Over the weekend, Hillary Clinton committed a political gaffe.
She said “half” the Americans supporting Donald Trump could be put into what she called “the basket of deplorables. . . .The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.”
While Clinton said the other half of Trump supporters “are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them . . . and they’re just desperate for change” the media focused largely on the former group — and the notion that Clinton had insulted a healthy segment of the American electorate.
Clinton later took back her use of the word “half,” but not her argument that Trump is energizing the most intolerant, bigoted, and misogynistic elements in American society — and for good reason. Quite simply, many of Trump’s supporters are very comfortable holding racist positions. Indeed more than 60 percent of Trump backers think Barack Obama was not born in the United States and is a secret Muslim. And for those who have regularly attended Trump’s rallies, the notion that his supporters are intolerant toward minorities and unafraid to express racist views is not even debatable.
But what about those other half of Trump supporters — the ones who may not consider themselves racists but are still supporting Trump?
They are backing a candidate who wants to ban more than one billion members of a religious faith from entering the United States.
They are supporting a candidate who has called undocumented immigrants from Mexico rapists and criminals and has advocated deporting all 11 million of them back to Mexico.
They are supporting a candidate who has retweeted anti-Semitic and racist tweets and who has said that women can’t serve in the military because it provides too much temptation to men to commit sexual assault.
They are supporting a candidate who, just two days after Clinton’s comments surfaced, referred to Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts as Pocahontas — a flagrant racist pejorative that he has been using for months and is now largely shrugged off. This is what the normalization of racism looks like — and let’s be honest, the vast majority of Trump supporters are fine with it.
All of this is in addition to the fact that Trump is shockingly unqualified for the office he is seeking.
These facts about Trump are well known. They are the reason why many of his supporters are so enthusiastic about his candidacy. Indeed, the one thing you hear from Trump supporters more than anything else is that he “tells it like it is.” Though apparently when his political opponents do that, it’s a problem.
How should we talk about these people?
It’s always uncomfortable when politicians or pundits criticize voters, but here’s the far more uncomfortable reality of the 2016 campaign: 40 million to 50 million Americans will, with eyes wide open, vote for a candidate who spouts racist, xenophobic, and misogynist statements on a regular basis and is running on a platform of unambiguous nativism. It’s quite possible that the majority of white American voters will cast their ballot for this candidate.
To be sure, many Americans will vote for Trump out of partisan affiliation.
Indeed, when I’ve gone to Trump rallies, his supporters have frequently tried to play down his more incendiary comments. “Sometimes he goes too far,” they’ve told me. “He didn’t mean a total ban on Muslims,” etc. But, these are rationalizations: “I don’t like Trump’s racism, but I do like his position on border security.” But voters don’t get to pick and choose like that when the entire focus of Trump’s campaign is an appeal to white nationalism. At the very least, there is no reason for those of us in the media to play along with it.
There are tens of millions of Americans who are well aware of Trump’s racist views, of his intolerance, and of his denigration of the ethnic heritage of his political opponents, and they are not only OK with those views, but think Trump should be the next president.
This is a terrifying reminder of how pervasive racism is in American life — and how easily Americans can compartmentalize obvious examples of bigotry and intolerance.
But there is no better way to normalize this racism than to play down the fact or let off the hook people who are willingly voting for a racist this fall. Clinton may have used an inartful phrase to describe Trump supporters, and she may have committed the cardinal sin of directly attacking the electorate — but she wasn’t wrong. And if you think about the breadth of Trump’s support — and the unambiguity of his racism — she perhaps was being overly generous.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.