By Hillary Clinton
In the summer of 2016, I made a bet with a friend. I bet him $100 that Hillary Rodham Clinton would win the Presidential election. I was fully aware of the headwinds she faced: it is rare to see a major party retain the presidency for more than three terms, and Clinton had been in the public eye for a long time–bringing with her a long history of political baggage. The Clintons have faced innumerable scandals and she had a difficult public record to defend. Still, in the summer of 2016, I thought that there was no way that Donald Trump could win the Presidency.
It turns out that Hillary and I were both losers.
The 2016 Presidential election was one of the most dramatic and unpredictable races of modern political history. The shock waves it sent through the political system will reverberate for a long time yet. “What Happened” is Hillary Clinton’s public attempt to wrap her head around why she was defeated. Even though, as she likes to constantly point out, she did not lose the popular vote. Here she is unrestrained in her criticism of everyone from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders, James Comey and the Russian Federation. The book shows a complicated person, wrestling with grief for the American dream and her own career.
Feminism, Misogyny and Trump
Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton was born in Chicago Illinois on October 26 1947. It is difficult to say if she was born obsessed with the Presidency, or if this was a trait that she developed subsequently. She sees herself as someone able to help people across the world and is compelled to do so by a strong commitment to her Methodist faith. She endeavours to practices “radical empathy” which intends to fill emotional and spiritual voids within communities, families and individuals.
Her worldview is shaped by her experience as a woman facing constant discrimination. In the book, she recounts instances of misogyny in her early life when Bill Clinton was Governor of Arkansas. She worked at the Rose Law Firm and was expected to forgo her own career ambitions for the sake of her husband, but this was something that she continually refused to do.
Clinton entered college at a time of huge political and social change in America. The power of second-wave feminism attracted her, as did the promise to create real equality for women. Clinton contends that despite great progress since then, misogyny and sexism are still rife in American society. Women certainly continue to face systemic bias and inequality of opportunity, and Clinton’s sincerity in embracing the feminist cause is genuine. But she is not above using her gender to divert attention from the examination of her public record.
“When it comes to some of my most controversial actions—like my vote giving President Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq—I was far from alone. That doesn’t make it right, but it also doesn’t explain the venom targeted at me specifically. Why am I seen as such a divisive figure and, say, Joe Biden and John Kerry aren’t?”
It is worth noting that when John Kerry ran for President, a majority of Americans still supported the war. This doesn’t justify his position; it is only to suggest why he wasn’t held up for the same critique when he ran. But his war record did become an issue of significant political attack from the Bush campaign in 2004. Joe Biden tragically lost a son in Iraq, making it more difficult to criticise his early support for the war. It would be wrong to downplay misogynistic critiques, but Clinton’s voting record is an issue that should be ambivalent to gender.
Clinton has a lot to say on misogyny and the role that it played in the 2016 election. She asserts that Trump’s victory is evidence of a deep well of sexism and misogyny plaguing American society, but defers to youtube and twitter comments as her evidence base. What else can explain how: “sixty-two million people vote for someone they heard on tape bragging about repeated sexual assault?”
There is no doubt that Clinton was the victim of unfair and maligning criticism in the 2016 election. Donald Trump was her arch villain who flagrantly exhibited the worst kind of sexist behaviour. The irony is that her legacy as a feminist is complicated by her husbands infamous past. Donald Trump exploited this before their second debate by holding an impromptu press conference with a group of women accusing former President Bill Clinton of sexual assault. This is not a spectacle that gets much attention in Clinton’s book. This meant that whenever Clinton unleashed criticism of Trump’s behaviour, he would always just retort: well, what about your husband? It is something of a dark irony that the actions of her husband undermined her force as a feminist politician.
The 2016 Campaign
Clinton has no end of explanations as to why she did not win the Presidential election. Principally she is outraged that the theatrics of the email scandal deflected from her serious policy agenda. Her approach to policy had been to focus on practical solutions rather than unrealistic idealism; this is where the fault line between herself and Sanders emerges. She was facing an uphill battle where it didn’t matter how much tried, she was always tagged as the establishment candidate.
“One of the most persistent challenges I faced as a candidate was being perceived as a defender of the status quo, while my opponents in the primaries and the general election seized the sought-after mantle of “change.” The same thing happened to me in 2008. I never could figure out how to shake it.”
Clinton advanced a progressive policy programme which included tax increases on the wealthiest 1%, investing in jobs and infrastructure and reforming campaign finance. Yet none of her policy proposals broke through the media circus of 2016. However, the policies that she didn’t include appear the most interesting. Clinton writes about her team looking into a proposal for a form of universal basic income. The proposal was inspired by a programme in Alaska that handed oil profits back to citizens as income payments. In the end, the Clintons team couldn’t make the numbers add up, but when media coverage on issues of policy were so light, this might have been their best chance to break through. But 2016 was not a campaign built around policy.
Another issue that should have received much more attention from the media was Russian Interference in the election. The efforts of the Russian Government and intelligence agencies to interfere in the 2016 election was unique in its scale and ambition. Clinton makes it clear that she and Vladimir Putin did not have particularly warm relations. In 2011, when she was Secretary of State, Clinton had been very critical of attempts by Russia to stifle pro-democracy protests.
“Our relationship has been sour for a long time. Putin doesn’t respect women and despises anyone who stands up to him, so I’m a double problem. After I criticized one of his policies, he told the press, “It’s better not to argue with women,” but went on to call me weak. “Maybe weakness is not the worst quality for a woman,” he joked. Hilarious.”
Each day we are learning more about the extent to which Russia interfered in the 2016 election. The efforts caused two significant problems for the Clinton Campaign. Firstly, because of the media circus around Trump, the stories of Russian interference did not get the attention they deserved. Secondly, the Clinton campaign was damaged by news stories that emerged through the hack into the emails of Clinton’s campaign Chair, John Podesta, and the server of the Democratic National Committee. Revelations from the DNC further undermined Bernie Sanders and stoked divisions in the Democratic party. Clinton was also damaged by revelations that she was paid $225,000 to make a speech to Goldman Sachs executives at a private event. The revelation seemed to support her critics view that she was in league with Wall Street, and didn’t have the interests of ordinary people at heart. Individually the revelations are not so bad but taken in combination they had a cumulative impact which undermined Clinton considerably. The whole episode added to the general air of corruption and scandal surrounding the Clinton’s. She is clear that she would take a very different approach to Russia than the strategy currently being employed by President Trump and says that the United States needs to get tougher on Putin and regards the cyber attacks as an act of war that should be met with a proportionate response. It makes you think that we would be living in a very different world had she won.
There is also no warm feeling between herself and Bernie Sanders, her Democratic primary challenger. She is grateful that Sanders campaigned for her in the general election, but she still holds a grudge against him for the divisions he created in the democratic party. And whilst Sanders and Clinton had many areas of commonality on policy, they also had deep divisions over guns rights and financial regulation. Sanders contributed greatly to the final democratic party platform, but whether his supporters all migrated over to support Clinton is doubtful.
“No matter how bold and progressive my policy proposals were—and they were significantly bolder and more progressive than anything President Obama or I had proposed in 2008—Bernie would come out with something even bigger, loftier, and leftier, regardless of whether it was realistic or not.”
Clinton really wanted to run a feisty progressive campaign but was unable to because of Sanders. Sanders and Trump were both able to tap into populist undercurrents and rail against the establishment. Clinton, however, was emblematic of the establishment. Whilst Clinton does not apportion too much blame at Sanders, it is clear that she still has a great deal of lingering resentment.
There are lots of people to blame for what happened in 2016, and Clinton admits that she is one of them. The way in which she accepts blame is interesting. Typically she will state clearly that she was wrong. She then proceeds to make as many arguments as she can to shift ultimate culpability on to something or someone else. At times she comes across as humbled and reflective in thinking about her own sense of culpability, but at others, she comes across only as pretentious and self-serving.
“This is one of the mistakes I made that you’ll read about in this book. I’ve tried to give an honest accounting of when I got it wrong, where I fell short, and what I wish I could go back and do differently. This isn’t easy or fun. My mistakes burn me up inside.”
One of her biggest mistakes was her decision to use a private email server to conduct official state department business. That decision had profound ramifications for her entire campaign as it provided the pretext for the whole email investigation. As confirmed by FBI director James Comey, the investigation was not about her use of a private server; it was about her handling classified information on a non-governemnt server. Clinton clearly puts a lot of blame on Jim Comey for his mishandling of the whole saga. She even describes feeling like she had been “shivved” by Comey.
Although Clinton does accept that the use of the private server was a mistake, she then resorts to whataboutism. She highlights that other Secretaries use private email servers, the FBI made classification mistakes and the FBI director violated normal operating procedures. These may all be true, but she frames then in such a way as to push her own culpability into the background.
Clinton also admits she made a mistake when she talked about wanting to put coal companies and miners out of business. The comment went down badly with people in the industrial Midwest, particularly in the state of West Virginia. Clinton wanted to propose a programme of renewable energy jobs for workers who had been displaced, but that point got lost in the commotion. The comment was ill-advised, but it probably did not turn away any of her own supporters. Rather it served to further entrench the divide between Clinton and Trump supporters. For the average Trump supporter, the comment might have simply reaffirmed their existing opinion about Clinton. Trump made much hay out of the comment and affirmed an unambiguous commitment to fossil fuels.
Clinton also expresses regret about characterising Trump supporters as “deplorables.” She argues that she didn’t intend to denigrate all Trump supporters. But concedes that regular Americans were still offended by her comments. Clinton dismisses the notion that Trumps supporters were driven in the main by a feeling of economic anxiety. Instead, she maintains that racism and the politics of hate played a bigger role in animating Trump’s support base. She accuses Trump of: “running a reality TV show that expertly and relentlessly stoked Americans’ anger and resentment.” There is no doubt that race, immigration and resentment played a big part in influencing Trump’s base to support him. But race certainly wasn’t the only reason that people voted as they did. Some people voted for Trump out of partisan loyalty, others because of Trump’s tough talk on jobs and trade. 2016 brought issues of race out to the forefront, but there was a range of factors that determined voting preferences.
It remains doubtful that Clinton has fully recovered from the seismic shock that Trump delivered to the American political system. Trump was able to tap into a popular anti-establishment mood whilst promising to restore American power at home and abroad. By being so crude and vulgar out in the open, he appeared as though he had nothing to hide. He was crass, but he laid that all on the table; or he at least gave the impression that he was doing so. Clinton is largely correct in the factors that she outlines as to why Trump won. A confluence of unbelievable factors converged to sow the seeds of the Trump Victory. Russian interference, the DNC hack and the FBI’s email investigation could have nudged the needle in Trump’s favour.
But 2016 was a change election, and Clinton was not the right candidate to embody that spirit of change. After two terms in office, many people had grown frustrated with the democratic party and wanted to shake things up. Would Bernie Sanders have been able to beat Trump had he been the nominee? Perhaps, but he would have faced huge oppositional pressure in the run-up to a general election.
Even though Trump Won the popular vote, the election was much closer than anyone would have predicted. So even when you take out all of the external factors, you are left with the candidate and the campaign. I think that Clinton accepts that ultimately personal responsibility for the campaign rests with her. But the book still rings very hollow in parts. She comes across as someone who is desperate to be understood.
The question reporters often asked of her why she wasn’t acting authentically. Maybe she knew that she could be more authentic, but in the end, people may still not vote for her. It is apparent that even when she is unguarded her hands are still a little raised. Clinton will remain a figure on the world stage she just was just not the right person for the times. Ultimately she comes across as someone who is desperate to be understood but can never quite find the right words.