Since the election, thinking about Hillary Clinton has been painful. Every photograph of Donald Trump standing before a grinning phalanx of white men as he signs another attack on the social compact is a reminder of what could have been. Many people on the left are furious with her; they blame her sense of entitlement and poor political instincts for our current dystopia. But when I think about Clinton I just feel sick with grief—both for our country, and for her unredeemable, life-defining loss. On the scale of people whose existence will be blighted by the Trump presidency, Clinton is nowhere near the top. Still, I find myself wondering at odd times of the day and night: How is Hillary? Is she going to be all right?
That was the first question that Nick Kristof asked her onstage on Thursday evening in Manhattan. The live interview, part of Tina Brown’s Women in the World conference, was the first time since the election that Clinton has spoken publicly at any length about her defeat. Kristof said that he queried his social media followers about what he should ask her, and while there were many policy questions, lots of people just wanted to know how she’s doing. “You know what, I’m doing pretty well, all things considered,” Clinton said. She described the aftermath of the election as “devastating,” but said that with the help of friends and family, she’d picked herself up. “I would put it this way,” she said. “As a person, I’m OK. As an American, I’m pretty worried.”
It was appropriate that Clinton was speaking at a women’s conference. Twenty-two years ago, during a moment of political crisis and despair following the collapse of her attempt at health care reform, Clinton revived herself by traveling to Beijing for the United Nations Fourth World Congress on Women where she famously said, “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” She’s always seemed most comfortable when working on behalf of women and girls, which she described on Thursday as the “unfinished business of the 21st century.” With her future suddenly a blank, Clinton says her only plans are to write a book—which will, among other things, explore the role misogyny played in the presidential election—and work to recruit and train young women to run for office.
It’s hard to imagine, now, what it would have been like to have a president who finds her solace in feminism. Clinton, like many American women, has been aghast at the administration’s systematic attacks on women’s rights and health: the expanded global gag rule, the defunding of the United Nations Population Fund, the attempts in the American Health Care Act to jettison mandatory insurance coverage for maternity care and to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood. “The targeting of women, which is what’s going on, is absolutely beyond any political agenda,” she said. “There’s something else happening here.” She didn’t say exactly what that “something” is, but the suggestion is that Trump represents a wave of misogynist rage.
The conservative media is already mocking Clinton for saying that sexism contributed to her defeat, but she’s clearly right. “It is fair to say that certainly misogyny played a role. That just has to be admitted,” she said. Clinton pointed to research on how ambition affects women’s likeability. “With men, success and ambition are correlated with likeability, so the more successful a man is, the more likeable he becomes,” she said. “With a woman, guess what. It’s the exact opposite.”
She reminded us that when she left her job as secretary of state, her approval rating was around 65 percent. Then she decided to seek the highest office in the land, and suddenly, public perception shifted. “Even people who had supported me in the media during my time as secretary of state or even as senator, all of the sudden it’s: Who is she? What does she want?” she said. “I always feel like I'm in Waiting for Godot.”
As bittersweet as it was to hear Clinton talk and imagine the sort of president she might have been, the interview offered a stark reminder of why many on the left distrusted her. Speaking hours before Trump launched airstrikes on Syria, she made it clear that she’d also have been a hawkish president. The United States, she said, should take out Bashar al-Assad’s airfields, “and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop Sarin gas on them.” During the campaign, she said, people asked her if she was afraid that her plan to impose a no-fly zone in Syria would lead to a Russian response. “It’s time the Russians were afraid of us!” she said heatedly. “Because we were going to stand up for human rights, the dignity and the future of the Syrian people.”
Clinton’s worldview is sincere, but this sounds like a recipe for another unwinnable war. Yet instead of her carefully considered plan for greater military intervention in Syria, we now have Trump’s impulsive bombing raid, disconnected from any greater strategy. Under Trump, there’s been an increase in civilian deaths in Muslim countries, possibly because he has loosened the military’s rules of engagement. During the campaign, it was common to hear people on the left describe Clinton’s foreign policy as “scarier” than Donald Trump’s, to use Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s word. Yet what we have now is aggression unchecked by competence, analytical rigor or compassion.
It could have been so different. And Clinton has to carry the burden of knowing that if she’d done things differently, it might have been. Last week, Timothy Stanley wrote a CNN column arguing that it’s too soon for her to return to the public eye, given her responsibility for allowing Trump to become president. “America needs to move on,” Stanley said. “She needs to pause and reflect.”
He can speak for himself. It’s hard to watch Clinton these days, but it’s also inspiring. Having suffered an epochal, humiliating rebuke that could well cleave American history into before and after, she still—still!—refuses to disappear. Speaking of the viciousness with which women in politics are treated, she said, “Part of the personal attacks, part of the bullying, part of the name calling that has certainly become much more pervasive because of the internet, is to crush your spirit, to make you feel inadequate, to make you doubt yourself. I just refuse to do that.” This toughness would have served her well as president. But she might need it even more now that she never will be.