In the early hours of Wednesday, November 9, 2016, the postmortems began. Despite the polls that had favored Hillary for a decisive victory, Donald Trump had carried the Electoral College and won the 2016 Presidential Election. Television commentators, as shocked by the results as the rest of us, sprung somewhat awkwardly into pundit-mode.
"What was missing in Hillary?" was how MSNBC’s Chris Mathews put it to his panel of guests that night. "Where did she go wrong?” And over the next few weeks, on Hardball and other news shows, we got a variety of answers to that question:
"The people wanted change."
"They weren’t inspired."
“She didn’t speak to the working class and their concerns."
“She couldn’t connect.”
“She had no economic message.”
“She didn’t resonate”
“She should have gone to Wisconsin.”
“She should have gone to Michigan.”
“She should have gone to Ohio.”
Michael Moore, the filmmaker and activist who supported Bernie Sanders in the primary and came out late in the day for Hillary in the general, declared decisively that she would have won the election if only she had told the press "I feel like crap" when she had pneumonia. Bernie would have done that, he said, and the other panelists all nodded and smiled. Mathews attempted an incompetent Brooklynese rendition of “I feel like crap,” and the guys crack up.
"If only they would have shown her more human side," Moore says, shaking his head. (In this book I’ll address exactly why what Moore called “showing a human side” was not a viable option for Hillary.) A few weeks later, Moore would intensify his diagnosis and attribute Hillary’s loss to her “disgraceful” campaign, which ignored the cries of “people like me” to visit the Rust Belt states.
Bernie Sanders himself, without mentioning her name, implied that Hillary had botched the election by running a campaign on “identity politics.” “It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’ What we need,” he said on a book tour shortly after the election in November, “is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.” A few weeks later, he attributed Trump’s win to the fact that the Democrats “didn’t offer candidates and politicians [who] have the guts to stand up to the billionaire class and start representing the middle class and working families of America.” Wonder what “gutless” candidate he imagined had failed to do the job?
In fact, since the election Sanders has done everything short of saying outright that had he been the nominee, the Democrats would have prevailed over Trump. Many of his supporters continue to believe the “myth that Sanders would have won” (as Newsweek senior editor Kurt Eichenwald calls it), despite the fact that in a campaign directed against him, Sanders would have run smack up against a brutal deluge of highly damaging opposition research. Clinton never ran that kind of campaign at least in part for fear of alienating the young voters who were Sanders’s base.
As for GOP responses to the election results, it was as if there had never been a “Never Trump” movement. Between November 2016 and January 2017, the president-elect was forgiven everything by the party—his many lies, his failure to produce his taxes or deal with conflicts of interests, even the “Access Hollywood” tapes that so offended other Republicans--while Trump himself attributed Hillary’s nearly three-million-vote margin to election fraud via illegal immigrants (none of whom, apparently, were casting their fraudulent ballots in the states that would have given Hillary an electoral win).
In short, the two months in between the election and the inauguration were a festival of Hillary-blaming, in which the Democrats participated as enthusiastically as the Republicans. Sometimes, their criticisms were directed against “the party”—not entirely disingenuously, as Democrats are notorious self-flagellators. But even then, and even as her name was mentioned less and less over the following weeks, the “wrong messenger” was always implicit in Democrats’ accusations.
The press, for the most part, went along with these diagnoses. “She couldn’t escape being the wrong candidate for the political moment” (as an Edward Isaac Dovere wrote in Politico) was the near-universal conclusion. Reading a sentence like this, I wonder what an expression like “the political moment” could mean. Is this “moment” really only about the promise of jobs for white, working-class men in a few rust belt states? Was there really such widespread dissatisfaction with the last eight years that people were hungry for “change”—any change? If any change was desirable, then, sure, I can see how Trump might be framed as the “right” candidate for our “political moment,” but the millions of people who have protested his administration both in this country and around the world suggest that the message of equality, which Hillary quite clearly promoted, is far from defunct. If anything, the “political moment” was more complex this year than in any other presidential campaign in history. If Hillary was so “wrong,” what made her so wrong?
When, in response to the election results, Clinton or one of her representatives suggested a few other salient ingredients were being overlooked, those suggestions were usually derided. James Comey’s revival, eleven days before the election, of public mistrust in Clinton over the email “scandal?” Don’t be such a sore loser! Vladimir Putin’s well-timed releases of hacked material from the DNC? Impossible to measure! The massive right-wing industry in fake news, conspiracy theory, and Hillary-hate books? Politics as usual, and both sides were equally vicious. The lop-sidedness of the electoral college? Well, she should have played the game better.
And then there were those elements not mentioned at all: Bernie Sanders branding Hillary as the enemy of progressive politics, giving too many millennial voters the perception that Clinton was merely the tool of Wall Street, and thereby splintering the Democratic vote by a generation. The mainstream media’s relentless emphasis on scandals that eventually came to nothing, and their repetition of narratives centered on Clinton’s lack of popularity, lack of charisma, penchant for privacy and "inauthenticity." The media’s justification: politics is about perception—or as it became fashionable to call it, “optics”—and it was their job to report on anything that contributed to the perceptions of voters. But keeping up with optics was a time and attention-consuming business in this election cycle, with Clinton’s political enemies continually tempting reporters with something suspicious, something that didn’t look right, something Hillary must be hiding. In the mainstream media’s rush to announce the latest rumors and attacks, fact-checking and context became side-bars left to investigative journalists whose findings rarely made headline news, leaving “optics” to rule as fact in the minds of many voters.
And, of course, there was the gender factor, which throughout Hillary’s career has made of her a living Rorschach test of people’s nightmare images of female power. It’s no surprise that as she came closer and closer to the most powerful position in the world, the misogynistic sexism directed towards her became increasingly vicious.
And it was vicious—almost medieval. During Hillary's campaign in 2008 the posters read “Iron My Shirts” and “Make Me A Sandwich”; in 2016 they called for putting “the bitch in jail” and pictured Hillary on a broomstick. I think this was in part a reflection of how the Internet, reality television, and, of course, the master of vilespeak himself, Donald Trump, had loosened the restraints on civil discourse.
While the rhetoric was ratcheted up, in 2016, any mention of sexism was dismissed—by some Democrats as well as most Republicans--as “playing the woman card.” Many young people mistakenly considered women’s issues passé; moderators largely ignored discrimination, equal pay, or reproductive rights in debates. Nor did we ever see a television panel discussion of the sexist currents in the caricatures of Clinton as devious, overly-ambitious, untrustworthy, scheming. Throughout the 2016 election and in the postmortems that followed, “gender” and “sexism” were terms that seem to have been written in disappearing ink. (They re-emerged with a vengeance the day after Trump’s inauguration.)
But while sexism was rarely spoken about, it flourished without restraint when it came to assaults on Hillary Clinton’s character, personality, and appearance. Indeed, it seemed to me (having followed the career of Hillary and other female politicians closely) that the undercurrent of anger against her in the 2016 election was unprecedented. It didn’t start, or end, with Donald Trump’s “crooked Hillary.” True, we saw the most rabid, literal form of Hillary-hate at the GOP convention. “We know she enjoys her pantsuits…What she deserves is a bright orange jumpsuit!” shouted Colorado’s Darryl Glenn, to riotous applause. Chris Christie, on the 2nd day of the convention, played prosecutor at a mock trial, calling out each of Hillary’s “crimes” to delighted shouts from the audience of “Guilty! Guilty!” Later in the convention, Ben Carson even invoked Lucifer. And the crowds took every opportunity to chant: “Lock her up!” The collective chant became such an eagerly anticipated feature of Trump rallies that they kept it going, even after post-election Trump, playing the beneficent pardoner (of someone who had actually committed no crimes) said he wouldn’t continue to investigate the Clintons, who were such “nice people” and had “suffered so much” during the campaign. (Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, added that she hoped it would help Hillary’s “healing.”)
It would be a mistake, however, to see the Hillary-hatred that swelled during Trump’s campaign as the main factor in the assault on Clinton. Trump provided some incendiary mantras, but many Sanders supporters saw Hillary, at best, as the “lesser of two evils” and at worst as a “corporate whore.” They harassed attendees at Clinton rallies and threw dollar bills at those heading for a Clinton fund-raiser. Many members of the left-leaning media, irritated by both the notion that she was the “inevitable” nominee and by what they saw as her haughty avoidance of their probing, took every opportunity to celebrate Sanders’ success and decry what they continually represented as Clinton’s evasiveness. Among the GOP, those who had worked amicably with Hillary when she was a senator and secretary of state subjected her to snarling interrogations worthy of a trial for witchcraft.
Between Sanders and the GOP witch-hunters, Hillary was blamed for every national disaster from racialized incarceration to the deaths of American diplomats during the raid on Benghazi. She was accused of having extraordinary powers which “enabled” her husband’s infidelity, influenced Wall Street through the spell of a few polite remarks in public speeches, and put an entire nation in danger by “recklessly” handling classified material (that had not, in fact, been marked as classified). Her vote alone, apparently, was responsible for the war in Iraq. She even had her own “familiar”—her husband—with whom she frequently merged, shape-shifting into a slithery, elusive man/woman called “The Clintons.” This mythological creature lives by “rules of its own,” and lines its pockets with the lucre amassed by a supposed “charity” foundation.
Oh, yes, and as secretary of state she had a private email server in her basement. Basement? Private? What else might have been going on there? A child pornography ring? Feminist covens? Animal sacrifice?
Does this picture begin to sound like it belongs in a gruesomely illustrated version of a Grimm’s fairy tale? It’s a central premise of this book that the Hillary Clinton who was “defeated” in the 2016 election was, indeed, not a real person at all, but a caricature forged out of the stew of unexamined sexism, unprincipled partisanship, irresponsible politics, and a mass media too absorbed in “optics” to pay enough attention to separating fact from rumors, lies, and speculation. Of course, there was a flesh-and-blood woman there. But, like a reality show housewife, she was edited into a cartoon--with potent archetypal resonance. Cunning, deceptive, in league with the forces of greed and elitism over the “working people,” fueled by personal ambition: that was the “Hillary Clinton” who hovered in the air of this election, not only at Trump rallies, but also in the rhetoric of many Sanders supporters, in the charges of the GOP interrogators who hammered away at her during never-ending investigations into Benghazi and emails, and in the imaginations of those voters who voted for Trump (as one told Chris Hayes) simply “because he wasn’t Hillary.”
It’s small consolation that now, with Trump in the White House, the absurdity of anyone finding Hillary the bigger liar, the more dangerous politician, or the greater friend to Goldman Sachs has become painfully and frighteningly apparent. Even so—or perhaps especially so now--the story of how such a bizarre chapter in American political history could come to be is worth telling.
 In point of fact, Hillary Clinton was the first of all the candidates for President to pay any attention to the water crisis in Flint, collaborating with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver in early January, 2016, long before Sanders visited on the eve of the Michigan primary, which he won only narrowly.
 As senator, Clinton formed working alliances to further health care and child protection issues with Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, Bill Frist, Robert Bennett, Rick Santorum, John Sununu, and Mike DeWine.
Susan Bordo is the author of The Destruction of Hillary Clinton. She assures readers that the title refers to the media and political forces that cost Hillary the election. Hillary Clinton herself: far from destroyed.
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