This story is over 5 years old.

The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

How Hillary Clinton Is Turning Her Back on Poor White Voters

Hillary Clinton's dismissal of many Trump voters as "deplorables" wasn't a gaffe or a mistake but a conscious dismissal of the concerns many poor white Americans have.
Hillary Clinton speaks in Michigan in August. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

When Hillary Clinton declared at a high-dollar fundraiser earlier this month that half of Donald Trump's supporters belong in a "basket of deplorables" and are thus "irredeemable," it was widely depicted as some sort of extemporaneous gaffe. She immediately launched into crisis-control mode, expressing regret for using the word "half"; her own running mate even rebuked the remark. But Hillary's proclamation wasn't a slip of the tongue or verbal miscue—it was a very deliberate echo of a preacherly politicking style that the Clintons have honed over the course of decades. Their MO, now as ever, is to heap scorn on ordinary Americans for harboring unenlightened opinions while diverting attention from the structural factors that coalesced to sour folks against the status quo.


The "deplorables" diatribe was an intentional denunciation, one that Clinton had reportedly rehearsed over the summer time and time again at donor confabs. Apparently the wealthy elites who flock to such events were impressed by the quip, so much so that Hillary deemed it ready to try out in public. So she rattled it off again, this time with reporters present.

"Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it" is how Hillary diagnosed the Trump-supporting average Joe, who, in her rather un-Christian assessment, is wholly "irredeemable." (Speaking of homophobia, Hillary herself didn't officially endorse same-sex marriage till 2013. Was she too consigned to a "basket" until just three years ago?)

Hillary's sneer has been likened to the Barack Obama comment at a San Francisco fundraiser in 2008 in which he posited that "bitter" working-class voters tend to "cling to their guns and religion." Clunky as Obama's observation might have been, it was fundamentally descriptive in nature—not necessarily accusatory. By contrast, Clinton's remarks were an explicit attack, not on the forces that gave rise to widespread anxieties and sometimes fuel prejudice, but on the voters themselves.

Bill Clinton used the same shtick back when he was in office. After the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995, there was a nationwide scare over the alleged ascendance of right-wing militias. As his wife would do years later with the so-called alt-right, Bill gave the small cohort of angry, marginalized troublemakers an unwarranted amount of attention, upbraiding them in a May 6, 1995, speech. "There is nothing patriotic about… pretending you can hate your government but love your country," Clinton declared.


In addition to gifting tiny fringe groups a signal boost and vindicating their over-inflated conceptions of themselves, this tactic also elevates a new Great Enemy in the national consciousness—scattered groups of armed separatists in the 90s, deplorables today. Both have associations with alienated whites, and so can be safely demonized without offending powerful monied interest groups or the liberal commentariat.

This tactic is distinct from mere partisanship. The Clintons operate best when they can "triangulate" themselves into the center of the American political gravity. In the space of less than a year, Hillary has gone from proudly calling Republicans her avowed enemies to announcing that she'll #actually be their savior. Last week, she pledged to aid in the GOP's post-election self-realization efforts and help them to understand why they are fundamentally "better than Donald Trump." If you are a DC Republican, Clinton will welcome you to her governing coalition and may invite you to speak at the Democratic National Convention; if you're a "coal person," Bill Clinton will excoriate your friends and loved ones.

In 2008, Hillary made noises about how important it was for Democrats to win the votes of impoverished whites, bragging that she had more support than Obama among "hardworking Americans, white Americans" and "whites… who had not completed college." According to her back then, "These are the people you have to win if you're a Democrat in sufficient numbers to actually win the election. Everybody knows that."


Yet Clinton's 2016 primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, outperformed Clinton among poor whites, most notably in deep Appalachian West Virginia but also in places like Northern California. Chalking this up to the moral turpitude of the poor is a cop out—Obama ran much better among white men without a college degree in 2012 than Clinton is currently polling, and Trump may well win the heavily white, heavily distressed second congressional district of Maine purely for this reason. Obama, "clinging" comment aside, took pains to speak about the ails of working-class whites with nuance and empathy. The following passage from his much-heralded March 2008 "race speech" is worth recounting today:

"Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience—as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero-sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time. Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation."


The Clinton operation may believe that overtly shunning poor whites is sound electoral strategy, on the assumption that minorities and college-educated voters will come out to the polls in support of Hillary's "deplorable" attacks. But this approach could also backfire, in that it amplifies her preexisting reputation as being the favored candidate of smarmy elites. By focusing single-mindedly on the ungraceful attitudes of some Trump supporters, rather than proposing ways to ameliorate the decades of discontent that caused them to reject ordinary political norms, Hillary is taking quite a gamble.

Meanwhile, Trump's assertion that the system is "rigged" appeals not just to those white voters Obama identified as being resentful of the global economy and the DC elite, but also Sanders voters who may feel the same things for different reasons. In one recent Economist/YouGov poll, only 52 percent Democratic primary voters who backed Sanders planned to cast a ballot for Clinton (15 percent said they'd go with Trump, while others favored third-party candidates).

In its obliviousness and elitism, the Hillary campaign has come to resemble the "Remain" campaign in the United Kingdom, which lost after a critical mass of working-class Britons determined that the European Union wasn't the glorious civilizational triumph they'd been told. "Betrayal, grievance, dispossession: These were surely what counted for most," wrote the journalist Ian Jack in the Guardian.

In August, the movement of anti-elite anger officially went global when Nigel Farage, one of the leaders of the Brexit campaign, spoke before a Trump rally in Mississippi. "If the ordinary, decent people are prepared to stand up and fight for what we believe in, we can overcome the big banks, we can overcome the multinationals," Farage declared. "We reached those people who've been let down by modern global corporatism." Americans who take heed of those words might be a little rough around the edges, but they're far from "irredeemable." They're just fed up.

Follow Michael Tracey on Twitter.