By David K. Shipler
You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic . . . But that other basket of people 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, and they’re just desperate for change. . . . Those are people we have to understand and empathize with.
Nobody who wants to be president of all Americans has the luxury of being “grossly generalistic,” as Hillary Clinton confessed she was about to be when she told a fundraiser last week that half of Donald Trump’s supporters were “deplorables,” some “irredeemable.” Putting groups of people in a basket, like rotten fruit, is distasteful no matter how rancid their racial and social attitudes. And nobody is irredeemable.
Not that she’s wrong about Trump’s fueling bigotry. But it’s “that other basket of people,” those “we have to understand,” in Clinton’s words, who present her and the Democratic Party with a lesson in true failure—and therefore an opportunity for repair.
Very little has been done by the Democrats over the last eight years to connect with the white, blue-collar citizens whose lives and hopes have been tossed into anxiety. While the government programs the Democrats have championed did help and would have helped more had they not been curbed by Republicans, the sense of commitment and concern at the top rarely filtered down to the grassroots. It’s a constituency the party has mostly lost in recent decades.
Barack Obama, an excellent president in many ways, did not turn his considerable charm on those Americans. He did not work hard enough to engage the disaffected and the marginalized who had been displaced from jobs that had seemed durable, and from homes that had seemed secure, by the Great Recession precipitated largely by the Republicans.
Granted, his Affordable Care Act, his stimulus bill, his consumer protection measures and banking restrictions have all assisted people in that “basket.” But most of them don’t give him or the Democrats credit. He has not been able to translate those hard concrete measures into the soft engagement with personal hardship that gives a holistic contour to a presidency. His brilliant speeches notwithstanding, his aloof demeanor and his understandable focus on policy solutions have left a gap. And that gap has been exploited by the rightwing, thinly veiled racial propaganda of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and other extremist media, which animated the nativist prejudices that regarded a black man as an undeserving, an alien, and a frightening specter in the White House. That diffuse bigotry—a backlash against having a black president—is part of what has propelled Trump to the verge of the presidency.
Obama dodged the issue of race for the most part, and he didn’t wade into hostile communities of angry white folks. He visited manufacturers and various institutions where there were job gains to celebrate, but he didn’t do enough grassroots work where it mattered. Every week he should have faced a challenging town hall gathering. Every week he should have been willing to hear the angry boos and the denunciations.
Perhaps that was too much to ask. The fears of cultural change, of nonwhite ascendency, of societal complexity are powerful currents, difficult to swim against. But Obama can be an inspiring presence. He can be a good listener. It’s a hunch that he could have made some inroads by spending more time to connect with Americans in disrupted communities across the country. He could have demonstrated that he gets it.
Enter Hillary Clinton. It might be too late in the campaign for her to appeal to those in her second basket, to act on the understanding and empathy she proclaims are necessary. The end game of a political race is naturally focused on energizing supporters in swing states and persuading the undecided. There’s no profit in investing time and money in lost causes. So the professionals would certainly advise her against venturing into adversity by campaigning in downtrodden neighborhoods of white Trump enthusiasts. She’d take flak, and the headlines wouldn’t be flattering.
If she wins, however, she has to govern. If she is to govern, she has to work very hard to repair the damage done to the constituency of white Americans who have fallen from relative comfort into frightening uncertainty. This is much more than a political task. It is an immense project to build the country’s cohesion and its sense of common good. It will require a ground game more intense than her slogan, “Stronger Together.”