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Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis-based commentator who writes about race, politics, and the economy.
Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis-based commentator who writes about race, politics, and the economy.

SARAH KENDZIOR

Hillary Clinton’s redemption problem Add to ...

Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media.

In June, I stopped at a gas station in rural Missouri for a snack. Near the counter, where a Confederate flag was displayed, were signs for sale. They read: “WARNING: I’m a bitter gun owner clinging to my religion.”

This sign has been all over rural Missouri ever since Barack Obama declared in April, 2008, that small-town Midwesterners, after 25 years of economic hardship, “get bitter [and] cling to guns and religion.” In Missouri, his statement was widely viewed as elitist and condescending. That Mr. Obama, then a presidential candidate, said it to wealthy San Franciscans made it all the worse.

Mr. Obama was not wrong. Many people in the Midwest are bitter after decades of job loss – who wouldn’t be? And plenty of Midwesterners like their guns, and like their faith, though “cling to” is a smarmy way to put it. The sentiment was not wrong, exactly, but an outsider expressing it felt that way. Mr. Obama was not an authority on the internal life of people whom he did not know and whose experiences he did not share.

Now Hillary Clinton has made the same mistake.

On Sept. 9, Ms. Clinton said to a crowd of wealthy New Yorkers that “to be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Donald Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it.” She described how Mr. Trump amplified bigoted voices, and then referred to a second “basket” consisting of Trump supporters let down by the economy and the government, but who lack Mr. Trump’s bigoted beliefs. She noted that the first group contained “folks that are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.”

There were several things wrong with this statement that Ms. Clinton, within 24 hours, corrected. One cannot be “grossly generalistic” and then categorize Trump supporters into neat “halves”. Unlike her lawyerly indictment of the “alt-right” (a politically correct term for white supremacists who condemn political correctness), her claims lacked supporting evidence, which she provided in a Sept. 10 statement describing the many hate groups and “fringe bigots” who Mr. Trump amplifies.

“I won’t stop calling out bigotry and racist rhetoric in this campaign,” Ms. Clinton declared. And she should not stop: someone needs to do it when the U.S. media is giving Donald Trump a pass. Her condemnation of Mr. Trump and his white supremacist supporters is accurate and necessary.

Her psychoanalysis of all Trump voters, however, is not. Public distrust of Ms. Clinton tends to be axiomatic: Hillary Clinton is distrusted because reporters open interviews with questions like “Why doesn’t anyone trust you?”. Americans are encouraged to distrust Ms. Clinton, despite most of her alleged scandals – Whitewater, Clinton Foundation favouritism – falling apart under scrutiny. Even her pneumonia – which Ms. Clinton was revealed to have on Sunday – has become subject to conspiracy theories about body doubles and her ability to stay in the race.

After 25 years of dealing with a hostile press, Ms. Clinton has become guarded, which further fuels voter paranoia. Last week she admitted to the website Humans of New York that “I can be perceived as aloof or cold.” Her choice of outlet for this declaration is no coincidence: Ms. Clinton needs to convince Americans she is human.

Ms. Clinton’s remarks on Trump supporters will likely not sway the vote. Her supporters embraced them, while her enemies saw them as justification for their hatred. But her remarks will linger, much like Barack Obama’s. Ironically, Ms. Clinton made the same mistake as her own detractors: assuming to have insight into the emotions and experiences of people she does not know.

For any politician, not just Ms. Clinton, to psychoanalyze voters is an insult. It comes across not as empathy, which she was trying to express to Trump fans experiencing hardship, but as cold classification from a distant elite.

Ms. Clinton offered no apology for the most damning part of her statement: that some people are “irredeemable.” When Mr. Trump’s KKK backers are brought up, Trump fans retaliate by showing pictures of Ms. Clinton with Senator Robert Byrd, a former KKK member who spent the bulk of his career renouncing his earlier views and fighting for civil rights. When he died, the NAACP proclaimed that “Senator Byrd reflects the transformative power of this nation.”

No one can define who can be redeemed – or what any American truly feels inside. Hillary Clinton, so rarely given the benefit of the doubt, should know that better than anyone.

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