In this week’s politics chat, we examine to what extent prejudice is driving support for Donald Trump. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Today’s question for your consideration: Is Hillary Clinton’s comment that half of Donald Trump’s supporters fall into a “basket of deplorables” of racists, sexists, homophobes and xenophobes accurate?
Trump is currently earning about 40 percent in national polls. So half of that is about 20 percent of the electorate — one-fifth. A lot of people are focusing on that number. But, before we dive into the data, let’s talk about the reaction to the comment. One thing that stood out to me about the press coverage of her comments (and I’m far from the first person to say this): Much of the media seemed to be bending over backward to focus on her comment as a “gaffe” of some sort, rather than considering the content of what she said.
People were using the fact that it’s hard to measure prejudice (which is true) as a reason to not even try.
farai (Farai Chideya, senior writer): I personally think it was a gaffe, but that doesn’t mean allegations of bias are inaccurate. Any time you’re trying to win an election you can try to persuade voters or use them as tools — and demonize them. By that measure, this was a gaffe. But the coverage of her comments also reflected what I see as a resistance of the press in this election as well as generally to examine the persistence of racial bias in American society.
Nativism has risen in profile but, having covered the tea party and white supremacists for years, I’ve seen that racial animus is always present — sometimes it’s just more pronounced.
Many news reporters didn’t take the possibility of Trump winning the primary seriously, in part because they didn’t consider or dismissed the strength of nativist appeals in motivating voters. Such appeals work, like negative advertising works.
micah: Yeah, I think this, frankly, played into our initial skepticism of Trump — an underappreciation of how much racial and cultural grievances were driving some GOP voters.
clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): I’ll point out here that Clinton isn’t really backing down from her comments. And I don’t think the campaign sees it as a gaffe all that much; it’s on their message of talking about the ugliest side of Trump support. I think they might have liked to have a more statistically accurate, less roughly rounded talking point in their back pocket, though “grossly generalizing” is never a great way to start talking numbers, right?
farai: Clare, Clinton’s not backing down is probably part of a (perhaps smart, perhaps not) wedge strategy to separate establishment Republicans from nativist Republicans, and make the case to swing voters and establishment Republicans that they should not be found in the political vicinity of the “deplorables.”
When it comes to the politics of that strategy, the verbal fights over winning black support, which I note at the top of this recent piece, are really about driving a wedge between people who consider themselves “not racist” and those who are not averse to nativist appeals. The conversations by Trump and Clinton really have less to do with black voters than they do with driving that wedge between different groups of white voters.
harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): The funniest part of all of this to me is that Clinton was basically saying what everybody in the press corps has been saying. That’s what makes the media reaction so surprising to me. I think the difference is that instead of going after Trump, she went after his supporters. But some of the reason many of us say Trump has been racist or bigoted or making racist/bigoted appeals is because of what his supporters have said:
Where I think Clinton got into trouble with some folks is using “half.” That sounds like a very big number.
clare.malone: No one likes candidates to be impolite to voters. Maybe that’s what’s different, why people are reacting so strongly to things; they’re just used to a different candidate mode of operation.
In most campaigns, candidates are kissing voters’ collective asses, even if they disagree politically with them. But a portion of Trump’s support has been so ugly and openly racist/sexist that Clinton and her people feel it’s not only a duty to call it out, but that it’s going to motivate their base to get out there.
micah: OK, so let’s get into the data. On racism — what are the best measurements of racial animus we have?
harry: Measuring animus toward different groups is tough. You can see this best in a FiveThirtyEight article by Nate Silver and Allison McCann in 2014, which looked at a bunch of different General Social Survey questions that touch on racial animus. Different questions produced different results. For example:
And here’s the average Nate and Allison calculated from the eight questions they looked at:
farai: Let me start with this: Research by Jason McDaniel and Sean McElwee published in the blog of the Western Political Science Association shows that Trump voters — more than people who preferred other GOP candidates or Americans at large — were less favorably inclined toward blacks, Latinos and Muslims, but also toward transgender Americans, gays and lesbians, and feminists.
So by this measure, we can see that not all voters are the same. “Deplorables” has an emotional connotation, which is a different question entirely. But we can measure equanimity and aversion.
Depending on how you measure it, you could argue the “average” Trump voter holds some racial animus toward racial, religious and sexual orientation minorities. But I’m not sure where you get “half,” per se.
harry: This is like asking whether someone is racist. Most people will say, “No, I’m not racist,” but other people might characterize them as such. For instance, a majority of white Republicans say black people “lack the motivation to pull themselves out of poverty,” but less than 30 percent oppose living in a half-black neighborhood.
clare.malone: So we have to rely on behaviors that we as a society determine are racist. And there are a number of surveys that have covered that, right, Harry? Gender, etc., too?
harry: I think that’s right, Clare. I mean, outside of the KKK, I’ll bet most white people in this country like at least one black person, but that doesn’t mean they don’t believe in racial stereotypes. Gallup asks whether you’d be willing to vote for a president who matches various descriptions, and only 45 percent of Republicans say they are willing to vote for a Muslim for president. I think many would agree that those respondents are Islamophobic.
clare.malone: Are we more likely to survey about racial bias in America? I’m imagining this election has added rich territory for those who want to look into sexist beliefs, or xenophobic ones.
harry: Yeah, one of the more interesting studies I saw was the one from McDaniel and McElwee during the primary that Farai cited.
farai: Harry, yes, I think they chose a robust source of data and expanded from racial bias into other groups in interesting ways. I also think we should realize none of this is new. This U.S. News & World Report article does a good job of contextualizing questions of racial bias and comparing them to the 1964 Johnson-Goldwater race.
Here’s a video Clinton released recently about Trump and extremists.
Here’s a 1964 Johnson ad, which never actually ran on TV but was widely circulated later:
The ahistorical nature of political reporting in this cycle has diminished our ability to process the cyclical nature of nativist appeals in politics. This is not our first rodeo.
clare.malone: So based on the McElwee/McDaniel data, is Clinton right about half of the Trump supporters being racist? Or is it a more complicated take-away? Is nothing in life clear?
harry: I don’t think anything is particularly clear. Here’s one for you. According to Pew Research, if a Republican believed it was “bad for [the] country that blacks, Latinos, Asians will be majority of the population,” that is associated with an 8 degrees warmer feeling toward Trump, on a 0-100 scale.
micah: See, I think all the data is complicated, but in aggregate, the conclusion is clear.
harry: I mean, the conclusion is that Trump supporters are more likely to be bigoted than Clinton supporters. But is it half?
farai: Clare, Harry, Micah, I’d argue that most people are, as the hit play “Avenue Q” put it, “a little bit racist.” And here’s some social science about that. But having racist “feelings” and acting on that bias are different. And voting based on that bias is different.
There are studies of the tea party that show how racial animus can be a motivator. And that’s what we have to return to as political reporters. After the election, I’m sure some social scientists will analyze exactly how much race was a factor in voting. That was done with the 2008 Obama election.
micah: Agreed. I guess that’s why I don’t think this is all that complicated. We have tons of data showing various levels of racial animus among Trump supporters. Trump has made explicitly racist remarks/appeals to voters. There’s a long history, as Farai notes, of racist/nativist appeals working.
I think focusing on whether it’s exactly half almost willfully misses Clinton’s point. And remember, Clinton was also including sexism, homophobia, xenophobia.
harry: Wait a second. Wait a second. She said half. Words, I like to think, still matter.
micah: She said she was grossly generalizing. I mean, it’s like me saying, “Half the time I can’t stand you, Harry!”
Would your response be, “You’re wrong, it’s only 40 percent of the time?”
harry: Why do you hate me? Is it ’cause I’m so much better looking than you are?
clare.malone: I would say it’s a subjective measure!
harry: On the basis of Islamophobia alone, you can get half of Trump supporters.
Only 61 percent of Republicans say they are willing to vote for a gay or lesbian candidate for president. That’s a very low number.
farai: I think quantifying “half” was problematic, but also using the emotionally and morally charged tag “deplorables.” She characterized these voters as “deplorables” versus saying “people who hold deplorable views and have been incited to anger and sometimes violence.”
clare.malone: I mean, yeah, this is the reason why people are able to get so worked up about this while avoiding actual talk about American prejudices, because ultimately calling someone “racist, sexist, Islamophobic” is subjective, right? Because someone can always say, “You don’t know what’s in my heart. I’m not a racist.” And they’re right! Pollsters and people who analyze polls can’t know that. We’re making analyses — ones I think are correct to make, by the way — and grouping them into these unflattering groups.
farai: Per what Harry said, and circling back to the McElwee/McDaniel data, the issue isn’t just race or Islam — it’s feminism and LGBTQ identity.
There’s that saying that if a bear is chasing a group of campers, you don’t have to be the fastest runner. You just have to beat the guy closest to the bear. I’d argue American politics are shaped by the fact that by measures including midlife mortality, white Americans are losing ground in status relative to LGBTQ Americans, women and some groups of people of color. If you are afraid of losing that relative advantage, that may well shape anxiety, and not just racial animus, but animus related to gender or sexual orientation.
micah: We’re running out of time. Closing thoughts?
farai: I hope we sufficiently post-mort this election as journalists so we are prepared for what comes next, which will probably include not only a continuing set of tense conversations over race and xenophobia in politics but gender, as well.
micah: Yeah, Farai, I don’t think gender hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention.
harry: What Clinton said was inarticulate, but even if you look solely at Islamophobia, it was true.
clare.malone: I’d like to “mid-mort” it. But I’d also like to say that it’s a thing that not just the media is responsible for examining — i.e., the way we fact-check numbers, cover substance — readers and voters need to hold themselves to a standard of examining the larger moral/cultural statements that the candidates are putting forward about the country. It’s your election to examine, as well.