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Anti-Trump Conservatives Have a “Basket of Deplorables” on Their Hands

Hillary Clinton told the hard truth they'll need to tell if they're going to save conservatism from itself.

Mark Wallheiser / Getty Images

Hillary Clinton’s ballyhooed comments at a fundraiser in Manhattan on Friday night, when she said that “you could put half of [Donald] Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables,” were a Rorschach test for the political class. And perhaps the most disappointing reactions came from anti-Trump conservatives who nevertheless believe it was rude of Clinton to call his racist followers racist.

One of the most profound open questions in American politics today is what will become of movement conservatism and the GOP after the election, should Trump lose. Those who wish to dislodge Trump and Trumpism from the party face an enormous challenge because for all his flaws as a candidate, he is proof of concept that performative bigotry is a ticket to a loyal following. Too small a following, perhaps, to win a national election, but certainly big enough to dominate congressional districts and whole states.

The Trump menace is deepened by the fact that Trumpism is lucrative. People like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity may love the taste of Trump’s ass cheeks, but they’re doing what they’re doing at least in part because Trump’s followers flock to them, and they in turn see those followers as marks for goldbuggery and Flowmax.

This may be an insoluble problem, but if the solution exists it begins with Trump losing in a landslide. Anti-Trump conservatives will be unable to cleanse the GOP of Trumpism if they’re not clear-eyed about the extent of racism in society, and Trump won’t lose in a landslide unless he and the bigotries that propel his campaign are delegitimized in precisely the ways Clinton has tried to delegitimize them.

Some anti-Trump conservatives see things in the exact opposite way.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat intimated last week that the best-possible outcome of this election would be a Clinton victory, but a narrow one.

While “there is much in Trump and Trumpism that richly deserves a total wipeout, and much in his Republican Party that deserves to be sent howling into the political wilderness,” he wrote...

...a true landslide, a total repudiation, would also encourage unwarranted self-satisfaction and relief among the American republic’s ruling class—a sense that the ideas Trump represents, the fears and concerns he has exploited, and the people he has rallied can be safely buried and ignored and consigned once more to the benighted past….

Hillary Clinton’s weakness and unpopularity might be a gift, of sorts, to the American future. Because she can’t put Trump away, it’s harder to dismiss Trumpism as either a pure joke or a pure evil. Because she can’t put him away, we have to take him seriously — and only by taking him seriously can we learn enough to make sure the next Trump isn’t far stronger, and far worse.

If the Republican Party seemed in the least prepared to atone for past sins and address the root causes of Trumpism, this analysis would hold up well. Instead, the entire GOP, from House Speaker Paul Ryan on down, is in a holding pattern, waiting for the results of the election to determine what their best future course will be.

If Trump loses narrowly, it is much more conceivable that Republicans will see Trump as a weak exponent of a winning strategy than that they’ll undertake a massive course correction, to make sure new Trumps need not apply. If Trump can come within three points of the presidency, a stronger candidate, who does a better job uniting the right than Trump has been able to do, can win it all.

If Trump loses in a landslide, by contrast, the appeal of white grievance politics will fade and the Republican Party will become invested in doing what it takes to prevent restive whites from seeking succor in a new Trump. By making the entire political establishment rather than the Republican Party his unit of analysis, Douthat reaches a backward conclusion.

But it’s the conclusion that’s likeliest to actually happen, so long as anti-Trump conservatives remain uncomfortable admitting the scope and severity of America’s racism problem—if they continue, as David Brooks did last week, to define Trump’s America as one “marked by economic insecurity, anarchic family structures, fraying community bonds, and a pervasive sense of betrayal and distrust,” to the exclusion of racism.

Identifying Trumpism by its least damning characteristics helps normalize Trump himself, and in turn makes the idea of voting for him seem less unthinkable.

Admitting that Trump derives a great deal of support from the deplorable things he says and does is the first and most critical step toward eventually addressing the concerns of those in the other “basket”—the one Clinton described as filled with “people are people who feel the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them.”

The problem of how to disempower Trumpism altogether is a tricky one, though, because the millions of deplorables make a sizable market. There is so much cost sunk into the road the right paved for Trump that reform in the proactive sense of the word is going to be very hard. In his Bloomberg View column, conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru drew a circle around the problem.

“[W]ho owns Hannity?” he asked. “Nobody forced conservatives around the country to listen to him. If other conservatives in the media, including those who oppose Trump, thought he was a hack who people should ignore, they—we—did not say so. Maybe we should have.”

Over the course of years in which conservatives tolerated Hannity et al as their-kind-of-assholes, their stars rose, their audiences became loyal, and they became impossible to control. That conservatives have awakened themselves to the nature of this malevolence means little so long as Republican politicians are forced to reach their voters through these intermediaries. The Hannitys can only be marginalized through a slow process of attrition.

But Trumpism is a relatively new political style for a major party, and may not be too deeply rooted to excise. The difficulty is that the no-enemies-to-the-right tribal culture in which Hannity and Trump’s other supplicants flourished is the same one in which it’s considered a grave offense to call Trump-supporting racists deplorable. This can either be rectified swiftly, or, like Hannity, allowed to fester until its power and influence are too entrenched to do anything about.

The way to do that is not to condemn Clinton for telling impolite truths about this aspect of the American right, but to think clearly about who Trump’s core supporters really are and say, “This thing of whiteness, I acknowledge mine.”