutched his proverbial pearls, aghast that his opponent had uttered such a shocking slander. His campaign turned that insult into an asset; supporters wore hats and shirts proudly declaring themselves deplorable. Pundits seized on the phrase, debating who does and doesn’t deserve to be called that. Five years later, many believe “deplorables” – figuratively and literally – are here to stay.
This is not a cautionary tale: Clinton probably didn’t lose the White House because of a figure of speech. But it’s a lesson in how politicians make unforced errors. And, in a nation where half the country thinks the other half is wrong and possibly even deplorable, it’s about how we talk about each other.
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On Sept. 9, 2016, Clinton was the opening act for Barbra Streisand at a glitzy fundraiser in New York City. A group of LGBTQ supporters were gathered at Cipriani restaurant, and the Democratic candidate had one job: to fire up her donors.
“I am all that stands between you and the apocalypse,” Clinton told the cheering crowd. She launched into all the things she found “deplorable” about Trump: He threatened marriage equality, cozied up to white supremacists, made racist and sexist remarks – all things she found “so personally offensive.”
She warned there were two months left in the race and no one should assume he wouldn’t be elected anyway. “Just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” There was laughter and applause.
The people in this basket, emboldened by Trump’s tweets, were “irredeemable,” she said. But there was another basket: Trump supporters who just felt the government had let them down and wanted change – and Democrats had to empathize to win these voters.
“Basket of deplorables” was not in Clinton’s prepared remarks. She often improvised in speeches. Reporters jumped on it, as did the Trump campaign, which immediately slammed Clinton for not running “a positive campaign.”
Clinton apologized the next day in a very Clintonesque manner: “I regret saying ‘half’ – that was wrong,” she said in a statement. What was the magic number? She didn’t say. She did, however, double down on calling out Trump’s bigotry and racism.
“It’s very hard to say you have a message of civility and then turn around and talk about how essentially a quarter of the country is, in your view, a basket of deplorables,” said Jonathan Allen, author of “Shattered,” a study of Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “That is a screeching conflict of her overall message, which is we have a civilized country and we need to be stronger together – that this should be a kinder, gentler, unified country.”
It’s easy to get careless at fundraisers: The crowd is pumped up, the mood hopeful. In April 2008, Barack Obama told a San Francisco donor audience that working-class voters in the Rust Belt “cling to guns or religion” as a way to express their frustrations. (Clinton, in the last days of her failed bid for the Democratic nomination, said she was “taken aback by the demeaning remarks Senator Obama made about people in small-town America. His remarks are elitist and out of touch.”)
Mitt Romney got into trouble for his “47 percent” slip, which was secretly taped during a 2012 fundraiser that was closed to the media. The Republican nominee explained to wealthy donors that almost half of American voters would pick Obama because they were dependent on government handouts. “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” he told the crowd.
Clinton made the classic campaign mistake of playing pundit by explaining strategy to donors. She wasn’t writing off all Trump supporters; those who were scared and jobless might be won over. It was a delicate rhetorical dance: Have compassion for some, be afraid of others.
Trump repeatedly mocked Clinton voters, but his fans never worried it would hurt him. In fact, they loved him for it, as well as his attacks on the media, the candidates in his own party, John McCain’s war record and the judge in one of his lawsuits. “The more offensive and insulting he could be, the happier he was with it,” Allen said.
That was Trump being Trump. Clinton’s deplorables comment, Allen said, seemed to reveal a private thought that she had never dared state in public. In that way, it “ended up being symbolic of one of the things that her critics said they hated about her, which is that they believed that she’s inauthentic. And oddly, I think that was a pretty authentic moment.”
When asked about “deplorables,” Nick Merrill, Clinton’s spokesman, said she was never afraid to denounce racism – just two weeks earlier, she gave a significant speech deconstructing the alt-right and the “quest to preserve white maleness” in America. “The deplorable comment may have been politically less than ideal, but it has been proven right again and again over the last five years.”
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More sophisticated than “disgusting,” more biting than “unforgivable,” “deplorable” carries judgment with a side of self-righteousness. It comes from Latin, then re-emerged in 17th-century France, where throwing shade is a national sport.
Clinton would use “deplorable” in statements when she was secretary of state, but as an adjective, not a noun. Washington jargon traditionally puts things in “buckets,” Clinton shifted that to “baskets” in the month leading up to the Sept. 9 fundraiser.
She used “deplorables” the day before her speech, in an interview with Israeli TV: “You can take Trump supporters and put them in two big baskets. There are what I would call the deplorables – you know, the racists and the haters.”
“It’s worth remembering that when Hillary Clinton comes up with a phrase she likes, she tends to repeat it a lot and she can be very biting and she can be quippy,” Allen said. “It would have been different if she had said, ‘Half the Trump voters are behaving deplorably.’ It’s a small thing, but it’s a big thing.”
In Slate, linguist Ben Zimmer speculated that “baskets of deplorables” was inspired by a “parade of horribles” – a legal term that Clinton would be familiar with, referring to the negative consequences of a judicial decision. Several weeks later, Clinton joked about it at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner: “I just want to put you all in a basket of adorables.”
But the damage was done.
“I knew the first time I heard that phrase that she was very, very stupid for using it,” Republican strategist Frank Luntz said. “It is as insulting as any word in the English language. To be deplorable means you have no excuse as a human being. If you’re a deplorable person, it is saying that there is no redeeming quality to you whatsoever.”
Luntz knew it would be an opportunity for Trump to galvanize his base. “I thought she had committed a potentially fatal error: Insult your opponent, attack your opponent, criticize your opponent, even condemn your opponent, but never, ever, ever condemn your opponent’s supporters because you need their votes.”
Luntz tested “deplorable” in focus groups and found that it didn’t make voters more pro-Trump. “But it hardened opposition to her instantly as someone who had no heart, who was too ideological and dismissive of people who disagreed with her.”
A consultant to Clinton’s campaign agreed. Writing in the Boston Globe shortly after the election, Diane Hessan said that she tracked undecided voters and their reaction to “deplorable” was stronger than the controversy over Clinton’s emails or FBI Director James Comey’s comments about them. “There was one moment when I saw more undecided voters shift to Trump than any other, when it all changed, when voters began to speak differently about their choice,” she wrote.
In “What Happened,” Clinton’s memoir of the campaign, she acknowledged that generalizing was almost always unwise and wrote that she regretted handing Trump “a political gift” by insulting well-intentioned people. “But too many of Trump’s core supporters do hold views that I find – there’s no other word for it – deplorable.”
Of course, voters are notoriously harder on female politicians, regardless of what they say. As Rebecca Traister stated in a 2017 New York magazine profile of Clinton, “A competent woman losing a job to an incompetent man is not an anomalous Election Day surprise; it is Tuesday in America. To acknowledge the role sexism played in 2016 is not to make excuses for the very real failings of Clinton and her campaign; it is to try to paint a more complete picture.”
In hindsight, how did “deplorables” play into all this? “It is impossible to say, ‘People reacted this way because of sexism,’ ” Traister said this week. “That’s not how it works. But you also cannot take sexism out of the equation whenever you’re talking about Hillary Clinton.”
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And Trump? The Republican nominee, always looking for an applause line, said he was offended on behalf of all his supporters. “While my opponent slanders you as deplorable and irredeemable, I call you hard-working American patriots who love your country,” he told his audience at an Iowa rally. The campaign rushed out an ad in battleground states: “You know what’s deplorable? Hillary Clinton viciously demonizing hard working people like you.”
Mike Pence jumped into the fray: “For Hillary Clinton to express such disdain for millions of Americans is one more reason that disqualifies her to serve in the highest office,” he told reporters. During an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Pence condemned Clinton but, when pressed, declined to call any Trump supporter deplorable, even, say, former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, who endorsed Trump. “No,” answered Pence. “I am not in the name-calling business, Wolf.”
MAGA fans could buy official “deplorable” merchandise from Team Trump – and they did happily. The term was “so mean that the only way for them to respond was to actually embrace it,” Luntz said. “And that’s how I realized she was in real trouble: If your strongest attack against your opponent is embraced by your opponents, that removes the sting.”
Five years later, you can purchase hats, T-shirts, hoodies and other gifts for the deplorables in your life. Patriot Depot, one of several online stores selling to Trump fans, offers a “Deplorables Club – Lifetime Member” cap for $19.95, The sales blurb explains: “Being a Deplorable is now a mark of pride among God-fearing, gun-loving, hard-working Americans.”
Clinton’s unusual turn of phrase foreshadowed an increasingly polarized America. We’re not just divided along ideological lines – we don’t even like each other very much.
The Pew Research Center found that from December 2016 to September 2019, the shares of both parties that viewed members of the other “somewhat” coldly or “very” coldly increased, as did the percentage that viewed them as “immoral.”
Those assessments were undoubtedly influenced by the 2017 Charlottesville, Va., rally and have been hardened by pandemic restrictions, Black Lives Matter protests and the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.
“I’m proud that Secretary Clinton called out racism and bigotry in 2016, especially when that wasn’t the politically safe thing to do,” campaign speechwriter Dan Schwerin said.
Now, many of her fans believe she was prescient about “half” of Trump’s base.
“After four years of President Trump,” Allen said. “I think that there are a lot of Democrats and some Republicans who would say that was an undercount.”