Book review: Hillary Clinton's What Happened is a betrayal of feminism
Hillary Clinton attempts to make sense of losing last year’s US presidential election but her analysis rings hollow with hypocrisies
At 1.35am in New York on November 9, 2016, Hillary Clinton, billeted in a hotel suite a stone’s throw away from Trump Tower, realised that she was not going to become President of the United States.
A message arrived shortly thereafter from the White House: president Barack Obama believed drawing out the fight would be harmful to the country. Would she please “concede quickly and gracefully”?
The first female nominee of a major political party for the American presidency, incalculably more qualified than her rival, placed a call to Donald Trump. Clinton personally conceding to and congratulating a misogynist: this was the mortifying coda of her historic campaign.
After a brief conversation with president Obama in which she apologised for letting him down, Clinton “sat quietly for a few moments. I was numb. It was all so shocking”.
Hours before, she had been drafting her victory speech. The finality of that night must have been crushing, and it is hard, even for someone not sympathetic to her politics, not to be moved by her recollection of it.
The dismal performance of Trump over the past nine months has certainly burnished Clinton’s reputation. But the success of What Happened, her analysis of the 2016 presidential race, depends on the suspension of disbelief by readers. How else does one reconcile Clinton’s self-portrayal as a fighter for racial equality with the record of her racially charged campaign in 2008 against Obama, revealed in detail by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann in their book Game Change?
Clinton accuses Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont who challenged her for the Democratic nomination, of dooming her candidacy in the general elections by hanging on “to the bitter end” in the primaries.
Sanders’s obduracy, she writes, was in uncomradely contrast to her own rapid endorsement of Obama in 2008. “When I lost to Barack Obama I immediately turned around [and] endorsed him”, she recently told CBS News. Really? The fact is, Clinton was even more stubborn in 2008. Asked in May 2008 why she was dragging out the primaries when she had no prospect of winning, she replied: “We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June.” What was the implication of that statement?
Bill Clinton was even less tactful, saying of Obama in a phone call to the late Ted Kennedy, after his wife lost the Iowa caucuses: “A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.” Kennedy was so appalled that he endorsed Obama. Bill’s response? “The only reason you’re endorsing him is because he’s black. Let’s just be clear.”
Clinton is understandably aghast at the sexist airbrushing of her achievements. But it’s not clear if she felt any discomfort with her husband’s racist belittling of Obama. When an adviser of Clinton’s told her that a recording of Michelle Obama using the term “whitey” might be unearthed just in time to save her candidacy, the lofty author of What Happened exploded with excitement: “They’ve got a tape, they’ve got a tape,” she told aides.
No such tape existed. But the Clintons do have squalid form when it comes to exploiting the racial anxieties of white America. In 1992, when Bill Clinton’s own candidacy was hobbled by accusations of an extramarital affair, he created a distraction by flying home to Arkansas and signing the execution order of Ricky Ray Rector, a black inmate with the mental capacity of a child.
Clinton imputes to Sanders’s supporters – a diverse crew – a cocktail of evils. If candidates are responsible for the behaviour of their supporters, who bears the blame for Clinton’s impassioned supporter who spectacularly accused the Democratic party of “throwing the election away … for an inadequate black male”?
Up to 25 per cent of Clinton’s supporters voted for John McCain over Obama in 2008; only 12 per cent of Sanders’s supporters voted for Trump over the Democratic nominee in 2016. If only Clinton measured herself by the standards she applies to others.
Clinton’s 2016 campaign supplied depressing confirmation of the validity in the 21st century of George Orwell’s observation that the West’s self-cherishing self-image is built on an “unspoken clause”: “not counting niggers”.
Orwell was commenting on liberals in Britain, a colonial power, and the United States – a white supremacist republic in practice – who congratulated themselves as agents of enlightenment by erasing from their exalted self-image the wretched experiences of the non-white peoples whom they ruled with an iron fist.
Clinton and some of her most prominent supporters exemplified this pathology.
The Arab and Muslim victims of the gratuitous foreign wars she championed, supported and defended were peripheral, if they mattered at all, to their self-conception as virtuous warriors.
“The Europeans”, says the narrator of VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, “wanted gold and slaves, like everybody else; but at the same time they wanted statues put up to themselves as people who had done good things for the slaves”. Americans liberal hawks are like that: they want to bomb Muslims, but they want you to know that they are doing it for the Muslims’ own good.
Libya, in the years after the military intervention spearheaded by Clinton, has become such a broken place that it now hosts open slave auctions. But Clinton is not only baffled that people are angry with her. She seems frankly puzzled by the lack of gratitude and would like us to know that she is the true victim of that war.
America’s black Civil Rights Movement, as Harvard’s Nico Slate showed in Colored Cosmopolitanism, was forged in solidarity with oppressed people in India and the rest of the world. Martin Luther King Jr, posthumously appropriated as a prop by the American establishment, was in life its fiercest critic and a moral ally of the Vietnamese civilians who were being shredded from the skies by his country.
James Baldwin was the most trenchant critic of America’s addiction to foreign wars. Alas, there was no comparable figure among the most distinguished feminists who supported Clinton.
The feminism Clinton stood for, as the author Rafia Zakaria has argued, had long ago become corrupted by its fusion with US foreign policy. “Feminism used as war packaging”, Zakaria wrote, “was no feminism at all”.
Those feminist activists whose empathy extended to people beyond US frontiers refused to support Clinton, not because they were, as Gloria Steinem so crudely put it, desperate to bag radical “boys”, but because they viewed her candidacy as, at best, tokenism and, at worst, a betrayal of feminism.
Anyone reading What Happened would profit from taking up alongside it False Choices, a trenchant collection of essays by some of the most brilliant and inspiring feminist thinkers anywhere in the world that examines in minute detail the extravagant claims by Clinton to have aided the cause of women.
In the 1840s, the writer John O’Sullivan argued that it was white Americans' “manifest destiny” to impose themselves on other people and their lands because God had chosen them.
American ideas of belonging have expanded over the ages to include, in theory, people of all backgrounds.
But the gradual dissolution of racial and gender hierarchies at home has not generated fellow feeling for people abroad.
A white America that victimised non-whites and women has matured into a pluralistic America that affirms its specialness by victimising non-Americans. “Manifest destiny” has morphed into “American exceptionalism”, and the stage of evangelical activity has shifted from the US mainland to the rest of the globe.
“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless”, Mahatma Gandhi once asked, “whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?”
Within the US, Hillary Clinton, for all her ills, was the enlightened choice. But to all those exposed to the rough edges of the American progressivism she embodied, what happened in 2016 made no difference.
Updated: October 6, 2017 04:02 PM