BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media.
Brooke Gladstone is away this week. I’m Bob Garfield.
And this, you’ve heard many people say this week, was a huuuuge mistake.
HILLARY CLINTON: You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump supporters into what I call the “basket of deplorables.”
BOB GARFIELD: Hillary Clinton, speaking last weekend at a fundraiser in New York City.
HILLARY CLINTON: The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it, and, unfortunately, there are people like that, and he has lifted them up.
BOB GARFIELD: The other basket of Trump supporters, she said, are the economically disenfranchised, frustrated with government and lack of opportunity. But, never mind that. This is a horse race and by running down tens of millions of Americans, the frontrunner stumbled. Sure, the number two horse has built his entire campaign on disparagement but, look, the robot in pearls was caught generalizing. So in rushed the media handicappers to lecture on Clinton's impolitic politics and to calculate the damage.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: So how bad is this going to be for Hillary Clinton? Let’s talk to our panel.
PEGGY NOONAN, CBS NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: It was memorable, therefore, it will be memorable as a gaffe. It was a mistake…
COKIE ROBERTS, MORNING EDITION COMMENTATOR: And candidates, at some point, have to learn that they should not talk this way.
TA-NEHISI COATES: And I guess it was the “and she shouldn’t have said it” more than anything that I objected to.
BOB GARFIELD: Ta-Nehisi Coates is national correspondent for The Atlantic. This week, irked by the pundits lecturing over a rare moment of absolute candor, he took it upon himself to fact-check Clinton's harsh assertion.
TA-NEHISI COATES: You have a press corps that, you know, for much of this campaign has really dogged Hillary Clinton, sometimes, you know, fairly and correctly, for being secretive and for not being open and, you know, being a closed candidate. I mean, we just went through this whole thing about how Hillary Clinton doesn’t hold any press conferences. And the minute, you know, the press gets something that seemed to be an honest expression, it’s, “oh, here’s why she shouldn’t have said it.” And I just don’t think you get it both ways. You can’t demand that the candidate be more open and then attack the candidate when the candidate actually is more open.
BOB GARFIELD: It was reminiscent of when Barack Obama was recorded at a San Francisco fundraiser talking about grassroots Republicans clinging to their religion and their guns, caught in a truth. Is that what happened here?
TA-NEHISI COATES: I don’t know how you prove whether people cling to their guns or not, but I certainly know how you can prove that half of Trump supporters are either, you know, sexist, Islamophobes, racist, homophobes or whatever. All you have to do is look at the polling data.
BOB GARFIELD: And this, it seems to me, half of the nub of the thing because, obviously, when pollsters say to people, are you a racist, they don’t get very good results.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: But there are ways to gather data about people's sentiments, their mentalities, their prejudices, and you think those numbers, in their totality, corroborate Clinton's statement. How do you go about doing that math?
TA-NEHISI COATES: There are statistics that I cited in my article that say, for instance, 40% of Trump supporters think black people are lazier and more violent than white people. That – I mean, I don’t – [LAUGHS] you know, I don’t know how you have a debate about it. I guess one can debate whether or not it's racist to think black people are lazier and more violent than white people. I tend to think that that makes you racist.
The majority of Trump supporters support this insane idea, that we have no proof of at all, that the President of the United States was not born in this country. An even larger majority support the idea that the President of the United States is a secret Muslim. Close to around 50% of Republicans support the idea that Muslims should be banned from the country. You know, I don’t have much of a problem making an argument for racism or Islamophobia based on that. I don’t find that too controversial.
BOB GARFIELD: I don’t know which is more discouraging, those numbers that you cite or the fact that 30% of Hillary Clinton supporters also believe blacks are lazier and more violent –
TA-NEHISI COATES: [LAUGHS] Right.
BOB GARFIELD: - than the rest of the population. So pick a stack to curl up in the fetal position over.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. That would have been a great news story, to say, hey, Hillary Clinton, okay, yeah, you're right, there, there is a basket of deplorables in Trump’s campaign, but there’s also a basket of deplorables in your campaign, also, what’s your answer for that? That, at least, would have engaged with the math of it, as opposed to acting like the math didn’t exist at all.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, it's a lot easier to go on TV or to knock out a column or a blog post that says this was politically disadvantageous and stupid than it is to go into polling data.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: How difficult was it?
TA-NEHISI COATES: I, I think I might have took two minutes on Google to find most of these stats. You know, this entire campaign season has been of great interest to a lot of people. Jonathan Chait pointed out only, you know, a few months before, the Wall Street Journal were publishing editorials condemning the Trump campaign for the massive amount of racism and bigotry that they found.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: You know, he’s actually got explicit support from white supremacist groups.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Open, open racism in the campaign from Donald Trump.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Donald Trump has fueled his campaign with xenophobic, racist, bigoted and violent rhetoric.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Then when Hillary Clinton said it, suddenly there was some sort of problem. So it’s not like this isn’t a topic that people haven’t been looking into the whole time. I just think there’s a distaste for it. It’s a depressing thought to think that racism, bigotry, sexism, homophobia actually is representative in the democratic spirit in America, by which I mean it’s very easy to think of Trump as this force, you know, and to focus all of your angst and your anger and your vitriol on Trump and not acknowledge the fact that this is representative of a major political party who did not get there through armed junta. It actually got there through people voting for him, which means that there are some people who are actually hearing all that hate and bigotry and it accords with something that they believe deep inside of them. That’s hard for people to think about!
BOB GARFIELD: Hillary put bigots and the sort of industrial despairing in two different buckets. Was she even right to do that?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, that’s a great question because she cleaved it to [ ? ] this neat separation, right, between those who are struggling and those who are, you know, motivated by bigotry. You know, but I don’t have any data to prove that. [LAUGHS] But I suspect that many people are a mixture of all of those things.
And also, you know, and here’s what makes it difficult – a mixture of many good things too, good little league coaches, you know, good mothers and fathers, good PTA presidents, good neighborhood watch people and yet, at the same time, might think, you know, black people are lazier than white people, [LAUGHS] at the same time might be deserving a better shot in this economy. All of those things can be true at the same time, and we have great, great difficulty weighing those things.
So I think what she was trying to do was ultimately say that, you know, there’s a portion, half, you know, even half, you know, Trump supporters that are good people, you know, who legitimately can be reached and, and can be touched.
BOB GARFIELD: Most are racist, some, I assume, are good people.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, right.
BOB GARFIELD: To quote the poet. [LAUGHS]
TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, [LAUGHS] But, you know, a much darker version is some are racist and those some are also good people. Do you, do you know what I mean, like that kind of mixture? And pointing back to this idea that, you know, his most supporters are motivated by factors that we just find, for lack of a better term, deplorable. That’s tough. That’s a tough world for politicians to live in, definitely, and it's a world that journalists, for whatever reason, don't even want to try and live in right now.
BOB GARFIELD: And finally, is this just yet another smoking gun of the false equivalency problem, wherein the press, in order to show that it isn't in the tank for Hillary Clinton, needs a public opprobrium –
TA-NEHISI COATES: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: - just to show that it’s some sort of independent force?
TA-NEHISI COATES: That’s definitely part of it. I mean, I think one of the real challenges that the press has is this notion of objectivity, which is, you know, a real thing but it was made for a world where you can take both candidates seriously or where they exist within a realm of respectability. You know, forget being Islamophobic but how are you actually going to [LAUGHS] ban Muslims from America? You know, when you actually have to take that seriously, it’s a real problem. You know, do you cross the line when you say, listen, there’s no way this could ever happen? Have you crossed the line of objectively?
So, in many ways, I guess, in this campaign, I'm sympathetic to reporters who are trying to do their job. It’s not, you know, an easy challenge. I just think in this case we could have done a lot better.
BOB GARFIELD: Let’s just say you’re the sultan of news media –
- all powerful and Hillary Clinton says what she says about the basket of deplorables and she says what she says about this other basket filled with the legitimately aggrieved, and you get to decide what the press does next, what does the press do next?
TA-NEHISI COATES: I just don’t think the only direction is horserace journalism. You know, the piece comes across my desk and I’m editor, and it’s another one of these thin, mealy-you know-mouthed sort of political analysis pieces that could have been written about any gaffe that came before it, I just don't want to see that at all.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, actually, I think it's an app.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, that’s what it feels like, right? That’s what it reads like. [LAUGHS] It reads like it's an app.
BOB GARFIELD: Ta-Nehisi, as always, thank you very much.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure, as always.
BOB GARFIELD: Ta-Nehisi Coates is national correspondent for The Atlantic and author of Between the World and Me.
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Coming up, the alt in alt-right. It’s short for white supremacy. This is On the Media.