At a Friday night fundraiser, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said that “half of Trump’s supporters” could be placed in a “basket of deplorables” because of their “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic” beliefs. She’s since backed off the “half of” portion of this statement — despite the fact that polls indicate that more than half of Trump’s supporters hold at least some of the views she listed — although she’s stuck to her belief that many of them adhere to such beliefs.
Appearing on CNN Monday afternoon, Republican vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence attacked Clinton for her factually accurate statement. During this interview, host Wolf Blitzer asked Pence if he’d agree that David Duke, a Trump supporter and former Ku Klux Klan leader, “would fit into that category of deplorables.”
Pence, however, would not concede this point. At first he pointed out that Trump “has denounced David Duke repeatedly,” something that Trump has done, albeit reluctantly at at times. When pressed, Pence again refused to concede that the former hate group leader is “deplorable,” instead saying that he is “not in the name calling business.”
Mike Pence just refused to call David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the KKK, "deplorable": pic.twitter.com/Trb2wIftW1
— Carlos Maza (@gaywonk) September 12, 2016
Pence’s overarching point, that Clinton’s factually correct statement is “shocking” but Duke cannot be denounced as deplorable, is consistent with a conservative approach to matters of race that predates Trump’s candidacy. As Matt Yglesias has written, “relatively few conservatives are interested in expressing racist views, but virtually all conservatives are united in the conviction that anti-racism run amok is ruining the country and almost no conservatives are interested in combating racism.” Labeling someone a “racist” becomes a graver offense than being racist.
And so Clinton can make an unflattering-but-accurate statement about many Trump supporters, and that makes her an object of scorn. But Duke himself cannot be condemned as deplorable for leading the Ku Klux Klan.
A Republican senator broke with Pence on Tuesday, saying that he was too soft on Duke:
Spox for UT Sen. Mike Lee on his meeting with Pence: "Lee emphasized that Republicans must identify David Duke’s racism as deplorable"
— Ali Rogin (@AliABCNews) September 13, 2016
Lee, a very conservative senator and close ally of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), refused to endorse Trump last June, noting that Trump “accused my best friend’s [Cruz’s] father of conspiring to kill JFK” and that Trump has “made statements that some have identified correctly as religiously intolerant.”