A few weeks after the election, I was hit by a sickening realization. Not only would my children have to learn about Donald Trump in school, but by the time they are old enough for college, there will probably be whole academic departments devoted to the study of him. (That is, assuming we still have colleges, and America, by then.) Before Trump was elected, the United States was a deeply imperfect democracy. Afterward, it became a shitty kleptocracy, run, against the will of the majority of the American citizenry, by a cruel, gaudy, grandiose lunatic. Overnight, the very texture of reality changed, becoming surreal and dystopian, like an episode of Black Mirror or a far too on-the-nose imitation of a Don DeLillo novel. Whether or not this new dispensation is here to stay, many of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out one thing. What happened?
What Happened, of course, is the title of Hillary Clinton’s new book about the 2016 election. It is, by turns, fascinating and boring, enjoyably caustic and irritatingly insipid, frank and guarded. But as a historical record, the book seems undeniably important, which is why it’s bizarre that so many people who are interested in politics seem angered by its existence. In a Los Angeles Times piece headlined “Hillary, I Love You. But Please Go Away,” author Melissa Batchelor Warnke allows that the book is “much better than I expected” but laments Clinton’s divisive re-emergence onto the political scene. In a Chicago Tribune column titled “Hillary: How Can We Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?” John Kass writes, “The vibe I’m getting is that Democrats wish someone would just lock her in the basement indefinitely.”
For many pundits, there’s only one key question at stake in Clinton’s version of events: Will she accept total and unconditional responsibility for our current calamity? “The Hillary Clinton ‘I-take-full-responsibility-but-here-are-all-the-other-reasons-I-lost’ tour continues to be intrinsically problematic,” tweeted CNN’s Dylan Byers. “A Brief List of People Clinton Blames for Her Election Loss, Part 3,” said a Vanity Fair headline. There’s something faintly medieval in this need to make an epic civilizational disaster wholly the fault of one person and to demand that she retreat into internal exile until she has sufficiently flayed herself.
The fact is: No one knows exactly why Clinton lost. We’ll never untangle precisely what combination of Clinton’s personal failures, Democratic campaign missteps, Russian intervention, FBI sabotage, media malpractice, misogyny, xenophobia, and nihilistic social breakdown led to our current nightmare. But the struggle to understand all these interrelated factors will be ongoing. Clinton was at the center of a uniquely terrible and baffling episode in American history. She has a perspective no one else does. Why shouldn’t she share it?
Despite the carping of her critics, Clinton does in fact lacerate herself for losing. “I blamed myself,” she writes of the shattering moments after Trump gave his victory speech. “My worst fears about my limitations as a candidate had come true. I had tried to learn the lessons of 2008, and in many ways ran a better, smarter campaign this time. But I had been unable to connect with the deep anger so many Americans felt or shake the perception that I was the candidate of the status quo.”
But her limitations as a candidate are not the whole story. For Trump to become president, many different people and institutions—the Republican Party, the press, the FBI—had to fail. In What Happened, Clinton directly takes on the obsessive demand that she assume monocausal responsibility. “If it’s all my fault, then the media doesn’t need to do any soul searching,” she writes. “Republicans can say Putin’s meddling had no consequences. Democrats don’t need to question their own assumptions and prescriptions. Everyone can just move on.”
But we can’t move on. We don’t even know if the election was fully legitimate. “After a presidential campaign scarred by Russian meddling, local, state, and federal agencies have conducted little of the type of digital forensic investigation required to assess the impact, if any, on voting in at least 21 states whose election systems were targeted by Russian hackers,” the New York Times reported earlier this month.
In her book, Clinton describes how, amid the all-consuming work of the convention, her campaign tried to sound the alarm about Russian interference. It was hard, she writes, “to stop and focus on the gravity of what was happening. But I realized we had crossed a line. This wasn’t the normal rough-and-tumble of politics. … I told my team I thought we were at a ‘break glass’ moment.” Her staff tried to alert journalists to what was happening, but they couldn’t get the story to take hold. She writes, “The media was accustomed to Trump peddling crazy conspiracy theories—like that Ted Cruz’s dad helped kill John F. Kennedy—and it acted as if the Russian hacking was ‘our’ conspiracy theory, a tidy false equivalency that let reporters and pundits sleep well at night.” That might sound bitter. She has a right to be.
Indeed, I wish the book were even more biting. Clinton says she’ll never run for office again, but What Happened nevertheless sometimes feels like a campaign tome, with detailed policy proposals and wistful descriptions of what she’d have done as president. There are lots of inspirational quotes and moments of canned uplift. Clinton doesn’t seem like a naturally introspective person—if she were, she probably wouldn’t be so indomitable in the face of so much loss and pain. She never interrogates the purity of her own motives and seems surprised when anyone else does.
Discussing her Wall Street speeches, she writes, “I didn’t think many Americans would believe that I’d sell a lifetime of principle and advocacy for any price. When you know why you’re doing something and you know there’s nothing more to it and certainly nothing sinister, it’s easy to assume that others will see it the same way,” she writes. Clinton’s unquestioned belief in her own obvious rectitude didn’t serve her well as a politician, and it’s not a great quality in a writer, either.
She’s more engaging when she’s a little mean. Clinton realizes her “deplorables” comment during the campaign was a mistake, but it’s also pretty clear that she meant it. Toward the end of the book, she has a great takedown of all the postelection calls for liberals to better understand and empathize with Trump supporters. “Bullying disgusts me,” she writes. “I look at the people at Trump’s rallies, cheering for his hateful rants, and I wonder: Where’s their empathy and understanding? Why are they allowed to close their hearts to the striving immigrant father and the grieving black mother, or the LGBT teenager who’s bullied at school and thinking of suicide? Why doesn’t the press write think pieces about Trump voters trying to understand why most Americans rejected their candidate? Why is the burden of opening our hearts only on half the country?”
Clinton doesn’t end there; she concludes that when it comes to empathy, the rest of us “have no choice but to try.” But she’s not a candidate anymore, and she doesn’t have to pretend to not be disgusted by Trump’s movement. Maybe her inability to hide that disgust was part of what cost her the election; people who hate her often describe her as condescending and imperious. Yet her contempt is warranted. “It drove me crazy that since the election, pundits had fetishized stereotypical Trump supporters to such a degree that they had started dismissing anyone who lived on the coasts and had a college education as irrelevant and out of touch,” she writes. My God, me too.
What Happened concludes with Clinton’s 2017 trip to speak to the graduating class of Wellesley, her alma mater. “My advice would be simple: Don’t let the bastards get you down,” she writes. This might go over the heads of hostile male readers, but many feminists will read it as a reference to The Handmaid’s Tale, a book Clinton has spoken about in the past. That story’s heroine, Offred, finds a Latin version of this phrase illicitly scratched into the floor of a closet, and it helps keep her going in a hellish, patriarchal totalitarian state. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. With all the people yelling at Clinton to shut up and disappear, I hope she keeps those words in mind.
What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Simon & Schuster.