Ta-Nehisis Coates writes: [On Friday], Hillary Clinton claimed that roughly “half of Trump’s supporters” could be characterized as either “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.” Clinton hedged by saying she was being “grossly generalistic” but given that no one appreciates being labeled a bigot, that statement still feels harsh –– or if you prefer, “politically incorrect.”
Clinton later said that she was “wrong” to say “half,” but reiterated that “it’s deplorable that Donald Trump has built his campaign largely on prejudice and paranoia.”
One way of reporting on Clinton’s statement is to weigh its political cost, ask what it means for her campaign, or attempt to predict how it might affect her performance among certain groups. This path is in line with the current imperatives of political reporting and, at least for the moment, seems to be the direction of coverage. But there is another line of reporting that could be pursued — Was Hillary Clinton being truthful or not? [Continue reading…]
Clinton added, “Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.” Her implication seems to be that however irredeemable a proportion of Trump supporters might be, they are insufficient in number or influence to affect how we define America.
America can supposedly accommodate an indeterminate number of people who are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, or Islamaphobic, and somehow retain its exalted character.
American elections and the way the media covers them, focus so much on the individual personalities of would-be political representatives, that it’s easy to avoid seeing in these democratic processes an opportunity for assessing the condition of American culture.
While Donald Trump can be criticized for having empowered one of the dark sides of America, there’s little reason to believe that the ugly face he has revealed has grown in size due to his candidacy. It has certainly grown in strength because Trump has created a permissive environment for expressions of bigotry. And that environment is certainly dangerous in terms of what it already has unleashed. But had he not run and had an alternative Republican nominee not tapped into the same currents, the fact that they might now not be so visible would be no reason to treat them as less representative of America.
Although Trump supporters like him because they regard his lack of political correctness as a form of candor, one of the many ironies of this election is that he and they are generally just as obedient as anyone else in compliance with many forms of political correctness.
Hillary Clinton’s offense in labeling half of Trump’s supporters as racists of one kind or another derives from the fact that virtually no one disputes that these are derogatory terms. Racism in America is almost universally disavowed. But the fact that nowadays so few people will tolerate being called racist seems to have not as much diminished racism than it has driven it underground. Even overt white supremacists practice their own form of political correctness by characterizing their cause as involving the conservation of what they regard as their endangered “heritage.”
An argument about how a political constituency is getting labeled serves mostly as a distraction from the core issue here: is American society capable of becoming more inclusive? Or is this a society already fractured by so many embattled and conflicting identities that its capacity to come together is severely impaired by a lack of durable social glue?
What does it mean to be an American? should not be a question asked so that politicians can compete in making cliched declarations about America’s greatness. Instead, it should be treated as the first step in arriving at a sound diagnosis of this nation both in terms of its actual strengths and weaknesses.
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