How Trump turned 'deplorables' into a campaign rallying cry

Hillary Clinton’s remarks disparaging a bloc of Donald Trump supporters as "deplorables" has galvanized Trump supporters, inspiring a frenzy of merchandise and internet memes. But as Clinton faces backlash over her comment, its impact may prove limited.

Clinton attack line inspires new pro-Trump ad, online memes — but was it a gaffe?

A combination photo shows Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and the alt-right mascot Pepe the Frog. Trump supporters have circulated images of the the cartoon frog as a war of words over Donald Trump's 'deplorables' intensifies. Hillary Clinton has charged that millions of Trump's supporters are racist, sexist and homophobic. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

They were trotted out one by one, a middle-aged black couple first in line after being invited onstage in Asheville, N.C.

"Folks, come on up," Donald Trump beckoned at the campaign event on Monday. The husband, telling the raucous crowd about his background as a school principal, took the podium.

"My wife and I represent non-deplorable people," he said, as smartphones rose to document the moment. His wife spoke next. "As a black female American," she stressed, she was endorsing the Republican presidential nominee.

More cheers.

"I'll pick at random. Who wants to speak?" Trump continued, waving a white woman over.

'Deplorable' night in Trump country

"I am probably a lot of things," she boomed. "Deplorable is not one of them."

Another supporter came forward, describing herself as a mother who works full-time.

"Do I look deplorable?" she asked.

It was, evidently, "deplorable" night in Trump country. And it had everything to do with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's disparaging dismissal of a bloc of Trump's base. At its root was Clinton's use of a label that has since inspired a frenzy of merchandise as well as internet memes featuring dog-whistle iconography such as the alt-right mascot Pepe the Frog.

Her exact words, spoken during a fundraiser on Friday: "Just to be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump supporters into what I call the 'basket of deplorables' — the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it."
U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton uttered her 'basket of deplorables' comment at an LBGT fundraiser in New York on Sept. 9, 2016. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Walking it back

Clinton later walked her statement back, qualifying it by retracting the "half of Trump supporters" part, while leaving intact her "basket of deplorables" riff.

The comments played well to the room of LGBT-friendly donors in Manhattan on Friday.

But much less so to Chip Berlet, an expert on right-wing groups and a former senior analyst with the progressive social-justice think-tank Political Research Associates.

"It was a serious error," says Berlet, author of Right-Wing Populism in America. "She showed an underlying disrespect for people not like her, and the liberal stereotype of Trump supporters as mentally unfit or stupid. And neither is true…But Trump turns it around and makes it fit into his right-wing populist rhetoric about liberal elites."

Broad strokes are the wrong way to confront bigotry, he says.

Embracing the label

Trump supporters were already embracing the "deplorable" label at the Asheville rally. Some wore T-shirts bearing the word. On Sunday, Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., promoted — whether unwittingly or not — an Instagram post frequently shared by white supremacists.

"Apparently I made the cut as one of The Deplorables," he boasted of the mock movie poster of The Expendables, with right-wing personalities' faces swapped in for the action flick's stars.

Trump surrogate Roger Stone also shared the image, which included likenesses of Trump, Stone, InfoWars host Alex Jones, and perhaps most controversially, Pepe the Frog, an icon often shared by alt-righters to cryptically communicate white-supremacist sentiment.

And then there is Trump's latest TV spot. Titled simply Deplorables, it was released on Monday.

'People like you, you, and you'

The Republican nominee may have signed off on the ad, but co-writing credits could also go to Clinton, who provides the most salient sound bite with "basket of deplorables."

Backed by a pulsating soundtrack, a narrator interprets Clinton's phrase for viewers.

"People like you, you, and you," the voice-over goes, between quick cuts to ethnic faces and crowd shots of women. "Deplorable."

If this feels like familiar ground, it is. In 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama's re-election campaign seized on Republican challenger Mitt Romney's comment about "the 47 per cent" of "entitled" Americans likely to vote Democrat.

"My job is not to worry about those people," Romney said in the clip, which was later used as the basis for an Obama for America ad.

Will Trump benefit? 

Clinton's comment is analogous to the "47 per cent" gaffe, says Larry Rosenthal, the director of the Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

He also thinks Clinton erred in allowing Trump to further galvanize his base, "giving them a tool to exploit a double-down strategy" of appealing to the far right.

"They've got Pepe's face on [memes] and so forth, and they're embracing it," Rosenthal says. "Now you've got Trump at his rallies, basically saying, 'Look what they called us, look what they called half of America.'"

The question is whether that message carries to undecided ears. Rosenthal's guess is it won't stick outside the existing alt-right base.

There's another theory that it may not have been a gaffe at all.

A screengrab of an October 2015 Tweet sent from Donald Trump's Twitter account sharing an image of the alt-right mascot Pepe the Frog, in the likeness of Trump. The cartoon frog has come to symbolize white-supremacy ideologies online. (Twitter)

In an election campaign driven by carefully worded statements, Fordham University political science professor Joseph Mercurio believes Clinton intended for the oft-used riff to seep into the dialogue.

"I think it was conscious. I think they understood what the reaction was when they did it," Mercurio says, reasoning that the issue has at least blunted some of the scrutiny over Clinton's health by conservative groups.

Was Clinton wrong?

There is also the question of whether or not Clinton's remark characterizing some of Trump's supporters wasn't so far off after all.

A May 2016 Public Policy Polling survey of 1,222 registered voters across the country found that 65 per cent of Republicans with favourable views of Trump believe Obama is a Muslim. The poll, conducted by phone, found that 59 per cent do not believe Obama was born in the United States.

In an online Reuters/Ipsos poll from June, 16,000 Americans were interviewed, with nearly 50 per cent of Trump's supporters saying they believe blacks are more "violent" than whites, and that blacks were also more "criminal" than whites. Forty per cent of Trump supporters said they believed blacks were more "lazy" than whites.

"When you look at the numbers, was Clinton wrong in her assessment?" asks Joel Silberman, a Democratic strategist with the political consulting firm Democracy Partners. "It's about how [Clinton's attack] was phrased and the number quantitatively put on it, the word 'half.' And she pulled back from that."

Monday night in North Carolina, moments after a selection of supporters professed their adoration for Trump and their rejection of the "deplorables" label, a skirmish broke out.
An unidentified man, left, confronts a demonstrator during remarks by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a rally in Asheville, N.C., on Sept. 12, 2016. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

A Trump supporter was caught on video punching and slapping protesters.

"Physical violence at a Trump rally? Not surprising; not surprising," Silberman says of the behaviour, which has become common at the New York billionaire's rallies.

No doubt to Trump's critics, another obvious descriptor will come to mind.


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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