At Sunday night’s clown-show debate, Donald Trump once again invoked Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” sneer from about a month ago, in which she hectored millions of Americans who will be voting for the Republican ticket in November as a “basket” of unsalvageable losers.
“She calls our people deplorable—a large group—and irredeemable,” charged Trump. “I will be a president for all of our people.”
It’s correct that the rant continues to haunt Hillary, because although she technically later withdrew it—as another instance of her conveniently “misspeaking”—it revealed something fundamental about her worldview. Because most Clinton loyalists in the political-commentary racket also adhere to this worldview, the tenets underlying it merit further examination: their explanation for “Trumpism” will have long-term ramifications, regardless of which candidate wins.
As we near the conclusion of a dispiriting and drawn-out presidential campaign, self-assured pundits now think they finally have a clear picture of who constitutes the prototypical “Trump supporter.” Often this picture is based disproportionately on their observations of Trump-supporting trolls on Twitter, rather than much real-life interpersonal contact. (Indeed, Twitter has now been mentioned at all three debates thus far—maybe someone ought to compose a new patriotic anthem entitled “Hail to the Tweet”?)
This represents a genuine quandary for those trying to do political commentary; actual Trump supporters tend not to move (at least openly) in elite spheres—namely media, high finance, and academia—so elite pundits are unlikely to interact with them over the course of their daily activities.
To broaden their horizons, such pundits might consider visiting some places in so-called “swing states” where Trump support is widespread, rather than just bloviating from behind their computer screens. Traversing these areas, one can’t help but bristle at Hillary’s “deplorables” theory as not only politically counterproductive, but seriously foul. She—like the pundits promoting her—has gotten the analysis totally inverted.
The real “deplorables” generally aren’t the people whom Hillary denounced as wholly “irredeemable,” or at whom economically secure commentators fulminate on a regular basis. More obviously “deplorable” are Hillary’s fellow financial, political, economic, and military elites who wrecked the economy, got us mired in endless unwinnable foreign wars, and erected a virtually impenetrable cultural barrier between everyday Americans trying to live fruitful lives and their pretentious, well-heeled superiors ensconced in select coastal enclaves. It is thanks to the actions of this “basket of deplorables” that we’re in the situation we’re in, where an oaf like Trump is perilously close to seizing the presidency.
At a recent Trump rally in Lancaster County, Pa., I was bemused to encounter a coterie of local Amish people who’d traveled there together by bus. Asked why they backed Trump, the overwhelming response was that Amish folks just wanted to preserve their traditional way of life (which they saw as under siege) and perceived Trump as enabling them to carry on with it. Some told me they supported Trump not because of some overweening disdain for their nation’s fellowmen, or immigrants, or even coastal liberals, but because they felt that the federal government was intruding on their ability to properly run their small farms.
One Amish gentleman, remarking on Trump’s apparent lack of strident religious belief, added of Trump: “He’s not a Christian, but he’ll protect the Christian cause.” Veteran religion reporter Bob Smietana later remarked that he could not recall a previous instance of Amish people showing up en masse to a presidential campaign event.
Naturally, upon tweeting photos from the rally, I was inundated with indignant cries from ostensible liberals claiming that the people in question weren’t real Amish, or were desperately deluded, or similar snark. True: the Amish lifestyle isn’t for everybody. Nor do the Amish foist it on anyone else. One virtue of the United States is that it’s a huge, pluralistic democratic republic with lots of land and lots of room for people to practice their beliefs as they see fit.
You don’t necessarily have to love these peculiar belief systems to tolerate their existence. Indeed, some of them undoubtedly contain facets that are bigoted and/or vulgar, and you are free to vociferously criticize them. Some even might be cut off from popular culture, as is the case with the Amish, who certainly are not attuned to the daily outrage avalanche dished out by mainstream-media organs—but this doesn’t mean that the people who practice old-fashioned lifestyles are somehow morally sullied or “deplorable.” It means they have different life trajectories.
This also holds true in Lewiston, Maine, where Trump is favored to win the 2nd Congressional District and therefore at least one (potentially crucial) electoral vote. (Maine and Nebraska allocate their electoral votes by congressional district.) Lots of Franco-Americans populate this area, and many old-timers still speak French with a distinctive Central Mainer dialect. (Often it comes out when folks get inebriated at the bars in town.) When I visited recently, everyone basically had the same story: mills use to be the lifeblood of the local economy and by extension its civic institutions. Once the mills inexplicably shuttered, these workers lost their sense of location and community. Social-club memberships dwindled; parades and marches down the main thoroughfare became less of an attraction. There’s just not a hell of a lot going on nowadays, except Patriots games on TV, drinking, and drugs. Anybody with the means usually either bolts for relatively more prosperous Bangor to the north, or south to Boston and beyond.
Are the people who live in Lewiston really “deplorables”? Most of them like Trump, but they’re not the ones who crashed the economy or agitated to invade Iraq, as Hillary did.
Again: perhaps the true deplorables are the unaccountable elites whose decisions directly worsened life for millions of Americans. Oddly, you never hear Hillary running around to high-roller fundraisers condemning Goldman Sachs for their deplorable conduct; maybe that’s because they’ve directly given her and Bill hundreds of thousands of dollars for “speeches,” excerpts of which finally came out last Friday and are just as degenerate as you’d expect. (Goldman banned partners from giving money to Trump’s campaign, but handing over cash to Hillary is still perfectly fine.)
Maybe the Amish of southeast Pennsylvania or the Franco-Americans of central Maine don’t use the correct Twitter hashtags or subscribe to Lena Dunham’s newsletter, but they’re still good people with normal ambitions for a happy, secure life. Screeching “deplorable!” at them is itself deplorable, especially because it lets the elites who bungled the country’s affairs off the hook.
Michael Tracey is a journalist based in New York City.