You’re sick to your stomach at the results of this election. Maybe, like me, you’ve had trouble sleeping and eating. You can’t believe your country elected a transparent bigot, misogynist, and conman as president of the United States. You can’t believe voters rejected a supremely qualified woman. The people who did this, the people who voted for Donald Trump, are bad people. They’ve declared war on you. They’ve declared war on all of us.
This country is full of hate, you tell yourself. Racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia. Did white women vote for Trump? Yes, because they fell for his racism. Did Latino men vote for him? Yes, because they fell for his sexism. We need more education about ethnicity, gender, and diversity. We need to talk more about the racism of white America and the misogyny of our culture.
By all means, talk about these problems. But don’t pretend that’s how you’re going to win the next election. You’ve just seen a brutal demonstration that assailing racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia is not enough. In some ways, it’s counterproductive. You need a broader message, one that appeals to people regardless of race, sex, or religion. Don’t take it from me. Take it from the woman who just lost.
Two months ago, at a fundraising event in New York City, Hillary Clinton delivered her now-famous remarks about a “basket of deplorables.” Clinton was accused of demonizing and writing off tens of millions of Americans. But that’s not what she said. Read her words again:
Don’t get complacent. Don’t see the latest outrageous, offensive, inappropriate comment [from Trump] and think, “Well, he’s done this time.” We are living in a volatile political environment. You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—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 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks, they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America. …
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. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.
Clinton wasn’t really talking about the deplorables. She was talking about the nondeplorables. She was talking about reaching out to those who were attracted to Trump’s promises of help and a better life. She understood that to win, she needed to connect with these people. She needed to draw them away from Trump.
And that’s why Republicans pounced on her remarks. They recognized in the phrase “basket of deplorables” an opportunity to alienate Clinton from white America. They portrayed her as having dismissed all whites as racists, all men as sexists, all Christians as bigots. They wanted to bury her message of economic outreach. They wanted to make the election about identity and about liberal elites smearing the character of white working people.
When we talk about Trump’s voters, we’re really talking about five baskets. The first basket is the deplorables: people who love to hate. These are the folks who paint swastikas and write racial slurs on Twitter. The second basket is people who liked Trump’s vilification of immigrants or agreed with him that Clinton didn’t “look like a president.” They’re easily manipulated. The third basket is people who don’t see racism or sexism anywhere. The fourth basket is people who don’t think it’s a big deal. They shrug off Trump’s taped comments about grabbing women as “locker room talk.” And the fifth basket is people who were genuinely troubled by the way Trump treated women, or the way he talked about a Mexican American judge or the mother of a Muslim American soldier, but who voted for him anyway, or stayed home, because they couldn’t stand Clinton.
If you talk about all these people as though they’re the same thing—if you call them all racists or sexists or bigots or haters—you’ll lose more elections. And you’ll deserve to lose, because by lumping them all together and dismissing them, you’re doing to them what the worst of them have done to you.
Instead, separate the baskets. Ignore the first one. You’re not going to win over these people, and you shouldn’t try to be the kind of party that would. Set the second basket aside and come back to those folks later. They’re educable, but it’ll take a while. Focus on the last three baskets. Try to help these people recognize bias and structural inequality and why those problems matter. If the issue moves them, great. But if it doesn’t, connect with them in other ways. Inspire them with a vision of opportunity. Explain how you can improve their lives. Appeal to values that transcend identity.
That’s what Clinton wanted to do. It’s what Barack Obama did. It’s careful, respectful, and politically smart.
Everything Clinton talked about in the first paragraph of her “deplorables” speech—racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamaphobia—is real. Trump exploited these prejudices, and I spent most of the election writing about them. As a country, we have a lot of work to do on them. But they can’t be the central message of the Democratic Party. And they can’t be the guiding explanation of why we lost.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about race, gender, religion, or homophobia. We should. But we’ve just seen, in the cruelest way, that these issues aren’t enough. Even when the Republican nominee exploits bigotry of all kinds, and even when his opponent would be the first woman president, they aren’t enough. Too many voters—white, male, Christian, or otherwise—don’t care enough about those issues. We can’t afford to lose all these people. We certainly can’t afford to alienate them.