The Destruction of Hillary Clinton
Melville House, £18.99
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Review by Jonathan Wright
In this political version of Cluedo, Susan Bordo seeks to discover who killed Hillary Clinton's hopes of becoming US President. Various suspects come under scrutiny, from Bernie Sanders to FBI Director James Comey, and from the mischievous media to deep-seated cultural attitudes. And let's not forget the "massive right-wing industry in fake news, conspiracy theory and Hillary-hate books". Unlike the board game, there is no single assassin, so just about everyone and everything receives some share of the blame for the "massive pile-on of open assaults, secret strategies [and] unconscious biases". Everyone, that is, apart from Clinton herself, and we shall return to this glaring lacuna in the author's analysis presently.
Bordo's basic thesis is that a twisted image of Clinton was cultivated across the political spectrum. A "poisonous alchemy" forged a Hillary Clinton in the popular imagination that was "not a real person at all". Americans were routinely informed that Clinton was the creature of Wall Street when, according to Bordo, she simply attempted to square her idealism with an acceptance of the realities of capitalism. Clinton was also portrayed as the antithesis of progressivism and this, for Bordo, was crucial in her downfall. The book lists, at great length, Clinton's contributions to a host of progressive causes (women's rights, civil rights, health care, the wellbeing of children) but all of this, evident during a decades-long career, seemed to count for less than accepting a few "well-paid invitations to speak at Goldman Sachs".
Bernie Sanders and his supporters were keen to project this notion of an un-progressive Clinton. It was all about the supposed contrast. Sanders "looked like a grandfather but spoke like a union organiser" and claimed "sole ownership of revolutionary politics". He was the maverick who would challenge the system, and nobody seemed to notice that he was really no kind of outsider. To me, this was just astute, if less than edifying, politics. Bordo believes it "splintered and ultimately sabotaged the Democratic party". Even after the nomination, die-hard Bernie fans were never going to back Clinton with the requisite passion.
Equally damaging, on Bordo's account, were the endless suggestions that Clinton was untrustworthy, and this gained traction far beyond the crowds chanting "crooked Hillary" at Trump rallies. Age-old gender stereotypes of the deceitful woman, stretching back to menacing female characters in fairy tales, and even to Eve, apparently influenced perceptions of Clinton. The fact-checkers revealed that she actually measured up rather well against her rivals in the honesty stakes but there was no overcoming the "potent archetypal resonance". How else, Bordo wonders, are we to account for the fact that "Clinton could run against the biggest liar and most unscrupulous con man ever to appear on the American political scene and still be seen as less 'honest' than him"?
Sexism turns out to be a recurrent theme in this book and Bordo's analysis of the language and imagery used to describe and conceptualise Clinton is certainly alarming. When Clinton spoke her mind in anything louder than a whisper she was denounced as shrill or strident. Notions of the cunning, overly-ambitious woman were, likewise, never too far from the surface of debate. In common with so many female politicians, Clinton faced dilemmas that her male peers rarely have to consider: how to show emotion and vulnerability, which is what the gallery apparently expects of a woman in the corridors of power, but not so much as to appear weak.
Bordo argues that Clinton had been confronting such lunacies throughout her career. In the early Arkansas days, with her husband's political star in the ascendant, there was relief when she "straightened her hair, got rid of the owlish glasses [and] put on some makeup". Even in the 2016 race there was fashionista commentary aplenty when it came to Hillary while Bernie Sanders simply "gloried in the scruffy, rolled sleeves charm of a Sixties male politico". The idea of Clinton somehow rising above her allotted station has been another constant. How dare she demand an office in her husband's West Wing and a voice on important policies? Clinton has always been, in Bordo's well-wrought phrase, a "living Rorschach test of people's nightmare images of female power". Naturally enough, when Clinton aimed for the top job the misogyny reached "almost medieval" heights with "snarling interrogations worthy of a trial for witchcraft".
If we accept all this, then the production of a negative Clinton narrative isn't so hard to explain. Small wonder that scandals blossomed out of minor infractions or that murky motives were constantly being suggested. Clinton didn't just have pneumonia; she must, so the fantasists insisted, have been hiding something more serious. And then there were those emails. Bordo writes about "a whole lot of nothing blown to nuclear proportions" and goes to great lengths to exonerate Clinton from any wrong-doing. Yes, private email accounts were used when Clinton was secretary of state but this was before the rules changed and, later, Clinton handed over all emails that were related to business matters. Not providing private emails strikes Bordo as entirely reasonable. And yet the whole affair became a defining moment in the campaign. People simply assumed the worst and the media, obsessed with topping the ratings and filling a 24-hour news-cycle, spoon-fed the people what they wanted. For Bordo, however, the chief villain of the piece was FBI director James Comey. His public interventions – talking first of Clinton being careless and then, just days before the election, announcing that there were still pertinent matters to be investigated – only served to entrench a "recklessly disseminated narrative". Indeed, Bordo charges Comey with an "abuse of power".
The rich detail of Bordo's analysis is fascinating and she is to be applauded for exposing the lazy stereotypes and shabby journalism that damaged Clinton's cause. One wonders, however, if the best way to combat demonisation is to indulge in hagiography and Bordo comes perilously close to crossing into that territory. She admits that Clinton made some false steps (rising to Trump's bait about playing the "woman's card" for instance) but other gaffes receive surprisingly little treatment. Using a phrase like "basket of deplorables" to describe many of Trump's supporters was a staggering error of judgment. Bordo mentions this, but only to point out that the media failed to report the second half of Clinton's statement: that other Trumpeteers had every right to feel let down by government. I'm sorry, but regardless of who used the phrase, the basket was always going to be the focus on the nightly news. It was a stupid thing to say and played a pivotal role in determining people's choices on polling day.
It's also important, if tricky, to differentiate between attacks on Clinton that were motivated by gender anxiety and those that stemmed from other sources of concern. I do not accept this image of Clinton as the reluctant accomplice of capitalism: she and Bill seem to have gladly made their share of hay. That's not a crime, and it certainly doesn't preclude compassion (which both Clintons appears to have in spades), but let's be honest about it. Should Hillary Clinton have paid more heed to the rust belt? Yes, of course she should. Is she a particularly inspiring orator? No, she isn't. Was the air of entitlement and inevitability emanating from the Clinton ranks during the campaign irritating? You bet.
All credit to Bordo, though, for identifying those moments when misogyny did play a fateful role, when the media, preferring rampant speculation to facts, got "so postmodern on us", and for shaming those, on both left and right, who polluted the discourse. This is a deeply passionate book, a chronicle of "pain, anger and frustration" at how Clinton was sometimes treated, and Bordo does not hide her dismay at the price America paid. They ended up with (her phrase, I stress) "an inveterate liar and authoritarian narcissist" at the helm. I dare say, however, that Hillary Clinton accepts that she bears some of the burden for losing what seemed like an un-losable election and perhaps she even admits that most awkward likelihood of all: that if Bernie had been at the top of the ticket we would now have a Democrat in the White House.