If Hillary Clinton’s remarks about “deplorables” were a blunder, as even many of her supporters believe, the fault may lie less with her choice of adjective than with her carelessness about the numbers.
How did she calculate that half of Donald J. Trump’s supporters are deplorable, or did she calculate at all? Apparently not, since she walked the calculation back after the uproar that ensued. But this only raises a question: If not half, how many? What percentage actually falls into the “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic” basket to which Clinton was referring?
The Survey of American Political Culture, soon to be released from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, may offer some answers.
First, a general profile. Even though four out of five Trump supporters believe that Americans lived more moral and ethical lives fifty years ago, about three-quarters (74 percent) nonetheless hold that we should be more tolerant of people who adopt alternate lifestyles. And even though Trump supporters are overwhelmingly white (91 percent), the study finds, about two-thirds say their beliefs and values are similar to those of African Americans (62 percent) and Hispanics (68 percent). In fact, Trump supporters generally perceive greater cultural distance from the non-religious or the American cultural elite than they do from other American ethnic groups.
An exception to this is their view of Muslims. Nearly four of every five Trump supporters (78 percent) perceive themselves as different in their beliefs and values from Muslims. It is not surprising then that 70 percent favor banning U.S. entry to all Muslims “until we better understand the terrorist threat to our country.” This concern about outsiders isn’t just a Muslim concern, though. Seventy-six percent of Trump supporters favor “greatly reducing” the number of all immigrants to the U.S. and 77 percent favor building a wall to more effectively keep people out. We can infer from this that while Trump supporters, the large majority of whom are white, generally think of Hispanics and African Americans as fellow Americans, they haven’t yet woven Muslims into their vision of American life.
So the actual response of Trump supporters to non-whites is much more nuanced that Clinton’s sweeping generalization allows. Indeed, to find people meriting her “deplorable” rebuke we must scratch much deeper into the Trump supporter basket. The closest the 2016 survey could come to Clinton’s amalgam of phobias, isms, and hate-mongers was a group of Americans who met three criteria: 1) they see their beliefs and values as “completely different” from those of gays and lesbians; 2) they reject the idea of greater tolerance toward those with alternate lifestyles; and 3) they “strongly favor” banning all Muslims, at least for a time, from entering the United States.
In the Survey of American Political Culture, only 3 percent of Americans share all three characteristics, a mere fifty-seven out of 1,861 survey respondents. Clinton may be happy to hear that only five of these fifty-seven “deplorables” are her supporters, while fifty-one say they will vote for Trump for president. In a word, about 90 percent of all “deplorables,” as she defines them, fall into the growing basket of Trump supporters. But Clinton severely miscalculated the proportion of Trump’s supporters that this represents. Our best estimate is that her image of “deplorable” applies at most to 10 percent of all Trump supporters, a much smaller basket than Clinton asserted.
Most of the remaining 90 percent are patriotic and religious white Americans who believe in the United States, but not, at least for now, in its government. They have embraced a narrative of national decline that they believe requires dramatic change if it is to be reversed. If they are phobic at all, to use Clinton's language, it may not be homophobia or xenophobia that best characterizes them, but instead some new blend of elitophobia and governmentophobia. 76 percent say the government in Washington threatens the freedom of ordinary Americans, and 68 percent say the leaders in American corporations, media, universities, and technology care little about the lives of ordinary Americans. Indeed, it may be the country’s established leaders, experts, and government officials that they fear more than anything.
Carl Desportes Bowman is director of survey research at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.