Hillary Clinton's claim at a fundraiser that half of Donald Trump's supporters fit into a "basket of deplorables" prompted a swift and negative reaction from Republicans, including denunciations and calls for her to apologise.

The comments echoed an accusation that Clinton had levied previously - that Trump appeals to and amplifies racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic viewpoints. But Clinton triggered a fresh controversy by claiming that "half" of Trump's supporters fit that description.

At a key moment in the campaign, when both candidates are trying to sharpen their focus for the final, post-Labour Day sprint, Clinton's remarks took attention from Trump's spate of gaffes last week and also from her own effort to turn the public's attention to her qualifications for office and vision for the nation.

"You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the 'basket of deplorables'. Right?" Clinton said to applause and laughter from supporters at the LGBT for Hillary fundraiser in New York. "The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic - you name it." She continued: "He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people - now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks - they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America." Condemnation came swiftly from Trump's allies and from the candidate himself, who on Twitter called the remarks "so insulting" and predicted that Clinton would pay a price in the polls.

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In a statement issued later, Trump said that Clinton's "true feelings" had come out. "How can she be President of our country when she has such contempt and disdain for so many great Americans?" Trump said. "Hillary Clinton should be ashamed of herself." Trump's campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, called for Clinton to apologise, something that Trump himself has never done in the face of controversy. Indiana Governor Mike Pence, Trump's running-mate, also weighed in, comparing Clinton's remarks to President Barack Obama's controversial 2008 comments about people who "cling to guns or religion". Others compared the remark to 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney's infamous "47 per cent" comment. The Trump campaign sought to use the comparison to further define Clinton.

Clinton issued a statement saying that she regretted using the word "half" to describe the Trump supporters she was referring to.

"That was wrong," Clinton said. "But let's be clear, what's really 'deplorable' is that Donald Trump hired a major advocate for the so-called 'alt-right' movement to run his campaign and that David Duke and other white supremacists see him as a champion of their values." Clinton blasted Trump specifically for his feud with the family of a Muslim American Army officer who died in Iraq, his attacks against a Hispanic federal judge hearing two cases against him and his prominent role in the "birther" movement promoting the idea that Obama was not born in the United States.

In her remarks at the fundraiser, Clinton also called for empathy for the other "half" of Trump's supporters.

"That other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they're just desperate for change," Clinton said. "It doesn't really even matter where it comes from. Those are people we have to understand and empathise with as well."

A new Washington Post poll shows Clinton with a 46 per cent to 41 percent edge over Trump among likely voters. Clinton's lead swells to 10 percentage points among the wider swath of registered voters, 45 per cent to 35 per cent, similar to her 45 per cent to 37 per cent edge last month.

Let's spare the phony outrage

Hillary Clinton should not have described "half" of Donald Trump's supporters as deplorable. People have all kinds of reasons for supporting their candidate.

But if there is one group of people who should take their outrage about Clinton's comments and stuff it in a very dark place, it's Trump and his paid apologists.

Every reporter and commentator closely following this race knows Trump's campaign is fuelled, at least to some degree, by tacit or even overt appeals to bigotry or efforts to encourage a sense among many Trump backers that white identity and white America are under siege. Poll after poll has shown that majorities or pluralities of Republican voters support Trump's proposed temporary ban on Muslims from entering the US and mass deportations.

This flap leads us back into the question at the heart of Trumpism. Are Trump's appeals resonating because of many voters' own bigotry? Or is their susceptibility to bigoted appeals rooted in legitimate economic and cultural grievances?

Clinton should not have overgeneralised and called all these voters "deplorables". But the underlying argument that Trump is running a bigoted campaign that tries to prey on legitimate grievances and bigotry alike by scapegoating minority groups is inarguable.