The Destruction of Hillary Clinton

-Susan Bordo


This was longer than I meant it to be.  Sigh.


TL:DR: a hagiography, rather than a piece of serious analysis.


One of the most important factors to bear in mind when writing a biography - or anything focused on a particular individual - is the importance of keeping a mental distance from your subject.  The writer must avoid the temptation to empathise with the subject to the point where it becomes impossible to accept that others, particularly others who lacked the power of hindsight, might not see the subject in the same light.  It is important to remain objective even as one evaluates the subjective points.


The Destruction of Hillary Clinton largely ignores that rule.  The author - she admits as much - identifies with Hillary Clinton to a disturbing degree.   It is a very - very - personal book, to the point where objectivity is lacking.  She believes that Hillary was the best-qualified candidate for President and insists that the only reason she was not elected was blatant misogyny.  The villain of the piece, in her eyes, was not Donald Trump, or the GOP as a whole, but James Comey.  Having closed the investigation into Hillary’s emails, Comey reopened it shortly before the election - a blatant and apparently successful attempt to derail Hillary’s campaign.  (Bordo may well have started the current trend to blame Hillary’s defeat on Comey.)  In Bordo’s view, this was decisive. 


This was, she believes, the crux of a decades-old witch-hunt by the GOP (and everyone else who wasn't solidly on Bill and Hillary’s side) to find something - anything - to pin on the Clintons.  Bordo asserts that Hillary has been the target of numerous smear campaigns, each one taking a molehill and trying to turn it into a mountain.  Hillary could not, in this view, do anything without being attacked for it.  If she took her husband’s name, she was attacked for submitting to social conventions; if she kept her own name, she was attacked for not supporting Bill.  Hillary was simply not allowed to be a person.The fact that none of these campaigns


Beyond this, Bordo blames millennials and Bernie Sanders.  Young Americans - mainly women - were not of voting age when Bill Clinton was in the White House and therefore saw nothing of the troubles Hillary faced during her husband’s troubled presidency (or, for that matter, the realities of female life during that period).  Sanders, furthermore, managed to portray Hillary Clinton as the ‘establishment’ candidate, thus creating the oddity of a elderly white man explaining to young democrats what causes were actually progressive.  (She doesn't acknowledge the oddity of an elderly white woman doing the same.)  Sanders was, according to this reading, the ‘spoiler’ candidate who sucked votes away from Hillary (much as Ross Perot sucked votes away from George HW Bush.)  Bordo heavily critics Sanders for not endorsing Hillary immediately after losing the battle for the nomination, insisting that this might well have weakened Hillary.  (Regardless of the political background, it may well have done.)


Bordo insists that sexism - gendered attacks - played a major role in Hillary Clinton’s defeat, even though she quotes women who flatly refused to vote for Hillary.  The idea that Trump could continue with his campaign, let alone be elected President, after the release of his locker-room talk shocks her.  She wonders, openly, why many women chose to side with Trump or not vote at all - where were the Obama voters who put their candidate in the Oval Office?  In short, she cannot believe that the best possible candidate lost an election she - by any reasonable measure - should have won.


The problem with this analysis is that it doesn't stand up to scrutiny.


Hillary Clinton had several pieces of bad luck that had nothing to do with her.  It was her misfortune that she was the Democratic candidate looking to give the Democrats a third term in the White House, a historically difficult position for any candidate.  Furthermore, the Republicans had flatly rejected the establishment candidates and nominated Donald Trump, a dangerously unpredictable man who steamrollered over assaults that would have - that did - bring down more normal politicians.  Indeed, the GOP was so inured to watching their candidates being accused of racism, sexism (and everything else) that they were simply prepared to ignore accusations aimed at Trump.  The rise of identity politics - and the growing counter-reaction) were not her fault, although it must be said she did nothing to quiet them.


However, Hillary also made a number of serious unforced errors.  Neither James Comey nor Donald Trump forced Hillary Clinton to establish and operate an illicit server that, among other things, held classified information.  Comey did not need to establish criminal intent to indict Hillary - blatant carelessness was quite enough (and has been, in the past) to prosecute Hillary.  Nor did the ever-changing stories told by Hillary and her supporters convince anyone that Hillary was actually telling the truth, this time.  The fact that classified information was leaking would have been enough to torpedo any normal politician.  Comey actually went very lightly on Hillary, under the circumstances.  She should have known what she was doing was wrong.


Nor did anyone force Hillary to accept vast speaking fees for speeches that she tried hard to keep from the public eye.  The idea that someone would willingly pay such sums for an hour of Hillary speechifying is laughable, particularly when the average American would be lucky to earn a fraction as much in a year.  Both Trump and Sanders took her to task on this and why not?  She’d made it easy for them.


Worse, Hillary made the mistake of allowing her contempt for the commoners to show once too often.  Insisting that the government was going to shut down a number of coal mines drove working-class voters to Trump.  Declaring that anything from a third to half of America’s population were ‘deplorables’ not only won her no friends, it also called her political judgement into serious question.  How hard can it be to avoid insulting prospective voters?  Her claim that her family was broke when it left the White House was laughable; her daughter’s observation that she simply didn't care about money went down about as well as ‘let them eat cake!’  In short, Hillary had long since lost touch with the common voter and simply could not understand what made them tick.


And then there was the assertion that the DNC was rigged in Hillary’s favour.  Bordo barely touches on this, choosing to slam Sanders for refusing to immediately endorse Hillary for President.  However, if Sanders believed that he’d been cheated of the nomination, why should he rush to endorse Hillary?  Furthermore, his endorsement was the only bargaining chip he had.  Using it too soon would have cost him a shot at a position within President Clinton’s cabinet.  The suggestion that the nomination was rigged was one that should have been shot down as soon as possible.  Instead, Hillary poured fuel onto the fire.


Bordo asks us to believe that Hillary was the victim of outside forces beyond her control.  In doing so, she asks us to accept a Hillary without agency, a character who was all things to all men.  Such a view doesn't hold water.  Hillary made dozens of mistakes in her campaign, all of which can be traced back to her and her inner circle.  Hillary was either in control or the figurehead - either way, it boded ill for any Hillary Presidency.  The failure to articulate a convincing rationale for President Hillary was, perhaps, the least of them.


Hillary Clinton had literally decades of baggage.  Her conduct in the Monica Lewinsky affair was appalling, utterly unappealing to millennial feminists.  Her role in politics - both as First Lady and as a politician in her own right - gave her enemies ample ammunition to use against her.  She supported the Iraq War and then turned against it, contributing to the collapse of Iraq and the rise of Islamic State.  And her list of actual achievements was really quite thin.  Nor did her family help - what charges could be levelled at Donald Trump that couldn't also be levelled at Bill and Hillary Clinton?  (Bordo asks why Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel were successful - part of the reason, I suspect, was because their husbands weren't as prominent as Bill.)


In short, running Hillary Clinton was a dangerous gamble. 


It is the central paradox of the 2016 election that both parties managed to wind up with dangerously flawed candidates.  The election was never Heavenly Hillary v. Terrible Trump, any more than it was Trump the Terrific v. Hillary the Horrible.  (Perhaps Terrible Trump v. Hillary the Horrible.)  But perhaps this should not have surprised everyone.  Both the GOP and the DNC had a shortage of viable candidates.  Trump’s opponents were unable to fire the masses, while Hillary’s only serious opponent was an unelectable socialist.


And yet, Hillary seemed to have every advantage.  The media was on her side (Bordo insists that the media was her enemy, although this claim doesn't stand up to scrutiny), she had big money on her side, every celebrity in America (save a handful of isolated figures like Scott Adams) favoured her ... she seemed certain to win.  And yet she lost.  Why?


Bordo would have us believe that everyone was against her, that she was buried in a tidal wave of sexism and simple incomprehension.  Any objective analysis of the election, however, must include a study of Hillary’s mistakes and assess just how they weakened her as the country rocketed towards election day.  And, as I have noted above, Hillary Clinton made some staggering errors, most of which were inexcusable.  Nor, despite the best efforts of her supporters, can blame be switched to others.  The buck stopped with Hillary herself.


I do not believe that one single factor was decisive.  However, a more capable politician - one able to present herself as likeable - might well have overcome her missteps and walked straight into the Oval Office.  Hillary lacked the ability to connect with people - or fake it convincingly.  Instead, she was an elitist long before the term entered popular discourse.


There was, in short, very little about her that the average American could love.


There is a strong tendency, these days, to believe that anyone who disagrees with you - who does not virtue signal loudly enough - is doing it because there is something inherently wrong with them.  There would be something wrong with a voter who was prepared to dismiss Hillary solely on the ground of her gender.  That is undeniable.  But this is a mistake - it allows one to be secure in the belief that one’s enemies are inherently wrong, instead of assessing if said enemies have a point. 


This, I think, explains why so many people have had problems coming to terms with the election’s results.  The idea that millions of Americans might have had good reason to reject their favoured candidate is beyond them.  Instead, they take refuge in fantasy.  This book, alas, perpetrates the illusions rather than encouraging its readers to consider why Hillary lost and accept that, in the end, those who dislike her and her family might just have a point.