August 4, 2017
What Keeps Happening: On the media’s preemptively panning Hillary Clinton’s new book
by Susan Bordo
The book hasn’t even come out yet, but it is already being “reviewed” in the conservative press. 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 Town Hall, predicts the book will 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 goes as far as to state unequivocally that the book “definitely won’t tell you what really happened.” The book’s title itself—What Happened—has been described as “ridiculous” by Bre Payton of The Federalist, implying that it’s pure hubris for Clinton to claim that knowledge; she then produces examples of the most vicious take-down tweets of the cover.
Describing a book without even having read it is a ploy familiar to those of us who teach, and I really don’t expect any better from the conservative press than a version of “Clinton CliffsNotes.” I was taken aback, however, when Chris Matthews of Hardball sneered at the press description that Clinton, in the book, would be describing the multiple “forces” that she had to contend with during the election. “Forces?” I remember him asking. His scrunched-up face signaled skepticism over the choice of such a volcanic image. Let’s not go too far here, implied Matthews (who in 2008 described Clinton as “witchy” and “a she-devil”), she wasn’t exactly an innocent Dorothy swept up by powerful winds.
In overtly hateful or subtly snide form, the media and press—who surely now have a far more worthy object to take down—just can’t get over their Hillary Derangement Syndrome. It took many forms during the primary and general, which I’ve chronicled in my book and won’t rehearse here. What’s so startling, however—even to someone like me who has followed the twists and turns of Hillary-hating for decades—is its persistence during the nine months since the election. It doesn’t matter what Clinton does, the pundits will find 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 again.
As is all too common when Clinton is berated, outright cruelty was not avoided. “I just wish she’d go away,” Judith Timson reports a former friend of Clinton’s saying. “‘Ride into the sunset’ gets mentioned hopefully a lot.” Hillary’s first post-election interview, with columnist Nicholas Kristof at the “Woman in the World Summit” in April, was described by RealClearPolitics’s A.B. Stoddard as “carefully calculated and calibrated” (a favorite set of Clinton tropes). She also advised Democrats to tell Clinton that “she’s done enough damage and it’s time to pack it in” while instructing 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 on the impact of James Comey’s October 28 revival of the “email scandal,” Gersh Kuntzman, in the Daily News, told Clinton to “shut the f— up and go away already.” Joe Scarborough, on “Morning Joe,” described Clinton’s account of her loss as “pathetic.”
The “why won’t she just go away?” theme is a minor note, however, when compared to the orgy of Hillary-blaming that has dominated not only punditry, but the election post-mortems of Democrats. “What was missing in Hillary?” was how I remember Chris Matthews putting it, barely moments after the election results were announced. His panel of guests had plenty to offer, from “lack of connection with ‘the people’” (forgetting the three million more ‘people’ who voted for her over Trump) to Michael Moore’s suggestion that she would have won if she had told the press “I feel like crap” when she had pneumonia.
These spontaneous early assessments soon gave way to a fully fleshed-out narrative, led by Bernie Sanders and eagerly embraced by Democrats desperate to find a scapegoat for their loss. As Sanders put it, “I happen to believe that the 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.” Both Sanders and Joe Biden—Biden more overtly than Sanders—have suggested that they would have been better, more electable candidates than Clinton. Most recently, 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.”
Blaming Clinton, despite increasing evidence of the many external forces—yes, forces—that assaulted her campaign, has become so entrenched a narrative that it’s virtually impossible to argue otherwise, as I do, 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 mine, and chastised me in a summary of the interview for “not admitting that she was a weak candidate.”
What is it about Hillary Clinton that makes the media (and not only the media) want to bring her to her knees? The full answer to that would require peeling back layers of cultural as well as political history. Clinton is not just the candidate who lost the 2016 election but a woman—a fact ignored by those Democrats who forget that white, working-class men might have other reactions to Clinton than those based on economic “messaging”—and one who has been a public presence through decades of social change. It’s hard to think of another politician whose career has been as challenged by the quakes and shakes of that change—and the resulting vicissitudes of expectations—particularly as concerns gender.
Some things, however, do not seem to change enough — and Hillary Clinton’s career has certainly been challenged by those, too. “Misogyny” is too easy, not precise enough an answer. 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. As a young First Lady, she refused to hide her feminism or ambition — and paid for it by being seen as looking down on housewives. When she insisted that she wasn’t “some little woman standing by her man,” Tammy Wynette took personal offense, and branded Clinton as an elitist. When Clinton gave a speech as First Lady in 1993, arguing for a “new ethos of individual responsibility and caring,” columnists mocked her as an “aspiring philosopher queen” and derided her for “preaching.” 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?
Is it any surprise, then, that Clinton’s refusal to “make a gracious exit,” “accept her defeat gracefully,” has been met with such hostility? And now, she has the nerve to write a book about the election — and to call it What Happened! (Instead of How I Blew It or How I Deleted My Emails or Why the Fuck Didn’t I Go to Michigan? — all alternative titles suggested on the internet.) Personally, I love the title. It rejects the mushiness of “memoir” with the assertiveness of fact. It plants itself in history, stands its ground, and won’t back down.
My reflections here only begin to scratch the surface of the unconscious currents that have fed the exasperation, among those who dislike her, with Hillary’s refusal to exit the scene in a ladylike fashion, admitting that it was all her fault after all. We’re not likely to get that — and thank goodness. For not only would it be a disappointment to those of us who love her for precisely those qualities that enrage others, it would also not be what happened.
Susan Bordo is a critic and cultural historian, and holds the Otis A. Singletary Chair in the Humanities at the University of Kentucky, where she teaches in the department of Gender and Women’s Studies. She has written many books, including The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen. Her latest is The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, out now in paperback from Melville House.