Exploiting our Archives: My World of Flops 86d case file #86 Hillary Clinton's 2016 Presidential campaign
Since November of last year, in my darkest, most despairing hours, I have been asking myself, “Why?” It speaks to how united much of our culture is on this point that you probably don’t have to guess as to what “Why?” is referring to. You know it’s not a reference to the mix-up when announcing the best picture winner at the Oscars. Nor is it a cry of despair as to how David Bowie and Prince could have died so young and unexpectedly, although that certainly is also very sad.
Nope, that “Why?” can really only refer to that awful day and night when sociopathic crazy haired TV clown, proud sexual predator, sham university proprietor, all-around con-man and monthly cover boy for Narcissistic Personal Disorder Digest (the only magazine worthy of a brilliant, world-conquering genius like you!) Donald Trump was elected President over former Senator, First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton had seemingly devoted every moment of her life, possibly even dating back to her time in the womb, to putting herself in place to become the first female President of the United States. It’s a testament to both our culture’s pervasive sexism and to the way we perceive female ambition that Clinton has been taken to task for her grasping ambition and power plays more than her husband, a hillbilly turned Rhodes Scholar and two-term American President. Bill merely rose from poverty and obscurity to become the most powerful man in the world for close to a decade, but that scheming Hillary, she seemed really ambitious, and people found that off-putting.
Yet in a heartbeat, a demented rodeo clown of a politician, all flash and vulgar spectacle, with a non-existent grasp on issues that don’t particularly interest him anyway had demolished Hillary's Presidential ambitions, just another shattered American institution demolished under Donald Trump’s solid-gold steamroller of toxic narcissism. The results of the election shocked me, and I have a very low opinion of humanity in general and the American public specifically. And even I was surprised that the American people went ahead and elected Trump President. And they didn’t even do it on a dare, or anything! No, they seem to really mean that shit.
So on November 9th we woke up to the waking nightmare of four or possibly eight years of President Donald Trump. Four to eight years of Donald Trump’s personality, character and judgment representing America on the word stage. Four to eight years of Grouchy McManBaby having our nuclear codes and the power of life and death over millions, even billions of people. Four to eight years of Donald Trump picking Supreme Court justices for life terms. Four to eight years of Mr. “Check Out The Sex Tape, Grab Em By the Pussy” making decisions affecting hundreds of millions of women and girls, many of them total dogs and 4 or 5s at best.
There was shock, of course, and a free-floating feeling of despair but there was also anger. A lot of anger. Much of this anger, unsurprisingly, was directed towards Hillary Clinton. How could she let this happen? What kind of candidate is so weak and so vulnerable that they get defeated by a demented television blowhard with zero governmental experience?
These articles and postmortems raised provocative, important and unsettling questions but in the aftermath of Trump’s victory I didn’t have the stomach to read them. I was still reeling from Clinton's loss. To read angry screeds about why Clinton must face a brutal public reckoning for failing to defeat Trump felt like pouring salt in an open wound.
And while it took me a long time to get excited to cast my vote for Hillary (I was an Obama and then a Bernie guy, and disliked Bill so much I voted for Nader in my first election, so I've got a solid two decades of disliking the Clintons behind me) by the time she was humiliated by Trump I felt sorry for Clinton, and didn't want to see more scorn heaped on her after all she'd been through.
Over the past couple of months that wound has healed enough for me to be ready to tackle Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential campaign as my first independent My World of Flops entry here at Nathan Rabin's Happy Place. I decided to base this column on my own experiences covering the election more closely than I've covered any campaign in my lifetime (including a trip to the Republican National Convention for my book 7 Days In Ohio) as well as a thorough read of Shattered, reporters Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes' dishy and briskly entertaining account of how Hillary Clinton and her team managed to lose a campaign that, for long stretches, seemed almost impossible to lose.
In the aftermath of the tragic events of November 8th, a pair of narratives have emerged about the election. The narrative most flattering to Clinton and her true believers holds that Clinton was actually a singularly qualified candidate who ran a flawed but fundamentally strong campaign but was ultimately defeated due to a series of factors beyond her control. These include the misogyny of the American people, Russian hackers, Putin and Wikileaks interfering in the election to tip the scales for Trump, an email scandal that followed her around like Pigpen’s ever-present cloud of dust and, most devastatingly, FBI director James Comey popping his head up just days before the election to remind the world of Hillary’s ethical lapses and Anthony Wiener’s extremely problematic wiener.
The other, less flattering view holds that while of course those unfortunate external factors played a role in Clinton’s losing a race she seemed destined to win, Clinton was a weak, uninspiring candidate with serious ethical and legal problems and little message beyond “vote for me. I really want to be President and I’ve been waiting semi-patiently for my turn.”
Obama famously said that no one was more qualified to be President than Hillary Clinton. Ironically, that probably worked against her. Because being extremely qualified for the Presidency (in the sense that anyone can be for a job of that magnitude) has, ironically, seemed to disqualify candidates from the Presidency in the hearts and minds of voters. When given a choice between a job candidate who would show up sober and razor-sharp, in an expensive suit, on time or earlier, or a dude who’d show up an hour late clearly high in jeans and a dirty tee-shirt, we have consistently gone with the stoned, dirty tee-shirt guy.
That was President George W. Bush, who somehow managed to maintain a persona as a party animal Texas good old boy despite being the sober son of a Yalie Connecticut Vice President and President who also ran the CIA at one point. John McCain and John Kerry were, despite what Donald “I Had Too Many Boo-Boos on My Foot To Fight In The War But Fought The War Instead Against Venereal Disease While Fucking the Debutante Class of 1969” Trump might tell you, war heroes who served for decades in Congress and maintained high national profiles and positions of prestige. They were beaten by a sexy community organizer barely into his forties and a fake-hillbilly Alfred E. Newman lookalike, respectively. I love Obama, but he was elected because he was exciting and new, not because he was better qualified to be President than John McCain.
Or think of Jimmy Carter. Motherfucker was a nuclear scientist (in addition to being a peanut farmer, Georgia governor and Billy’s brother) and he was defeated for re-election (usually a gimme in Presidential politics, unless we’re really annoyed by some nerdy egghead like Carter or H.W) by a grinning goon who starred with a monkey in a movie called Bedtime For Bonzo.
Like Carter, Al Gore was intimidatingly smart in a way that, honestly, a lot of the American public didn’t like. Gore in particular came off as everybody’s scowling, condescending manager while Bush seemed like the kind of guy who would buy 15 year olds beer even though he was pushing thirty. Sure, Gore might save the world with his campaign against global warming, but he seems a little condescending, so of course he couldn't be President.
In his re-election bid, Bill Clinton ran against an even more over-qualified candidate in Bob Dole who was even older and even more of a war hero than H.W was. Dole had been waiting patiently for his chance to run as the Republican candidate for President since shortly after the Republic was founded. His first Presidential run exploratory committee actually formed in 1798.
In that respect, being the vulgar, belligerent, inexperienced underdog actually worked in Trump’s favor. Americans don’t like to be told what to do or think, even if it’s their consciences begging them not to empower a deranged, xenophobic, staggeringly ill-prepared madman.
Shattered certainly acknowledges that Russia, misogyny and particularly Comey’s pre-election surprise all played a role in Clinton’s defeat. Yet the book and its authors place the blame for Trump's win unmistakably at Clinton’s feet, and, to a lesser extent, at the feet of her campaign manager Robby Mook, whose analytics-based approached to campaigning looked good on paper but led to the most shocking loss in recent political history.
To put things in Stuart Smalley terms, Hillary Clinton was good enough and smart enough, but doggone it, people just didn’t like her. No matter how ferociously she tried to change the publics’s perception of her as cold and distant, corrupt and compromised, ambitious and sometimes ruthless, Shattered suggests that it was just too ingrained, particularly with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump out passionately reinforcing the public conception of Clinton as the cold-blooded, power-obsessed Lady MacBeth of American Presidential politics.
Though Shattered depicts Clinton as honorable and qualified in many ways, it is overall a critical portrait of Clinton as a boring and weak candidate whose email server scandal, for example, represented a legitimate security breach that betrayed her sloppiness and slippery ethics and wasn’t the ginned-up non-issue people on the left generally see it as. The authors look similarly askance at Clinton’s mega-bucks speeches to banks and predilection for saying one thing in public and another in private, something that wounded her during the “Deplorables” debacle.
The book depicts Clinton as fundamentally uninspiring, as a figure of the establishment who looked to her aides, consultants, advisors and speech-writers to provide her with a strong vision for America’s future because she fatally lacked one of her own. Clinton had policy ideas and policy proposals up the wazoo but when it came to articulating a vision for the future short and punchy enough to fit on a dumb red baseball hat she was at a loss.
Though the authors say that her close friends know Hillary as someone who could be foul-mouthed, funny and fun, that Hillary isn’t seen much in Shattered. Instead the book depicts a smart, confident but painfully cautious and wonky woman who deeply misread the mood of the public and underestimated the contempt American felt towards a political establishment she embodied.
Whipped into a frenzy by Trump’s incessant prodding, the American people became a mob of torch-wielding vigilante storming the castle. Clinton was the queen wondering if she should change the colors of her drapes. Clinton was the Tracey Flick of the campaign, and something about her pantsuited, over-confident essence activated the “fuck you” instinct within the American public to an alarming and unprecedented degree.
The Presidency is just about the toughest job in the world. Campaigns should similarly be grueling and demanding so as to bring out only the best and strongest and most qualified among us. Yet on one level, Donald Trump’s job as Republican presidential nominee was ludicrously easy. To be elected President, Trump only had to convince a deeply misogynistic American public to hate Hillary Clinton even more than they already did.
The book gives Trump a lot of credit for speaking powerfully and directly to the white, working-class, non-college-educated voters who voted against Hillary en masse and cost her the presidency. Sure, Trump vomited up the language of populism, but his appeal was essentially twofold.
First and foremost, he told Americans primed to believe the worst about Clinton, both by decades of a vast right-wing conspiracy and the relentless hammering of Bernie Sanders, “Fuck that bitch. Fuck her pantsuits. Fuck her shrill Vice Principal voice. Fuck her ruddy-cheeked rapist redneck husband. Fuck her Goldman-Sachs speeches. Fuck her emails. Fuck that bitch.”
When Trump called Clinton a "nasty woman" it was a none-too-polite way of saying, "Fuck that bitch" and a lot of women, particularly white women who theoretically should have felt offended by Trump's gender-based nastiness towards his opponent instead seemed to secretly or not so secretly share Trump's hatred of Hillary. When Trump said, "Fuck that bitch" a distressing number of women seemed to have agreed, explicitly or implicitly.
During his convention acceptance speech, Trump told American voters, “I am your voice” and I completely misunderstood what he was saying. I thought he was professing to speak truth to power, to give a voice to the voiceless and stand up to tyranny. Nah, he was really just saying, “I am your voice, and through me, I will trumpet your message of “Fuck that Hillary Clinton bitch” to the highest corridors of power.” Trump posited himself as a powerful conduit for the anti-establishment rage of the American people. Clinton had the misfortune to represent the establishment being raged against.
Secondly, Trump implored voters made increasingly fearful by terrorist attacks and changes in the fundamental nature of society that he, and only he, could keep brown people from raping their daughters, killing them, and stealing their jobs, possibly all at the same time.
The only times during the campaign when I suspected that Trump might win was in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack, particularly if ISIS was involved. Because when people read about dozens of innocents getting slaughtered at once, they get scared, and they get desperate. Desperate, scared people do desperate, scared things, like elect Donald Trump President.
Every time there is a terrorist attack, it reinforces Trump’s narrative of “Only I can protect you from the brown people and the Muslims”, and makes a scared and confused populace look for the seeming strength, certainty and protection of a cartoonishly macho strongman.
Clinton’s vague promise to build upon the advances of the Obama administration and make society a more fair and equitable place for everyone couldn’t compete with the fiery intensity of Bernie Sanders’ cry for a leftist populist economic revolution or Trump’s racist dog whistles about hunting down all the bad people. The people cried out for a charismatic cult leader. Hillary offered a hyper-confident bureaucrat instead.
According to Shattered, Hillary blamed her staff for a lack of clear messaging when she should have looked inward and blamed herself. Clinton’s lack of a message beyond “Vote for me, I’ve waited my turn” left her unusually vulnerable to the underdog attacks of a cantankerous Socialist Jewish senior citizen from Vermont named Bernie Sanders whose seemingly Quixotic campaign for the Democratic nomination posed an unexpectedly strong challenge thanks to the incandescent rage of voters. This was particularly true of young voters and millennials, who were so infuriated by the status quo that they were ready for a revolution, or, at least some really audacious hashtags, Twitter avatars and memes.
This weird cult figure captured the idealism and imagination of young people and progressives because he was strangely charismatic in a rumpled, ornery, Larry David kind of way. But he also rose to prominence because he was exciting and charismatic compared to Hillary Clinton. That set the bar awfully low but Shattered argues persuasively that Sanders was able to come out of nowhere and cultivate a big, seemingly instant cult of personality largely because Hillary struck voters as personality-free.
Sanders’ appeal was 15 bucks an hour as the minimum wage and free college and a series of ambitious policy proposals, but it was also, pointedly, “I’m not Hillary Clinton.” Voters longed for any alternative to Clinton, even if it was a Democratic challenge from a formerly semi-obscure, self-professed Socialist in his seventies.
Shattered depicts Clinton as a Shakespearean figure whose strengths are inextricably intertwined with her weaknesses. From the outside, for example, it looks suspiciously like political suicide for Hillary, a woman who will forever be associated in the public mind with her husband’s sexual misconduct to keep, as her closest aide and gate-keeper Huma Abedin, the (now separated) wife of Anthony Wiener, a demented sex criminal and sex addict currently on his third and most damaging sexting scandal, particularly when the incessant drumbeat of “Hillary’s emails” never stopped pounding from the right. “Sexting” Tony’s proximity to “Emails” Hillary was always risky but ended up possibly costing Hillary the election.
Yet Hillary privileged loyalty above all else, and no one was more loyal to her than her tireless and cagy aide. So Hillary was fatally willing to overlook her toxic proximity to a man whose penis has done more harm to this Republic than some small wars and wide scale medical scares. The Clintons’ seemingly sound instincts failed them throughout the campaign.
Despite his well-known sexual peccadilloes, Bill Clinton should, or at least could, have been an enormous asset. His honeyed Arkansas drawl should have been a skeleton key opening the hearts and minds of the white working-class and uneducated voters whose votes and approval Hillary desperately craved and needed to get elected. Instead, he blundered around making arrogant and tone-deaf mistakes that betrayed how rusty he’d become in the decades since his presidency.
Even more damningly, Bill made it difficult to take the high ground when it came to allegations of sexual improprieties. If the Access Hollywood tapes where the figure we decided should be the most powerful man in the world bragged about groping stranger’s vaginas as a greeting didn’t turn out to be the killer blow eliminating Trump from the race, that probably had something to do with the skeletons in Bill and Hillary’s overstuffed closet, a closet Trump cast a bright light on constantly, despite his own exceedingly public record of sexual harassment.
Reading Shattered is like watching a slow-motion car wreck unfold. You can see everything happening in crystal-clear detail but you are powerless to stop it. I’m glad I read Shattered because Lord knows there are many, many lessons to be learned from this race, and we almost invariably learn more from failure than we do from success. That's kind of the point of this column, now entering its 10th year in its third incarnation on its second site. Political failures do not come more catastrophic than Clinton’s loss.
If you’re fucked, as we certainly are under Trump’s Presidency, it’s good to know that you’re fucked. But it’s even more important to know how and particularly why you're fucked, and Shattered provides solid, if not necessarily revelatory or even particularly surprising answers to those burning questions.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco
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