January 12, 2018
What’s Happened Since, Part 1 and 2
by Susan Bordo
Earlier this week, we were delighted to release Susan Bordo’s The Destruction of Hillary Clinton in paperback. Later, things on our Twitter feed got… a little crazy, when Clinton herself retweeted us bragging about it. Over the coming weeks, we’re delighted to share “What’s Happened Since,” the brand-new Afterword to the paperback edition. We’ll be sharing it a few parts at a time — today, we kick off with parts 1 and 2. Read ’em, order the book here, and get ready for parts 3 and 4 in a few days.
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.
The Destruction of Hillary Clinton is out now in paperback. Buy your copy here, or at your neighborhood independent bookstore.
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.