When Hillary Clinton denounced half of Donald Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables” last Friday, it seemed less an unscripted gaffe and more part of a targeted messaging strategy. Earlier last week, in an interview with an Israeli television network, she also trotted out the “basket of deplorables” line. Perhaps this “deplorables” attack will help rally the Left’s base. Maybe this was intended as a strategy to distract from Secretary Clinton’s myriad scandals and try to make the election a referendum on Donald Trump. However, the partisan optics of her attack might be less revealing than its deeper assumptions. Whether or not this proves an effective partisan gambit, the “deplorables” attack reveals some of the assumptions that have rendered public debates more fractious.
Secretary Clinton’s remarks are worth reproducing in full:
You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? [Laughter/applause]. The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people, now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now some of those folks, they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.
Secretary Clinton has now expressed “regret” for saying that half of Trump’s supporters are such “deplorables,” but what does it mean when a candidate for president could so glibly say that about a quarter of Americans are essentially trash people who have no claim on the body politic (“not America”)? One of the great political cancers of our time — and one that folks on the left and the right can succumb to — is the impulse to cast out of civic discourse those with whom we disagree. Partisans might denigrate their opponents as coastal “elites” who don’t represent the “real America” or as bigoted haters on the “wrong side of history.”
Such impulses are mistaken. America contains multitudes, and “history” has all too often proven to be an arbitrary idol. Persuasion and sympathy are hallmarks of debate in a healthy republic. If politics is about excommunicating from polite society those with whom we disagree (those “deplorables”), the task of maintaining a diverse republic becomes much harder. Living in a pluralistic society means interacting with those whose opinions might differ from ours not just on trivial matters but also on serious ones. The tradition of religious liberty in the United States is in part premised on the idea that tolerance for intellectual difference is especially important for very difficult (and very personal) issues. This does not mean that we cannot champion firm moral views or even that some people might not subscribe to malicious or mistaken ideas, but we should be very wary about casting those with whom we disagree as essentially bad themselves and beyond redemption.
At their highest, America’s great statesmen have stressed the importance of reconciliation instead of the poisoned comforts of demonization. Facing the most devastating war in American history, Abraham Lincoln did not denounce the members of the Confederacy (men who had taken up arms against their own government) as belonging in a “basket of deplorables.” Instead, he stressed the value of a common civil fellowship to help reknit the nation. Denouncing a huge swath of the American people as irredeemable deplorables, or invoking such rhetoric to draw media attention, is unworthy of the demands of our time and the obligations of the president.
Moreover, the sentiments of Secretary Clinton’s statement contribute to a broader civil sclerosis. Making politics simply the conflict between right-thinking people and “deplorables” (or sheep misled by such “deplorables”) undermines the foundation of serious political discussion, which demands a good-faith effort at communication and a recognition that those who differ from us might have legitimate alternative viewpoints. Without that mode of discussion, politics degenerates into simply screaming slogans at the opposing side. It’s a commonplace to lament political “gridlock,” but the impulse to deplorablize one’s opponents very much gets in the way of finding prudential compromise. The politics of demonization decreases civil trust and threatens to increase the fractures of an already divided body politic.
Emblematic of the tendency of Secretary Clinton’s remarks to stop conversation is her insistence that these “deplorables” are “irredeemable.” Such a bold declaration of irredeemability essentially says that these people are permanently malign (and should be perpetually maligned). For the perspective of secular politics, this is a bleak and troubling view.
This view is also at odds with history, which is studded with those who have recanted deplorable views. As he chronicled in Witness, Whittaker Chambers once bent a knee to Soviet Communism, one of the worst totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century, only to later have a change of heart in favor of a much higher and nobler purpose. George Wallace stood in front of schoolhouse doors as a symbol of segregation and bigotry, only to recant his racism in later years; when Wallace died in 1998, civil-rights icon John Lewis did not denounce Wallace as an irredeemable deplorable but instead forgave him and said that he had changed. John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace,” once served as a slave trader only to convert to abolitionism. Newton’s great hymn speaks not of the irredeemable but instead of the universal hope of redemption:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I’m found.
Was blind but now I see.
We toil in a fallen world, and we are all in need of compassion and charity. Politics alone cannot redeem us, but a politics that admits no redemption is one that confines us to squabbles in a political ash heap — instead of the more important work of building and defending that city on a hill.