Tennessee Williams and the “basket of deplorables”

Hillary Clinton stepped in it over the weekend by throwing “about half” of Donald Trump’s supporters in a “basket of deplorables.” She said (to repeat her phrasing, a lumpy blend of awkward and wonky):

To just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”

Sharp commentators like Jamelle Bouie at Slate have pointed out that there is a good data to back up the idea that half or more of Trump’s supporters exhibit racist attitudes in polling, such as believing against all evidence that Barack Obama is a Muslim, and was born perhaps in Kenya, or in any case outside the United States.

But Bouie bemoans the “theater criticism” of the remarks, saying that questions of how the remarks “might play with a broader audience” misses the point. He goes on to marshall an impressive array of numbers pointing to a truth that by now is not even controversial among the well-informed:

The Republican Party of the Obama years is an ethno-nationalist formation of white Americans. the ideological conservatism of its elites is less important than the raw resentment of its base.

Even if this is about as verifiable as data about “racial attitudes” will allow, it also misses the point of political speech. “How remarks play with a broad audience” — articulation, in a word — is the essence of political skill, and very much to the point of any candidate’s ability to bring together a coalition, especially a coalition of diverse peoples.

It’s also the essence of dramatic speech, and it so happens that one of this nation’s greatest playwrights — who had to suffer the ill effects of many of the attitudes deplored by Clinton — movingly dramatized the dangerousness of racism in a play that’s now running in a little theater in Hollywood.

Although the 1956 “Baby Doll” is famous for its sexual look, at the heart of its drama is a burning motivated by a Trumpian blend of xenophobia, racism, and resentment. The play includes a memorable passage on how this can happen. A bright young immigrant named Silvia (a dark-skinned Sicilian, as it happens) tries to explain to a poor but unbigoted white American why racist language is dangerous to the community and to the Republic:

“I believe in evil spirits,” the character of Silva begins. “…Spirits of violence — and cunning — malevolence — cruelty — treachery — destruction…”

“Oh, them’s just human characteristics,” responds Baby Doll practically.

“They’re evil spirits that haunt the human heart and take possession of it, and spread from one human heart to another the way that fire goes springing from leaf to leaf and branch to branch in a tree till a forest is all aflame with it,” says Silva. “The birds take flight — the wild things are suffocated…everything green and beautiful is destroyed…”

Baby Doll still isn’t having it.

“You have got fire on the brain,” she says, knowing that Silva suspects her husband Archie Lee of burning down Silva’s cotton gin the night before in a rage of resentment.

“I see it as more than it seems on the surface,” Silva replies. “I saw it last night as an explosion of those evil spirits that haunt the human heart — I fought it! I ran into it, beating it, stamping it, shouting the name of God at it! They dragged me out, suffocating. I was defeated! When I came to, lying on the ground — the fire had won the battle, and all around me was a ring of human figures. The fire lit their faces! And they were illuminated! Their eyes, their teeth were SHINING! SEE! LIKE THIS!

He twists his face into a grotesque grimace of pleasure. He thrusts his face at her. She springs back, frightened.

“Hey! Please!” says Baby Doll. “Don’t do that! Don’t scare me!”

“The faces I saw — were grinning!” he warns her, and holds her at the door, not letting her leave his presence. “Then I knew! I knew the fire was not accidental!”

“Not accidental?”

“No, it was not accidental! It was an expression, a manifestation of the human will to destroy.”

“I wouldn’t feel that way about it…” counters Baby Doll weakly.

“I do! I do!” replies the immigrant. “And so I say I believe in ghosts, in haunted places, places haunted by the people who occupy them with hearts overrun with hatred and destruction. I believe this place, this house is haunted…”

Williams, following Abraham Lincoln, more than once chose the metaphor of a house to stand in for the Republic. In the l950’s, arguably, that house was on fire with racism. Despite decades of assiduous effort on the part of many national leaders, including conservative Republicans such as George Bush, racism has not vanished but moved into the political arena. It’s now up those who would prevent those fires from destroying our union to find a way to keep these “evil spirits” from flaring up again.

Is it asking too much to expect Hillary to dispel evil spirits? To unhaunt this house of ours?

Perhaps — we can’t blame her when we see an elderly protester at a Trump rally smashed in the face for protesting. Josh Marshall at TPM describes what happened today:

Shirley is apparently a lifelong protester. She told local reporters she participated in Civil Rights and anti-war protests in the 1960s. And now Donald Trump is among her list of people she’s protested against. As she describes it, the early part of the protest was relatively good natured: Trumpers shouting, Trump, Trump, Trump; her crew would respond Dump, Dump, Dump.

Then this happened. I quote from Western NC’s WLOS 13

After the rally, Teeter experienced something she had never seen in all of her protests. Peace teetered over into something else.”I said you better learn to speak Russian, and I said the first two words are going to be, ha ha. He stopped in his tracks, and he turned around and just cold-cocked me,” Teter said.

She was punched in the face.

She says she fell on her oxygen tank and has sore ribs, a sore jaw, and cut her elbow. She later went to the hospital and is thankful she did not break any bones.

In case you’re keeping score at home, this is the same rally where a Trumper inside the arena assaulted three other protesters. Police have so far made five arrests during and after the rally, not including the man they plan to arrest for assaulting Teeter.

To expect Hillary to explain why racism is dangerous may be too much. But she might do better by taking a tip from Tennessee Williams. When talking about a difficult subject (racism) bait the audience with something else.

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