The failures and fall of Hillary Clinton
James Astill in Washington DC | 10 Nov, 2016
BACK IN JUNE, shortly after she had secured the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton recalled her adored mother, Dorothy Rodham, who had died in 2011. “She taught me so much in my life, including how to stand up to bullies, which apparently is going to be very much in demand in the upcoming campaign.”
Not even Clinton, whose defeat by Donald Trump on November 8th has, among much worse things, dashed hopes for America’s first women president, could have imagined how prescient that would prove. She had been expected to beat Trump with ease. Opinion polls had put her around four percentage points ahead; betting markets gave her around an 80 per cent chance of victory. That she failed is terrifying for America and the world.
Clinton’s failure has sent a know-nothing demagogue, who argues that the secret to managing nuclear weapons is “unpredictability”, to the White House. It has also been calamitous for her party. Under Obama, the Democrats pieced together a coalition of non-Whites, younger and well-educated voters which—because America is getting more diverse and better-educated—looked able to keep them in power indefinitely. Yet they have now lost the White House, failed to recapture the Senate and House of Representatives, and face the prospect of Trump dismantling much of Barack Obama’s legacy. That, if the reality television star is to be believed, will include Obama’s healthcare reform, which has provided health insurance to 20 million previously uninsured people, his environmental protections, including America’s participation in the international Paris Agreement to cut greenhouse- gas emissions, and an agreement to prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons: Trump has promised to scrap them all.
His triumph was founded on several things. After eight years of Democratic government, coinciding with a tough economy and gridlock imposed by a hostile Republican- controlled Congress, voters wanted change. Only 30 per cent say America is on the right track.To some degree, Obama’s enduring popularity has kept that dissatisfaction in check, but, despite campaigning hard for Clinton in the campaign’s closing stages, he could not infuse her with it. Clinton underperformed Obama with every part of the Democratic coalition, and by 7 million votes overall. She won non-Whites and young votes by around 50 percentage points—but that was around 10 points less than he had, and, as it turned out, not enough. Cool doesn’t transfer, American campaign strategists like to say.
Trump’s success at ginning up angry working-class White voters, made anxious and resentful by economic duress and the demographic change that Obama has come to symbolise, was another big reason for his success. The racist dog-whistling, xenophobia and excessive miserabilism that marked Trump’s campaign were all designed to this end. Depressingly, the plan worked; White voters without a college degree backed Trump over Clinton by 39 points. They were in fact the only group where Trump performed well; the winner in 2016, he got 2 million votes less than his defeated Republican predecessor, Mitt Romney, collected in 2012. He even trailed Clinton in the popular vote. Yet because the reality television star’s gains were efficiently concentrated in a trio of states, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which Clinton had been expected to win but which instead took him to the 270 electoral college votes needed for victory, their effect was devastating.
A third reason for Trump’s success was the weakness of his Democratic rival. And he can also take much credit for that.
During the past five months, the first woman nominee of either major American party has been accused of a possible murder, of facilitating sexual harassment by her husband and of being “maybe the most corrupt person ever” to run for the presidency—and that was just by Trump. He also predicted she would be imprisoned and possibly assassinated. But his followers said much worse.
At Trump’s rallies, which I attended over a dozen of, it was commonplace to hear people say they would like to see Clinton dead. Early on in the campaign, they used to chant, “Lock her up!” By the end, this was mingled with shouts of “Kill her!” and “Burn her at the stake!” Trump’s fans wore t-shirts reading ‘Hillary sucks but not like Monica’, a reference to Clinton’s infidelity in the White House, and ‘I wish Hillary had married OJ’, a reference to the murderedwife of the disgraced former American football star, OJ Simpson. I have reported on elections in scores of countries, in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, including many, such as Afghanistan Congo, Iraq and Pakistan, where violence is common. I never before heard such consistently murderous political language as Trump and his supporters used in any of those places.
HATRED OF CLINTON went way beyond the Trumpkins too. Heading into the election, about half of Americans said they disliked her and almost 70 per cent that they did not trust her. Her hopes of victory rested principally on the fact that Trump was hated even more. But, when it came to it, voters found Trump’s odiousness easier to forgive than Clinton. It was depressing, given its consequences, but also because it is by no means clear why Clinton is so hated. After all, she has not actually done anything to deserve it.
Trump supporters, seething, point to Clinton’s embroilment in scandals. The most damaging to her candidacy was an undying kerfuffle over her use of a private internet server for her emails as secretary of state. Another, which exercises right- wingers especially, is her alleged responsibility, again as secretary of state, for the deaths of four Americans at the hands of Islamist fanatics in Benghazi in 2012. A third scandal concerns alleged breaches of propriety at the Clinton Foundation, a philanthropic organisation run by both Clintons, which has raised a small portion of its $2 billion from foreign governments, including some, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with allegedly more interest in currying favour with America’s premier power couple than funding anti-AIDS programmes in central Africa.
Clinton has been pilloried for being ‘ambitious’ and ‘shrill’, charges that most American males would accept as a compliment, but which, when directed at a woman, many US voters find reprehensible
There are a few things to criticise Clinton here. She has a predilection for secrecy and a history of pushing the rules to breaking-point, and sometimes a little bit further. But at the heart of her scandals are errors and evasions nothing like as serious as a casual observer would suppose after a day spent flicking through American news channels—much less after attending a Trump rally. Clinton ignored her department’s rules by using a personal email for routine official business; she shouldn’t have done that. But it was not corrupt or criminal, as was shown when the FBI ended a year-long probe of the affair in July, after concluding Clinton’s error was not close to indictable—a conclusion the FBI’s director, James Comey, reaffirmed two days before the election. In the history of political scandals, it is hard to think of half as much fuss being made over something so piffling as Clinton’s historic emails arrangements.
Accepting money from foreign governments for her family charitable foundation was similarly politically dunderheaded. But if indeed some of the donors hoped to buy influence with Clinton, there is no evidence they succeeded. As for her alleged guilty role in the Benghazi killings, this is risible; it is a non- scandal that has been investigated by seven official enquiries, at a cost of millions of dollars of public money, mostly by partisan Republicans, who have succeeded in finding nothing to incriminate Clinton with. There is a livid Benghazi conspiracy theory concerning Clinton; but, as it is nonsense, no actual Benghazi scandal. So why the hatred?
Here are three reasons. First, it is because Clinton is a woman and a lot of American men simply don’t want to be governed by one. Oh, yeah? Where is the evidence for that? Trump fans ask. Well, in the sense of straightforward polling numbers, there isn’t any. The working-class White men who flocked to Trump don’t tell pollsters they hate Clinton because she is a woman any more than they said they hated Obama because he was Black, though many do. But, in both cases, their chauvinism leaves a trail.
Half of Republicans tell pollsters they believe Obama is Muslim—an accepted proxy for racist hostility to America’s first non-White president. Similarly, 42 per cent of Americans say they believe America has become ‘too soft and feminine’. Also, merely consider the way Clinton’s enemies speak of her. This goes beyond the misogynistic abuse Trump and his followers hurl. Ever since Clinton emerged to public view, she has been pilloried for being ‘ambitious’ and ‘shrill’—charges that most American males would accept as a compliment, but which, when directed at a woman, many US voters find reprehensible.
The historic cleaving of the electorate along gender lines offers another indicator of the sexism that helped scupper her. Exit polls suggest Clinton won 54 per cent of women but only 41 per cent of men. The 13 per cent gender gap that implies would be the biggest since 1972, indicating deep male resentment of Clinton, the only woman politician to have threatened the ‘glass ceiling’ that has shut American women out of power far more effectively than it has in almost any European or South Asian country. “Hillary Clinton is consistently treated differently than just about any other candidate,” said Obama, as he threw himself into last-ditch campaigning for his former rival after the polls tightened late in the campaign. “There’s a reason we haven’t had a woman president.”
Clinton had experienced some of the same hostility during her losing tussle with Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. A popular New York senator when she embarked on that campaign—she had won re-election the previous year with 67 per cent of the vote—she ended it deeply unpopular. Yet she then recovered her public standing, not least by knuckling down to support Obama as a competent secretary of state. By the time she left the State Department in 2013, she was one of America’s most admired public figures, with an approval rating of around 65 per cent. That Clinton was hated even more fiercely this time around—despite that recent popularity—was most obviously because of the unprecedented anti-establishment feeling in the electorate. This is the second reason for her unpopularity and Trumpism is another symptom of it.
Trust in the federal government is at an historic low. Trust in almost every institution—Congress, the media, the church—is similarly below water. And the most mistrustful and pessimistic Americans are the White working-class men who are Trump’s biggest supporters—and who also tend to hate Clinton most. Why vote for Trump? I asked a carpenter in Youngstown, Ohio, whose unionised status gave him every incentive to vote Democratic. “Because I’m not voting for the cunt,” he said. Nothing seemed to encapsulate the sexism, foulness and self-righteous rage that Trumpism has engendered in American politics half so well.
Contrary to what many Americans believe, Clinton is not a killer, not a criminal, not thoroughly corrupt. Yet she did not lose only because she was traduced.
It was remarkable, for such a front-rank politician—one who made her first major speech as an 18-year-old student at Wellesley College half a century ago—to see how bad she is at campaigning. In fact, listen to that Wellesley speech, delivered at her commencement ceremony in 1968 (and handily available on YouTube) to appreciate quite what a turn-off on the stump Clinton is. Her student address was, to be sure, too clever-by-half, full of teenage theorising, and rather irritating. But Clinton’s youthful voice is strikingly, almost painfully, that of someone living urgently in the moment, who believes passionately in what she is saying. Only rarely these days, as when she spoke of her adored mother after she won the New York primary in April, does she sound half so human in public. More often her speeches are packed with wonkish details and cliches, which makes them uninspiring to read, and worse to hear.
By most accounts, she is a more appealing figure in private. Indeed, I can to some degree vouch for that. On the only occasion I have interviewed her, after button-holing her at a conference in Munich a decade ago, she was pleasant and thoughtful. (My wife, I might add, has an even sunnier view of Clinton’s character, having once, with a baby in her arms, bumped into her while shopping in a Delhi market; the then Secretary of State paused, in sight of no camera, to coo-coo with my baby son.) Even so, Clinton’s failings as a retail politician damaged her badly. The fact that the best her husband could come up with to elucidate the particular point of her candidacy was a belief that Clinton “just makes things better” was illustrative of the problem. If that was all the Democrats’ ‘Explainer-in- Chief’ and Clinton’s partner of four decades could come up with, it was no wonder not many Americans, including Democrats, were enthusiastic about her.
It is tragic indeed. Clinton is a flawed politician, painfully ill- suited to America’s public mood, but she is gifted, well-intentioned and would probably have made a fine president. She was slandered, and America and the world must now pay the cost. ‘Love trumps hate’ was her cheeky campaign slogan. It didn’t.