I finished The Destruction of Hillary Clinton in February 2017 and it was published in early April of that year. Since then, much of my account of the election of 2016 and the forces that combined to install Donald Trump in the White House has been borne out, including events and contributing factors that we were only beginning to learn about when I did my research for the book. At the same time, it has been disheartening and frustrating to watch other facets of the election not only remain generally unacknowledged, but actually continue on, some more virulently than ever. The publication of the paperback in November 2018 gave me the opportunity to discuss those developments, and “what’s happened since” the election. What follows is the text of that Afterword, which appears, along with a revised Introduction, in the paperback of the book, now titled The Destruction of Hillary Clinton: Untangling the Political Forces, Media Culture, and Assault on Fact that Decided the 2016 Election.
Among the words most frequently used to describe the morning after the election: “surreal.” Since then, what seemed at first like a chapter in a dystopian novel has become the new normal—but without ceasing to appall, frighten, and disgust. There’s been a sense of constant instability, as every day brings some evidence of Trump’s lack of fitness for the office. But there have also been some defining developments: the revelations of the many irregularities—some possibly criminal—that marked the election process; the surprisingly unrelenting criticisms of Hillary Clinton; the publication of Hillary’s own account of the “perfect storm” that swept Trump into office; and the continuing frustration, among many of us, with our collective failure to confront the deeper lessons of what happened.
1. Trump Happened
When I sat down to write the Epilogue to this book, it was the morning after Trump’s inauguration, and crowds of men, women, and children were amassing in shock and protest around the world. We had been in a walking coma induced by all the agents of deliberate disinformation, irresponsible journalism, unimpeded sexism, and obliviousness to facts described in this book. But for a brief moment, it appeared that our dozing nation had woken up. Very quickly, however, the fog descended again.
It wasn’t because Trump made that anxiously awaited “pivot” to presidential behavior. No, what we’d seen during the campaign was what we got—and worse. Almost immediately, his paper-thin ego was on full display: all evidence to the contrary, Trump bragged about the size of his inaugural crowds and claimed that illegal ballots had cost him his popular vote loss of three million. His fact-free, paranoid, boastful tweets and rants—Obama had wire-tapped Trump Tower, the Russian probe was a “hoax,” he would reign down “fire and fury” on North Korea and its “Rocket Man,” there was blame on “both sides” for the violence at the Charlottesville white supremacist rally—became notorious, and other Republicans began to hope that the generals in his administration would be a bulwark against the chaos that Trump, left to his own devices, inevitably generated.
He has alienated our European allies, while we watch at home, embarrassed for our country. He has tried, mostly unsuccessfully so far, to make good on every Islamophobic, anti-choice, anti-Obamacare, anti-LGBTQ promise he had made to his supporters, at the same time as it became clearer that his own racism is authentic—not just a cynical appeal to his base. As I write this, he has just returned from flood-stricken Puerto Rico, where he lobbed rolls of paper towels at a crowd of people who likely had no power or clean drinking water, and accused the suffering country of not helping itself while it drained U.S. resources. Lazy brown people, what are we going to do with you?
Are his continual insults and macho threats incompetence, or strategy, aimed at pleasing his base and creating distractions when the investigation into his dirty politics and dirty business gets too hot? Probably some of both. It’s clear he knows little about history, geography, international affairs, or how our government works—and doesn’t seem interested in learning. But surely there is dark craft involved in his appropriation of the term “Fake News” to fudge the distinction between deliberately disseminated disinformation—which we now know was endemic to the election—and responsible reporting that he just doesn’t like, simply because it isn’t favorable to him.
So no, there’s been no “pivot.” And yet, that sharp awareness demonstrated the day after Trump’s inauguration has been blunted—largely by the mainstream media’s normalization of events. Yes, there has been more and more unvarnished criticism of Trump (which has enraged him and led to regular tirades against journalists and reporters). But no business can thrive if consumers are driven into panic or despair. So, the pundits continue to smile and laugh, and segue without missing a beat from reports of Trump’s latest outrage to good-natured chatter about baseball teams—after all, no one wants a too-depressed viewer to change the channel—and remain bizarrely uninterested in actually confronting the question of how it could possibly have come to be that we elected—for president!—a dangerously reactive, self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing bully who is utterly unequipped for the job.
2. The Election That Broke All the Rules
You’d think, as the months have gone on, that at some point someone with a public platform would have shouted: “Electing this guy was the biggest mistake in American electoral history.” But although the pundits have inched right up to the line of admitting that the election of 2016 was a disaster—with a lot of “un” words like “unprecedented,” “unpresidential,” and “unbelievable”—no pundit or politician has yet gone to the simpler declaration: “Wow. We screwed up.”
Donald Trump, we need to remember, was elected. Not dropped from the sky like a piece of crash debris, not plopped on an inherited throne, the product of centuries of inbreeding, but elected! It’s an amazing thing, and deserves some complex analysis, especially when you consider all that we have learned, from the inauguration onward, about the subversion of democratic process during the election.
Every day, we hear fresh reports of the scope and insidious nature of Russian interference in the promotion of fake news stories and nasty smears about Hillary’s character— an effort that was bound to have had an effect on voters’ perceptions (why else would the Russians invest so much energy and money?). Studies by respected think tanks such as Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center have documented an overwhelmingly negative bias against Clinton in ordinary news reporting. This was not “fake news” but a daily, repetitive media buzz of (often GOP-inspired) “scandals” and “suspect” activity that obscured coverage of her policy speeches and core messages. Pollster Nate Silver has published data highly suggestive of the disastrous effect on late-deciding and on-the-fence voters by James Comey’s eleventh-hour revival of the media’s email obsession.
We’ve also learned just how much the FBI—and later, the Obama administration and both campaigns—knew about Russian attempts to destroy the Clinton candidacy. Amazingly, these attempts never made it to the forefront of voters’ concerns until well after the election. Often described with the misleadingly innocuous label of “meddling,” the Russian hacking of the DNC and Podesta emails (as well any “links” or “coordination” between the Trump campaign and Russia’s “efforts”) was already being investigated by the FBI in July 2016.
Yes, July. The same month that Comey cleared Clinton of all criminal charges, but went on, in unprecedented fashion and clearly overstepping his role and responsibility, to accuse Clinton of careless handling of classified material. He gifted Trump with that inappropriate (and inaccurate) assessment, at the same time as he was investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, which he did not disclose. It wasn’t until March 2017, months after Trump had assumed office, that Comey finally deemed it “in the public interest” to reveal the investigation to congress.
Comey’s motives for (what amounted to) protecting Trump while publicly eviscerating Clinton are obscure. He’s offered various rationales for his actions, none of which, frankly, hold up very well. He may well have acted with (his version of) integrity in mind, or he may have been protecting the FBI at Clinton’s expense. The damage done, however, seems undeniable—and while Comey hasn’t admitted that he made a mistake, he has described himself as “slightly nauseous” imagining the possibility that he turned the tide of the election.
Comey’s reticence to disclose information about the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign might have been somewhat offset when on October 7—a month before the election—the Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a statement announcing that the “U.S. Intelligence Community is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of emails” and were “intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.” This bombshell ought to have been headline news. Instead, it fell off the radar when, the very same day, the Access Hollywood tapes were leaked and the press rushed to instead foreground the more sensational, salacious news about Trump’s pussy grabbing.
But it gets worse. The Access Hollywood revelations, which appeared for a brief while to have the potential to destroy Trump’s candidacy, had to compete with what has all the earmarks of a well-timed counteroffensive: the virtually immediate dump of John Podesta’s emails. The content of the emails was largely innocuous, but the press made the most of any “suspect” activity (e.g. concerning the Clinton Foundation.) And in any case, they were EMAILS! The word itself had been nailed into popular consciousness as synonymous with Clintonian deception and recklessness. That these were an entirely different set of emails was likely irrelevant—if even noticed—by many voters. The press, as many of its members have finally acknowledged in recent months, had gorged on the original email “scandal” since the primaries. Now, to many, “it” appeared (mistakenly) to be revived. That suspicion climbed over the top when, eleven days before the election, Comey announced a newly discovered treasure trove of potentially damaging you-know-whats.
Common sense (if not yet hard evidence) tells us that these emails leaks—as well as the pointed placement of fake Anti-Clinton Facebook pages and ads—must have been done with help from American sources. The leaks were too brilliantly timed, the fake ads too geographically targeted to do the most possible harm to Clinton, for it to have been otherwise. Yet despite the precision of the attacks, the pundits still resist the common-sense conclusion that such costly, well- aimed efforts actually paid off in votes for Trump.
Instead, there’s a lot of talk about how the point of it all was simply to “disrupt” our democracy, and insistence that we are investigating it not to question the results of this election but to prevent it happening again in the future. Certainly, creating division and distrust among Americans is the umbrella aim of Putin’s ongoing campaign. But we seem to keep forgetting that this time, his efforts were aimed squarely at electing Trump and defeating Hillary Clinton. The leaks were weaponized to sow discord among the Democratic party. The fake news stoked mistrust of “crooked Hillary.” Putin’s “troll factories” were instructed to post comments after articles appearing on the websites of The New York Times and The Washington Post, pretending to be written by Americans, and reminding readers of Bill Clinton’s sexual misadventures, the Clintons’ “vast” wealth, and Hillary’s use of a private email server.
Despite all this, rarely (except in Clinton’s own memoir) do we hear any more about Putin’s long-held hostility toward Clinton or his caveman attitudes about women. Rarely do we recall that Clinton herself tried to warn us—most memorably in debate—that Putin preferred Trump because he could make him his puppet. “No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet,” Trump shot back. It was perhaps his most infantile moment, and by itself should have sent shivers up the spine of anyone imagining him conversing with our European allies, let alone our enemies.
All of these factors—and a few other small obstacles, like voter suppression and gerrymandering, and the recently disclosed possibility that voting machines may have been hacked—have cast significant doubt on the legitimacy of the outcome of the election. Yes, I said legitimacy. And this is without even taking into account the central question that this book tries to answer: how it was that a truly alternative reality—based on outright, conspiratorial falsehoods, unexamined biases, and the lure of the headline—made the habitual lies of one candidate seem ho-hum while casting his fundamentally honest opponent as the dragon lady of deception.
To answer that question requires recognizing not only the tactics engineered by Clinton’s domestic and foreign enemies, but the role the mainstream mass media played in amplifying the leaks and faux scandals that those enemies had fed them. That role—mundane, familiar, the work of pundits and anchors who carried the election and its cast of characters to us while we ate breakfast, drove home from work, leafed through the papers on the subway—was rarely deliberately malicious. But the damage it did was incalculable. What’s more, even after the election was over, it continued.
3. The “Go Away” and “Blaming Everyone But Herself” Tropes
Just this past week, Joe Scarborough with (as he introduced him) “legendary news anchor” Bob Schieffer, shook their heads over how Trump could have gotten elected, bemoaning the inferior “talent pool” the Democrats had drawn from, and the “poor quality” of the eventual contenders. Why, back in Scarborough’s day, he could name ten senators who were “giants”! Clinton’s stellar qualifications, her brilliant performances in the debates, her years of experience (both as a two-time senator and Secretary of State), her 66 million votes? These accomplishments were apparently swallowed in the black hole of . . . what? Scarborough and Scheieffer’s sexism? The press’s long-standing dislike of the Clintons? An inability of the two pundits to look beyond their own self-satisfied, complacent nostalgia? Maybe all of the above.
Scarborough, as we know, was particularly hostile toward Hillary throughout the election, and I didn’t really expect any different from him. The more baffling reality is the legion of liberal commentators who, horrified as they may be by Trump’s behavior, never raise the possibility that maybe— just maybe—we should have elected her, instead of him. And at this point, it’s so obvious a conclusion that it bears serious reflecting on why we never hear it.
The most innocuous explanations are that the result of the election—or the fact that we seemingly can’t reverse it now—are too painful a realization to confront. The more disturbing possibility is that the notion that Clinton was an imperious candidate, who believed the presidency was hers for the taking and has stubbornly refused to admit her many failings, has become conventional wisdom among journalists. And with that “wisdom” has come an enduring need to punish her.
No matter what Clinton has done, the press has found some way to chastise her. When she engaged in a period of (well-earned) public retreat, she was accused of “sour grapes” and hiding “in the woods.” Then, when she left the woods and spoke her mind about the many factors influencing her loss—including (oh my!) misogyny—she got blamed for “blaming everyone but herself” and was told to disappear into the woods again.
The cruelty of these remarks was startling. “I just wish she’d go away,” Judith Timson, in Star.com reported a former friend of Clinton’s saying. After Hillary’s first post-election interview with columnist Nicholas Kristof at the Woman in the World Summit in April, RealClearPolitics’ A. B. Stoddard advised Democrats to tell Clinton that “she’s done enough damage and it’s time to pack it in” and ask her to “keep her rehabilitation journey as far away from their own as possible.” After a second interview with journalist Christiane Amanpour in which Clinton owned “absolute personal responsibility” but also cited Nate Silver’s research into the impact of James Comey’s October 28 revival of the “email scandal,” Gersh Kuntzman, in the New York Daily News, told Clinton to “shut the f— up and go away already.” Vanity Fair’s T. A. Frank accused Clinton of being “not just a nuisance but a hindrance” to the Democrats achieving coalition; his piece (wickedly alluding to Dylan Thomas’s poem) was entitled “Can Hillary Clinton Please Go Quietly Into the Night?”
Let’s pause here and note that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by three million votes and remains cherished by millions of ordinary people. Yet the media still appears to be in the grip of what some have called “Hillary Derangement Syndrome.” The syndrome is double-barreled. On the one hand, during the election, Hillary’s every move was presented as possessing enormous power—much more than she (or any individual human being) actually has. Her vote, apparently, was responsible for the war in Iraq. She was the mastermind behind the crime bill of 1994 (when she was First Lady, and didn’t even have a vote.) As secretary of state—an office she left in 2013—she was responsible for the rise of ISIS. And her decision to rely on a private server put the United States at constant risk of a foreign enemy laying hands on classified material. (In fact, her server is just about the only official’s server that wasn’t hacked.)
The corollary of all that power is that when things go wrong, she is always the one to blame. Yet her arrogance is so monumental that she refuses to acknowledge it. And thus the task of the press is to put her in her place, take her down a peg. Hence, the orgy of Hillary-blaming that has followed her since the election. Russia? Comey? The GOP? The Electoral College system? Sanders’ branding of her as “establishment,” while Trump rallied his troops against “Crooked Hillary”? All excuses. She only has herself to blame.
That narrative got a journalistic seal of approval from Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, whose book Shattered went on sale in April (a week after my book came out) and quickly became the “go-to” explanation for Clinton’s loss. The book received excellent reviews, and continues to be a bestseller despite remarkable tunnel vision on campaign bickering and a few strategic mistakes. Allen had previously written one of the most astute examinations of the biased “Clinton rules” that guide media coverage in the direction of constant—and usually unwarranted—suspicion of Hillary; it was striking to me, then, that Shattered had not a word to say about media responsibility for Clinton’s email trouble.
Then came Bernie Sanders’ constant post-election criticisms of Clinton’s failure to address the problems of the “working class” (read: white, male, rural) voters, an explanation that Democrats eagerly embraced, desperate to find a scapegoat for their loss. “Look,” Sanders said in January to NPR, “you can’t simply go around to wealthy people’s homes raising money and expect to win elections . . . [T]he Democratic Party has been not doing a good job in terms of communicating with people in cities, in towns and in rural America, all over this country.” That “Democratic Party” was simply a code for Clinton and her followers became clear (if it wasn’t already) when both Sanders and Joe Biden suggested that they would have been better, more electable candidates than Clinton. A bit later, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer joined the self-anointed working-class hero squad on the Hillary Blame Bus, telling The Washington Post that “When you lose to somebody who has 40 percent popularity, you don’t blame other things—Comey, Russia—you blame yourself.”
Every time Clinton opened her mouth to talk about the election, she was accused of passing the buck. “Hillary Clinton’s Blame Game” read the ticker on MSNBC’s First Look the morning after her interview with Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg at Code Conference, in which Clinton delivered a brilliant dissection—well before the mainstream media got to it—of how the Internet had been weaponized during the election cycle. Later in the day, Greta Van Susteren described her as “bitter,” and Andrea Mitchell, clearly pained to admit that Hillary had made some astute points, was quick to point out that Clinton was still “not blaming herself.” Watching Mitch- ell concede that gendered double standards may have been in play—“She feels . . . um . . . and I think the data supports it”—was like watching a child being forced to eat her brussels sprouts. “Feels”? “I think”? Why so circumspect, Andrea? You certainly weren’t when you harassed Clinton over her private server, and continually chastised her—as did much of the mainstream media—for not “apologizing.”
That “she didn’t apologize” soon enough or extravagantly enough is Shattered’s entire diagnosis of why the email “scan- dal” continued to dog Clinton. “For months, she tried every approach but confession and contrition,” write Allen and Parnes, remaining in “denial” about the “fact that she had not told the truth about not sending or receiving classified information” and instead castigated her staff in a “severe, controlled voice” that “crackled” through the telephone line for not “burying this thing.” In fact, as I demonstrate in chapter 5, Clinton had told the truth. James Comey himself admitted that under questioning by Congressman Matt Cart- wright, who produced a copy of a State Department manual, according to which the emails in question were not properly marked—just as Clinton had been saying. But forget the facts of the matter; just give us that “contrition”! Won’t you bow down and “confess” all—and then perhaps we will forgive you your sins.
Unlikely. After every Clinton interview early this summer, and despite her taking responsibility for the mistakes that she had control over, commentators berated her for blaming everything except herself. It’s come at us from both the right, predictably—in a particularly vicious op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan accused Clinton of lacking “remorse of conscience” and described factors such as Russian interference and Comey’s role as “alternative facts”—but also from the supposed “center”: In a CNBC piece, deceptively titled “Hillary is Right! Her Bad Decisions Aren’t the Reason She Lost to Trump,” Jake Novak went on to say that she lost the election not because of her (“bad, bad”) mistakes—or any of the other reasons she’s given in her interviews—but because she has “the personality of a perpetual loser.” The same day, Steve Kornacki (who apparently isn’t consulting data the way he was once famous for) complained that Clinton was behaving like a “victim” instead of taking responsibility for her actions.
Blaming Clinton, despite increasing evidence of the many external forces that assaulted her campaign, has become so entrenched a narrative that it’s virtually impossible to argue against—as I do in this book and as I’ve done in interviews— without being seen as a Hillary shill. I’ve even been accused of being on the Clinton’s payroll, and numerous interviewers, instead of asking about the arguments of my book, have tried to convince me of the error of my pro-Clinton ways. One internet interviewer accompanied the visual of me with the header “Guest Puts Blame on Everything Except Clinton Herself.” Then there was the radio host who spent half an hour trying to get me to admit that Clinton had run an incompetent campaign (after the show, he confided in me, “I guess you can tell I don’t like her much.” Duh.), and another one who lectured me on his ideas rather than interviewing me about mine, and chastised me for “not admitting that [Hillary] was a weak candidate.”
But it’s not only the election loss that Hillary is blamed for. As I write this, Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuses have become public knowledge, and multiple news stories are blasting away at Clinton for having taken donations from the movie mogul. There have also been accusations that she knew about Weinstein’s behavior but remained “silent.” (It’s not enough that she “enabled” her own husband; now she’s protecting another abuser.) “Why didn’t she come forward earlier?” reporters asked when, five days after the Weinstein story broke, Clinton made a public statement of condemnation. They all seemed to forget that Clinton had “come forward” about Trump—and small good that did her.
4. What Happened Happens
Shortly before Clinton’s much-anticipated memoir, What Happened, was released, the book began to be “reviewed.” No, I don’t mean by journalists given advance review copies. I mean by members of the conservative press who hadn’t seen one page but believed they knew exactly what was coming. A small sampling: Damon Linker, in The Week: “There is not a chance in the world that Clinton’s memoir will frankly examine and reflect on the true causes of her catastrophic defeat.” Matt Vespa, in Townhall, predicted the book would be “an extended version of her alternative history in which Russia, the FBI, the media, the DNC, and Republicans all conspired to torpedo her presidential ambitions.” Stephen L. Miller, of Fox News, actually went so far as to state unequivocally that the book “definitely won’t tell you what really happened.” Twitter was flooded with proposed alternative titles: How I Blew It; How I Deleted My Emails; Why the Fuck Didn’t I Go to Michigan?
As the publication date for the book approached, excerpts began to appear which recalled Trump’s stalking her during the debates, and included some relatively mild criticism of Bernie Sanders’s limp support for her candidacy. The advice, by pundits as well as other Democrats: She should stop “re-litigating” the past, and recognize it’s time to “move on.” The Sunday before the book was published, Susan Chira in The New York Times called Hillary “the woman who won’t go away.” Interesting that no one criticized the author for “looking backward” when Bernie Sanders, who now suggests “it’s a little bit silly” to talk about the election, published his own diagnosis a week after the election.
From my own experience, I was familiar with the gambit of assigning books believed to have a pro-Clinton “bias” (read: refused to perform the obligatory genuflection to her “faults” and “imperfections”) to those who had made their antagonism toward Clinton clear. So I wasn’t surprised when Vanity Fair assigned it to T. A. Frank—of the aforementioned recommendation that Clinton “go quietly into the night.” Still, it was shocking when Frank admitted, in the very first paragraph of his “review,” that he hadn’t actually read the book, only skimmed it. That didn’t stop him from focusing the bulk of his comments on Clinton’s “blind spots” rather than the “much else to address” that he apparently had only skimmed, including “Vladimir Putin, the F.B.I., identity politics, neo-liberalism, Bernie Sanders and many other topics.”
Despite these warnings, the lines at the bookstores were long and winding, and What Happened turned out to be not at all the stream of “avoiding responsibility” and “blaming others” that we had been told it would be, but both a very candid personal account of Clinton’s experience and an astute, multi-faceted analysis of the “perfect storm” that resulted in the disaster of November 2016. Even Chris Hayes, who during the primary had made his preference for Bernie Sanders obvious, admitted—rather grudgingly—that it was “quite good.”
Other reviewers, however, were ready to strike—and described their dissatisfaction with a raw, tribal meanness (“wrong-headed,” “useless,” “self-contradictory and muddled,” “artless and inauthentic,” like the “shrunken, beaten Richard Nixon,” an “absence . . . that pollutes like slime mold,” even “a betrayal of feminism”!) that startled even me, familiar as I am with the ferocity of Clinton’s detractors.
The “blames everyone but herself” theme, unsurprisingly, is common, and particularly ironic to see it headlined in Politico’s review by Shattered author Allen, whose own book so strikingly minimizes everything except Clinton’s errors. (Why assign the review, we could ask, to someone who has already made his point of view so voluminously clear in his own book?)
After a while, I could pretty easily predict exactly what the negative reviews would say, raising questions not only about the insularity of the journalistic community (aren’t they a bit embarrassed to all be writing essentially the same thing?), but whether they care more about Clinton’s contrition than the facts of the matter. If Hillary’s analysis of the perfect storm that swamped her candidacy is accurate, what’s the problem?
The problem, it seems, is Hillary’s attitude; people want her to efface her own knowledge in the service of being properly humble, to beg forgiveness for her sins. At times, the tension between regard for fact and the need for Hillary to be someone else is right at the surface. Johanna Weiss, of The Boston Globe, admits that “nothing [Hillary] complains about is untrue” but goes on to berate her for having “no true sense of reflection.” But “true reflection” does suggest that a distribution of responsibility is the more accurate assessment than one long mea culpa from Hillary (who does, perhaps more than warranted, admit the mistakes she made). Haven’t these people been watching the news?
Beyond the familiar Hillary-blaming and the nasty digs at her hubris, there is an unmistakably gendered perspective to the reviews. It’s not just that those aimed at a female readership (such as People, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly) are the most appreciative. It’s the domestic, female-centered details that the harsh reviewers are most scornful of: the “endless takes of her encounters with wise old biddies in coffee bars,” (Craig Brown, Daily Mail) the “interminable” passages about friends and aides, “how much she hydrates” and tips for relaxation (Joanna Weiss, The Boston Globe) (the yoga technique of “alternative nostril breathing” is given far more attention in the reviews than in the book), the fact that “Clinton was surrounded by women” (David Weigel, The Washington Post) throughout her campaign and in defeat. The book is described as “gossipy” and “mean” (Sarah Leonard, The Guardian) (and, according to Kirkus Reviews in need of “supplementing by “hard-edged” books like Shattered), but at the same time, Danielle Kurtzleben complained on NPR Now that Clinton leaves out juicy details like “what did [she] say (or scream) when she found out her husband had met with the attorney general on an airport tarmac?”
Several reviewers complain that Clinton spends a great deal of time (rarely have I seen the length of a memoir criticized as often) detailing the ways her comments, behavior, and policies were misunderstood. And it’s true that a chunk of the book is basically a detailed response to the caricatures and misrepresentations that plagued her campaign. For Clinton supporters, these portions of the book were a long-awaited corrective of the huge gaps that Clinton wasn’t permitted to fill during the campaign—balm for the fact that only thirty-two minutes of air time during the election was devoted to her policy speeches, while a naive but totally understandable decision to use a private email server (read her book and you’ll see just how understandable it was) became a constant refrain, a narrative to be returned to time and again. “But her emails . . .”! They were brought up every time Trump was caught in a lie, they were referred to in poll questions measuring the two candidates’ honesty, and, ultimately, they created the false impression that Clinton was as untrustworthy as Trump—if not more so.
5. Why Hillary-Hate?
When Hillary began to do television interviews in connection with the release of her book, one of the first shows she appeared on was Rachel Maddow’s. Not for the first time but perhaps even more impressively than ever, Hillary was dazzlingly smart and informed. She knew so much and had thought so deeply about such a broad range of topics that one had to be a master at denial to banish the specter of Trump from one’s mind. Hillary as the lesser of two evils? How on earth had thousands of people come to that conclusion? My book tries to answer that question—but the mainstream media still isn’t even asking it. Maddow was clearly impressed, yet when Lawrence O’Donnell, with whom she frequently kibbutzed between their back-to-back shows, asked her what her “takeaway” from the interview was, she replied that what impressed her the most was Hillary’s revelation of the extent of targeted fake pages and advertisements on Facebook.
This answer, while undoubtedly authentic (for that information has been startling) also very neatly absolved the media, the voters, or anyone else of any responsibility for having gotten things wrong about Clinton. Then Maddow asked Lawrence what his takeaway was, and he remarked on how relaxed she was, how candid, and what a “different person” she seemed to be now that she’s not running. This too, while true, sidestepped the issue of responsibility. It’s not that we got it wrong, but rather she changed.
The real takeaway from that interview—as well as from Clinton’s book itself—should have been a sharp, almost unbearable, slap-upside-the-head reminder of what a terrible, terrible mistake “we” made when, after a primary and general season of caricaturing, suspicion-mongering, and accusing this eminently qualified presidential candidate of every kind of crime imaginable, we elected the incompetent, malignant, narcissistic con man who now sits in the Oval Office. Ultimately, Maddow did say that she had never interviewed anyone before who acted and talked more “like a president.” Right. Exactly. But the big, big issue remained unaddressed and unremarked upon. It’s the one question that never gets asked in the way that it should. It’s always “what did she do wrong” (or at best, what did the Russians do that turned out heads?) not “what did we do wrong?” And “we” includes those who should be asking that question: the main-stream media, whose relentless mantras—“untrustworthy Hillary,” “unpopular Hillary,” “evasive Hillary,” Hillary who couldn’t command the crowds of a Sanders or a Trump, who didn’t know how to “reach people”—virtually bludgeoned those consumers informed largely by headline news into dislike and suspicion of Hillary. The voters weren’t dupes, but repeat something often enough and (as I’ve argued in this book) it begins to look a lot like fact.
This was the cultural soil in which Russian “fake news,” Trump’s chants of “lock her up!”, and Sanders’ self-serving, highly selective attacks on Hillary’s record on race and big money took root and flourished. You don’t have to pick one to explain what happened, and ignoring any one of them is an incomplete account. And while I’m delighted to now have journalists working so hard to expose the Russian infiltration of Facebook, and collusion with members of Trump’s entourage seeming more highly probable with each new revelation, I worry that this focus will absolve the media of the need to examine other factors, including their own complicity.
Why the hostility toward Hillary? Those who know her personally often remark on the “gap” (as Ezra Klein calls it) between the flesh-and-blood woman and the demon with her name who lost the election. If that dissonance had abated after the election, it might be chalked up to the particularly vicious and unimpeded tactics of her opponents (and, as we now know, the Russians). The fact that Hillary is still being scolded and dismissed from the room, almost a year after the election, suggests the need for deeper reflection.
A full analysis of Hillary-hate would require peeling back layers of cultural as well as political history. Clinton has been a public presence and symbol of female progress, and thus a flashpoint of both admiration and resentment, for over two decades. It’s hard to think of another politician whose career has been as challenged by the quakes and shakes of social change—and the resulting vicissitudes of expectations—particularly as concerns gender. In this past election, they came full circle with cruel irony. In 1992, when being a First Lady with her own prominent career and independent views was seen as a revolutionary threat to the image of the First Family, Clinton caught fire from traditionalists. Skip to 2016, and for a generation of white, middle-class women used to seeing their mothers with briefcases and business suits, Clinton’s hard- won accomplishments could be made to appear as an alliance with the “establishment.” To be branded as a threat to the established order in one decade and its friend in another— while her own basic political commitments had changed very little—was a whiplash that neither Clinton nor her supporters were prepared for.
This kind of crude, historically uninformed branding— based less on fact than on cultural storytelling and tribal lore—has become an increasingly potent force in contemporary politics. As Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels point out in Democracy for Realists, it’s an outmoded, romantic notion that policy, experience, and wisdom guide voter’s choices in elections. Rather, partisan loyalties and social identities are much more powerful forces in contemporary politics. Partisan loyalty, for example, is responsible for the GOP sticking by Donald Trump throughout the election (and even now) despite the fact that they were continually appalled and embarrassed by him. A sense of social identity is arguably behind resistance to gun regulation much more than any reverence for the Second Amendment. And many of the younger voters who adored Sanders and despised Clinton were animated less by a well-thought-out understanding of the history of progressivism or the two candidates place in that history than by a desire to be “with” the tousled-hair, “revolutionary” grandpa rather than the neat, composed, seemingly conventional woman who reminded them of their own mothers—or the kind of “establishment” woman they didn’t want to be. We like to think of ourselves as rational; in fact, it appears that much electoral decision-making is herd- based and highly influenced by irrational attachments and unconscious biases.
In an image-dominated, highly mediated age, these group-based attachments and biases are often based on the flimsiest, most misleading of perceptions. Trump’s supporters, I believe, were snookered by their candidate’s seemingly straight-talking, screw-them-all performance, indifferent to both political correctness and English grammar, into a sense of class identification with the man they saw as a “real guy” despite his enormous wealth (and the fact that he was actually much more the sleazy politician than any of his opponents.)
Clinton, in contrast, suffered from all those qualities—intelligence, articulateness, politeness, a wealth of knowledge— that once might have been required of a U.S. president but had come to be seen as elitist and vaguely phony to voters. How could you trust someone who spoke so carefully? She had to be lying.
As a woman with those qualities, she also had to be taken down a notch or two—and not just by men, but by those women who resented what they saw as her haughtiness. Since the election, the word “misogyny” has re-entered the cultural bloodstream. In my opinion, however, it is not precise enough an answer to the resentment directed against Hillary. Yes, we saw its manifestations all over the T-shirts, posters, and memes. But Clinton Derangement Syndrome, like Obama Derangement Syndrome, is not the result of anything as simple as hatred of women or hatred of blacks. More specifically, it is fueled by anger at those women and blacks who refuse to behave according to the expectations of a culture that hasn’t yet processed the deeper recesses of its racism and sexism, a culture that can go through the motions (elect a black president, nominate a woman candidate), but still requires a certain amount of deference—obedience—to The Man.
Obama infuriated those who wanted at least a little shuffling from him. Instead, he was so damned cool, so adept at turning their racist antics (e.g. Trump’s birtherism) into a game that he knew how to play so much better. And from the start, Clinton has irritated people with her unwillingness to employ any of the usual feminine gambits. When she ran for president, the press was particularly annoyed at the early “presumption” of her inevitability; they used language like “anointed,” as though she thought herself a queen, had the nerve to aspire to a throne. And above all, she committed the cardinal female sins of being self-contained, unrevealing, and supremely competent. A little groveling, please—after all, aren’t you grateful for how far you’ve been allowed to ascend?
The “who do you think you are?” reaction isn’t confined to Clinton. Those female politicians today who exhibit a similar level of confidence are now facing it, too. We accept it as “normal” when male politicians shout, interrupt, hog the stage, or aggressively interrogate, but both senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris were told to shut up when they claimed too much time on the Senate floor. In February, Warren was famously rebuked by Mitch McConnell (“She was warned . . . nevertheless she persisted”) when, during confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions, she read a critical letter from Coretta Scott King. (Male senators later read the same letter without being cut off.) In July, Richard Burr ordered Harris to be silent and lectured her about her lack of “courtesy” for not allowing poor Sessions to ramble on evasively as she questioned him during the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. (No one, as I recall, took Trey Gowdy or any others to task when they hammered away at Clinton during the Benghazi hearings.)
French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir called this normalization of male behavior and singling out of women for special notice (whether condemning or revering) the “woman as Other”—and it’s especially pronounced when it comes to our norms, visual images, and expectations of the head of state. We’re used to male politicians shouting at us, but whenever Clinton raised her voice it was “screeching.” Looking “presidential” is marked by male standards of dress—so Clinton’s adoption of a pantsuit was something to remark on. Obama’s wonkiness and occasionally professorial discourse was accepted with affection; Clinton’s made her “cold” and “uninspiring.” The female in charge is still so remarkable— even, apparently, in countries that have had leader Queens for centuries—that women who aspire to or hold higher office tend to get glommed together by virtue of their sex. Theresa May has been described as “the new Hillary Clinton” (Mary Ann Sieghart, Politico)—but also, as Hadley Freeman points out in The Guardian, as “the British Angela Merkel” and “another Iron Lady.” Forget any ideological differences between Clinton, Thatcher, Merkel, and May. They are all women leaders, “such rare creatures that they can only be understood through the prism of one another.” (Hadley Freeman, The Guardian)
In assessing the sources of cultural antagonism toward Clinton, it’s also important to remember that Hillary is not just a woman, but a feminist—who for better or worse has represented a particular generation of feminists for decades. As an avowed feminist, Clinton’s confidence and commitment to the rights of women and children has been admired and continues to be a source of inspiration for millions of progressive women. But from the beginning of her public life it has also fed the antagonism of traditional men, for whom she is the Platonic form of the ball-busting wife no one wants to be married to, and of their wives, who (particularly during an election that branded her as a witch and a bitch) were anxious to distance themselves from her.
This need to dis-identify—which black women, admiring of her strength and resilience, didn’t share—was never mentioned as a possible reason for Clinton’s disappointing showing among white- , middle- , and working-class women. But history shows us that the perception of a female politician as feminist—which Clinton has never denied—does make a difference. Those women who have managed to get themselves elected to higher office have either disclaimed the label of “feminist”—Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher—or equivocated, as Merkel has, acknowledging “common ground” but not wanting “to adorn myself with these feathers.” So far, only Australia’s Julia Gillard was able to denounce the sexism of her opponent Tony Abbott—as well as deliver, as Alison Rourke noted in The Guardian, “a forthright attack on misogyny in public life”—and receive widespread acclaim. (Theresa May wears the “This is a what a feminist looks like” T-shirt, but as male supporters constantly point out, she’s “a Tory first.”)
There’s a lot more to be tackled, then, in preventing another disaster for democracy than will be solved by neutralizing Russian cyberattacks, by Democrats appeasing the rural “working class,” by endorsing anti-abortion candidates, or by sending a “fresh face” out to be hammered by the GOP. First, we have to admit that we made a big, big mistake. Hillary Clinton should be president now, and the entire world would be almost incalculably better off for it. Then, we have to acknowledge that there is plenty of responsibility to go around for the 2016 disaster, and that blaming Hillary Clinton is just further proof that that responsibility has yet to be owned.
Will we ever see, for example, a televised panel discussion of the contribution—to the election and now, post-election— of the gendered expectations and double-standards that humored the naughty boy and revered the wisdom of grandpa but branded the experienced, mature woman as a tool of the establishment? Will we ever discuss why poor people, LGBTQ voters, and black women somehow don’t count when
Democrats bemoan the “loss of the base” or failure to address the problems of the “working class”? Will the MSM ever acknowledge the undeniable role it played in creating destructive caricatures of Clinton, eagerly chomping on the red meat thrown out by the GOP while not giving equal time to disclosure of the actual facts? Will we ever start asking why the voters themselves were so vulnerable to those caricatures?
“She gave us Trump,” Clinton’s enemies like to say. No. Trump’s win is the culmination of many things, and we would do better to try to unpack those with precision and a view to complexity rather than scapegoat Hillary or her campaign. Hillary Clinton may have been a special kind of lightening rod, but the elements that brought her down are still bristling in our atmosphere, and we need to face them. The fact is that is it only when we’ve done that that we will truly be able to “move on.”