US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Picture: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER
US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Picture: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER

IT HAS been both interesting and depressing to watch the intense media scrutiny and criticism of US Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s remarks at a private campaign fundraiser earlier this week to the effect that her opponent, Republican nominee Donald Trump, has legitimised some of the most unsavoury views held by Americans from the extreme right wing.

Clinton admitted that she was perhaps being "grossly generalistic" in saying: "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."

She has been savaged in the media since her utterances were leaked to the media. From sage political analysts who have argued that it never looks good to attack voters instead of candidates (a view I agree with), to conservative critics who have ignored her own disclaimer and attacked her for making a "gross generalisation" about millions of American voters.

This fresh scandal is yet another example of the double standards and false moral equivalencies that have defined news coverage of the US presidential campaign since Trump first entered the race last year.

Trump declared during a primary campaign rally earlier this year that he could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York City, and it would still not dent his support levels. During a media conference in July, reflecting on the e-mail server scandal that has dogged the former secretary of state throughout her campaign, Trump urged Russia’s intelligence services to hack her e-mail and "find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing".

"I think," he added, "you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press."

On both counts, Trump seems to have been right: his remarks about murdering a member of the public did nothing to damage his campaign. And the media has largely rewarded his call to foreign espionage by the Russian government with the same blanket coverage that has followed every disgraceful thing he has said on the campaign trail.

Clinton, on the other hand, has been repeatedly flayed for stating the obvious: Trump’s campaign has mainstreamed racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia; his supporters hold racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic views. And all these things are deplorable.

During party political convention season in the US earlier this year, an interesting conversation took place on social media around the hashtag #girlguessimwithher or "Girl, guess I’m with her". A play on Clinton’s campaign slogan "I’m with her", the hashtag was an expression of the muted enthusiasm felt by legions of black American women for Clinton’s candidature. They would support her, the conversation indicated, but reluctantly so.

So too would supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders, whose anti-establishment campaign failed, somewhat inevitably, to secure him the Democratic nomination. Indeed, reluctance seems to be the dominant sentiment among many voters for whom Clinton’s historic nomination should be cause for massive celebration.

This attitude towards Clinton, who is seen in many quarters as a candidate of the political establishment, seems to echo a malaise felt by the citizens of many democracies in the developed world today over political elites.

Many have not forgiven the sins of the 2008 financial crisis, the massive government bailouts and large-scale failure of accountability they attribute to a political elite that is embedded with big business. And while it is easy to understand their disillusionment, it is difficult similarly to credit their response — throwing electoral support behind populists, demagogues and an odious and extreme right-winger whose claims to be "anti-establishment" would be laughable were they not taken so seriously by so many.

In France, presidential candidates feeling the heat from their right flank have started supporting Islamophobic campaigns to ban the "burkini" on public beaches. In Britain, part of the fallout from exiting the EU has been the appointment of a foreign minister who once cheerfully referred to the citizens of African Commonwealth states as "flag-waving piccaninnies" who "break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird".

This is the world in which we live today — one in which extremists are expected to make deplorable comments, while those occupying the political centre must walk on eggshells in defence of values that until recently were considered self-evident. With every subsequent election campaign, it seems the rhetoric of the right wing can only grow more inflammatory.

• Mazibuko, a former parliamentary leader of the DA, is a resident fellow of the Harvard Institute of Politics