Hillary Clinton’s “off the reservation” comment was … off message, and off the mark. (More)

“I have a lot of experience dealing with men who sometimes get ‘off the reservation'”

When CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Clinton about Donald Trump’s insults, she replied:

“I have a lot of experience dealing with men who sometimes get ‘off the reservation’ in the way they behave and how they speak,” Clinton said. “I’m not going to deal with their temper tantrums or efforts to try to provoke me.”
“He can say whatever he wants to say about me, I could really care less,” Clinton said. “I’m going to stand up for what I think the American people need and want in the next president.”

Of course this drew the predictable Twitter responses about her husband’s affairs. It also drew objections – from both right and left – that “off the reservation” is a racist slur against Native Americans.

“Helping the majority realize that there is a minority point-of-view”

Indeed many Native Americans find that phrase offensive:

Rob Capriccioso, citizen of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, and Washington D.C. Bureau Chief for Indian Country Today writes:

“I bristle when I hear the phrase because many of the people who use it nonchalantly have likely never thought about its origin, nor have they probably ever visited a reservation.”

“It’s not about political correctness, either, it’s about helping the majority realize that there is a minority point-of-view that holds weight that the majority is giving too little credence. To me, there are indeed many more offensive words involving American Indians than this phrase – including the name of the Washington football team – but I believe it is the common use of phrases like ‘off the reservation’ that allows people to end up being comfortable going further – to the point of using a slur to name a football team that supposedly honors Indians, but not realizing that it is actually a slur.”

You needn’t be hypersensitive to recognize that, for a candidate who spent her entire career fighting for people who have been pushed to the margins – that is, “helping the majority realize that there is a minority point-of-view” – saying “off the reservation” was off message.

“Living lives without thinking about what we say and do”

In an analysis at Partnership With Native Americans, Andrew Bentley opens with Wikipedia’s definitions of the phrase:

• (literally) To leave a reservation to which one was restricted.
• (US, politics) To break with one’s party or group, usually temporarily.
• (by extension) To engage in disruptive activity outside of normal bounds.

Bentley offers an excellent discussion of the usage and offensiveness of the phrase, and concludes:

Finally, the issue with “off the reservation” and similar phrases is that these things are said without any thought. They become a part of the common vernacular. Freely they move from mind to mind, mouth to mouth. Maybe the meaning of these sorts of phrases never should have been the issue. Maybe living lives without thinking about what we say and do is of greater concern.

Saying “off the reservation” was a case of speaking “without thinking about what we say.” That’s something Clinton will need to temper going forward.

“It is a feature, not a bug”

But her use of “off the reservation” was also off the mark. Look again at those definitions. She obviously didn’t mean the phrase in its literal sense; Trump doesn’t live on a reservation. Nor did she use the phrase in its common political sense; Trump did not break with his party or group by insulting her.

Instead, she meant the third, extended definition: “To engage in disruptive activity outside of normal bounds.”

And that was factually incorrect, in terms of the ‘normal bounds’ of Trump’s audience, as Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall explained last month:

The third factor is I think the least obvious but for these purposes the most important. On the radicalized, revanchist right, provocation and transgression of norms isn’t simply indulged. It functions as a positive good. It is a feature, not a bug, to use the tech phrase. […] Changing your positions, obviously lying, taunting enemies – none of these hurt Trump because his core supporters are not seeing them through the same prism you likely are. They’re not signs of deception, bad character or untrustworthiness. They all signal a refusal to accept the norms of the threatening order and thus a willingness to overturn it.

Marshall expanded on that argument this week:

When your top surrogate’s Republican wife visibly grimaces at your remark you know it’s bad news for a wide swath of the electorate. Trump can’t not be Trump, a point I want to return to. But for now I want to make a different point.

These two candidates aren’t just appealing to different demographics or voting coalitions. They’re operating in what almost amounts to two different political universes. In linguistic terms it is almost like two mutually unintelligible languages. I guarantee you that everyone who has voted for Trump in any primary so far loved those remarks. They hate Hillary. They hate ‘political correctness’. More than anything else they love provocation itself.

For Trump’s audience, the dream of “Make America Great Again” includes restoring every white male’s God-given right to hurl insults at Others, mock them for taking offense, and howl “political correctness” if anyone dares to object … and his misogynistic comments were squarely within those ‘normal bounds.’

Rather than use a phrase that was both racially-loaded and factually incorrect, Clinton should have said: “After all these years in public life, I’m used to being insulted. I’m not going to deal with their temper tantrums or efforts to try to provoke me.”

The campaign will offer plenty of opportunities for rhetorical flourish. This was a time to keep it simple.


Photo Credit: Joe Raedle (Getty Images)


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