February 12, 2018
What’s Happened Since, Part 5
by Susan Bordo
Last month, 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 about it. This month, we’re delighted to share “What’s Happened Since,” the brand-new Afterword to the paperback edition, a few parts at a time. If you missed the previous sections, check out Parts 1 and 2, Part 3, and Part 4 before reading today’s final installment, Part 5. Get an eyeful, give yourself a minute to meditate on the magnitude of our problem, and then order the book here.
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 kibbitzed 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 our heads?) not “what did we do wrong?” And “we” includes those who should be asking that question: the mainstream 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 story-telling 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 voters’ 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. Last 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 have been admired and continue to be a source of inspiration for millions of progressive women. But from the beginning of her public life they have 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 her strength and resilience, didn’t share—was never mentioned as a possible reason for Clinton’s disappointing showing among middle- and working-class white 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 it is only when we’ve done that that we will truly be able to “move on.”
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.