Substantive policy issues once again took a back seat as the presidential campaign refocused on name-calling over the weekend.
At a fundraiser on Friday night, Hillary Clinton said, “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of (Donald) Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that.” She then went on to call these people “irredeemable.”
What is, in fact, deplorable is not only that Clinton said this but that she apparently believes it. There’s no question that Trump is running a xenophobic campaign that’s pandering to white nationalism and that a portion of his base enthusiastically embraces overtly anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, misogynistic and racist views. But a far wider percentage of Trump’s supporters fall into a gray area of more generalized resentment that is partly about identity but also about economic suffering. Clinton and liberals in general should be reaching out to these voters, not offending them.
Many of Trump’s working-class white voters are resentful that the American Dream is slipping further from their grasp. They’re right to feel this way. On average, their wages have effectively stagnated or declined over the past several decades.
And for the same period of time, conservatives have been systematically trying to convince white working-class voters that they shouldn’t blame Republicans who vote against infrastructure jobs and minimum-wage increases while they give major tax breaks to the rich, and they shouldn’t blame big corporations that have slashed wages and shipped jobs overseas while turning record profits. No, they should blame immigrants and black folks for supposedly stealing “their jobs” or lazing about on welfare benefits that come out of “their pockets.”
Either unaware of or ignoring the fact that most people on welfare are white and average wages for people of color are still well below average wages for white folks, struggling whites see other long-suffering communities achieve even a wisp of a rhetorical promise of equal opportunity and feel as though they are, therefore, on the losing end.
When the top 10 percent of Americans control 76 percent of the wealth, that leaves just a little sliver left to be divided up among everyone else. And so it’s easy to resent the other people who are making claims for more of that sliver — especially if you’ve been encouraged for decades to fight over the crumbs instead of fighting against the truly powerful and wealthy elite; and especially if that encouragement builds on centuries of racial antagonism.
The Republican strategy to deliberately stoke racial resentment to attract the loyalty of white voters who, like voters of color, are actually directly and overtly harmed by Republican policies — this is irredeemable. But the voters themselves are not. Their hopes and dreams are deeply inspiring and deeply American. And their anger and frustration with economic inequality is absolutely spot-on.
The problem is the solution they’ve been sold by the GOP. Ending affirmative action, cutting the minimum wage, slashing food stamps, repealing the Affordable Care Act and deregulating corporations won’t put the American Dream back within the reach of millions of struggling Americans. In fact, it will put that dream even further out of reach. The reality is that working people of all races fare far better under Democratic presidents and Democratic policies. Clinton needs to reach out to all voters and tell them this truth — and confront racial resentment without labeling everyone who considers it racist.
I know that we live in a deeply divided, partisan era, and that to some extent Clinton was just acknowledging that. And again, a portion of Trump’s base really is explicitly fueled by a racially tinged and xenophobic vitriol to which he has given plain comfort. Clinton is right to call that out — as she did in her speech on Friday as well as in her apology thereafter.
But more broadly, what we need is a candidate — and a president — comfortable in the complexities in between, the space occupied by the vast majority of white Americans who aren’t explicit racial supremacists but who do harbor biases that cloud their judgments. Of course we have that in President Obama, arguably one of the most thoughtful leaders on issues of race and racial justice to ever occupy the Oval Office. And yet, because he’s black, he can’t speak about race without being seen by many whites as biased.
If a white president said that if he were black, Trayvon Martin could be his son, he would be hailed as bold and visionary. But when Obama makes this very obvious point, the right attacks him for divisive race baiting. Saying that those who point out racial bias are the racists is like saying that the person who pulls the fire alarm must have started the fire. How are we going to do something about a problem if we don’t even talk about it?
White people — including white politicians — have far more leeway to talk about race in America. We need a white president who can be a part of this much-needed conversation in our country and can help be a bridge to white voters who are feeling alienated and disaffected — rather than pushing those Americans away.
Recently, the brilliant black public intellectual Heather McGhee was on C-SPAN when a white man from North Carolina called in for advice. He talked about how he knows he’s prejudiced, but thinks his prejudices are justified and he feels afraid of black people. And then, stunningly, he asked McGhee, “What can I do to change? You know, to be a better American?”
That in and of itself was remarkable and wonderful. But then McGhee offered a model of compassion and leadership that everyone — black, brown and white — should follow. She expressed gratitude to the caller. “Thank you so much for being honest and for opening up this conversation because it is simply one of the most important ones we have to have in this country,” McGhee said. She offered the caller an olive branch, pointing out that people of all races actually hold unconscious prejudices. With a warm smile on her face and an unmistakable tone of kindness in her voice, she offered some advice, including expanding his social network to include black families and reading more about the history of race and racism in America.
I don’t know if that caller is planning to vote for Trump, but there are many white voters like him who are. We shouldn’t tell them they’re deplorable. In fact, we shouldn’t tell them anything at all. We should listen to their anger and their concerns and try to understand. They’ve been told that there is no place for them in the pluralistic future of America. That is simply not true. “Stronger Together” shouldn’t just be a slogan on a campaign poster. Clinton needs to help all voters feel and understand that they have a place in her vision for America, not leave anyone behind.
Sally Kohn is an essayist and a CNN political commentator. She wrote this article for the Washington Post’s PostEverything blog.