In 1996, the New Yorker published “Hating Hillary,” Henry Louis Gates’ reported piece on the widespread animosity for the then–first lady. “Like horse-racing, Hillary-hating has become one of those national pastimes which unite the élite and the lumpen,” Gates wrote. “[T]here’s just something about her that pisses people off,” the renowned Washington hostess Sally Quinn told Gates. “This is the reaction that she elicits from people.”
It might seem as though nothing much has changed in 20 years. Many people disliked Hillary Clinton when she first emerged onto the political scene, and many people dislike her now. She is on track to become the least popular Democratic nominee in modern history, although voters like Donald Trump even less.
But over the last two decades, the something that pisses people off has changed. Speaking to Gates, former Republican speechwriter Peggy Noonan described “an air of apple-cheeked certitude” in Clinton that is “political in its nature and grating in its effects.” Noonan saw in Clinton “an implicit insistence throughout her career that hers were the politics of moral decency and therefore those who opposed her politics were obviously of a lower moral order.”
Noonan’s view was a common one. Take, for example, Michael Kelly’s 1993 New York Times Magazine profile, mockingly titled “Saint Hillary.” “Since she discovered, at the age of 14, that for people less fortunate than herself the world could be very cruel, Hillary Rodham Clinton has harbored an ambition so large that it can scarcely be grasped,” Kelly wrote. “She would like to make things right. She is 45 now and she knows that the earnest idealisms of a child of the 1960s may strike some people as naive or trite or grandiose. But she holds to them without any apparent sense of irony or inadequacy.” Kelly’s piece painted Clinton as a moralist, a meddler, a prig.
Few people dislike Hillary Clinton for being too moralistic anymore. In trying to understand the seemingly eternal phenomenon of Hillary hatred, I’ve spoken to people all around America who revile her. I’ve interviewed Trump supporters, conventional conservatives, Bernie Sanders fans, and even a few people who reluctantly voted for Clinton in the Democratic primary but who nevertheless say they can’t stand her. Most of them described a venal cynic. Strikingly, the reasons people commonly give for hating Clinton now are almost the exact opposite of the reasons people gave for hating her in the 1990s. Back then, she was a self-righteous ideologue; now she’s a corrupt tool of the establishment. Back then, she was too rigid; now she’s too flexible. Recently, Morning Consult polled people who don’t like Clinton about the reasons for their distaste. Eighty-four percent agreed with the statement “She changes her positions when it’s politically convenient.” Eighty-two percent consider her “corrupt.” Motives for loathing Clinton have evolved. But the loathing itself has remained constant.
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Brian Greene is a 49-year-old accountant and financial analyst who lives in the Chicago suburbs. He was a conservative in the 1990s and despised both Clintons. “I thought she was someone who came off as a bit entitled and kind of full of herself,” he says of Hillary. His view then, he says, was that she was “Bill without the charisma.”
Greene became disillusioned with the right due to the Iraq war; he supported Howard Dean in 2004 and now describes himself as a libertarian-ish liberal. Yet while his politics changed, his aversion to Clinton did not. He actually voted for her in the Illinois primary—Sanders, he says, didn’t seem like a plausible president. But he did so with a complete lack of enthusiasm. Had the Republicans elevated someone “sane” such as John Kasich, he says, he’d return to the GOP in November. “She strikes me as so programmed and almost robotic,” he says of Hillary. “I don’t think her recent move to the left, or being more populist recently, is part of who she is but more of a reaction to Sanders in the race.”
Greene says he’d have preferred to vote for Elizabeth Warren, even though Clinton’s more centrist politics are closer to his own. He’s not sure that likability should matter to him, but it does. “I like to think it’s more about policy and what they do, but for me it’s like, do you want to see this person on television for eight years, or four years,” he says. “For better or worse, the president is someone who represents the country and will be part of your life.”
There are certainly people who don’t like Clinton because they don’t like her record and her proposals. Marcella Aburdene, a 31-year-old market researcher in Washington, D.C., has a Palestinian father and is horrified by what she sees as Clinton’s hawkishness and allegiance to Israel. “She is disingenuous and she lies blatantly, but that’s what a lot of politicians do,” Aburdene says. “It’s definitely more of a policy issue for me.” She plans to vote for the Green Party’s Jill Stein in November.
For many, however, resistance to Clinton goes beyond policy. “It’s not that I just don’t like Hillary’s positions,” says Margo Guryan Rosner, a Los Angeles songwriter (her work has been recorded by Julie London, Mama Cass, and Harry Belafonte, among others) and Sanders devotee. “I don’t like her.” Like many of the people I spoke to, Rosner’s antipathy doesn’t follow a precise ideological trajectory. Now 78, she says her negative feelings about Clinton first arose during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Rosner says she was especially irritated when, in response to criticism of her work at the Rose Law Firm, Hillary said, “You know, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession.”
“That bugged me,” says Rosner. “She was putting down regular women, people who stay home and take care of kids and bake cookies.” It’s not that Rosner was offended on behalf of housewives; she herself has always had a career. “I just thought it was a stupid comment,” she says. “I don’t think she’s as smart as most people think she is, or seem to think she is.”
Rosner also makes a fairly standard progressive case against Clinton. “I don’t like her support for the Iraq war,” she says. “She didn’t support same-sex marriage until it became a popular issue. Her email stuff—she is the only one that would not testify, and I think that’s bullshit. I don’t like her friendship with Netanyahu. I think they’ve destroyed the Middle East with Iraq. I don’t like that she takes money from big banks. She doesn’t support universal health care. For all those reasons. I think she’s more a Republican than a Democrat, and I refuse to vote for Republicans, ever.”
All the same, Rosner says she would happily vote for Joe Biden, who also voted for the Iraq war. In the Senate, Biden was known for his deep ties to the credit card industry, and as a presidential candidate, he didn’t support universal health insurance. “Yeah, Biden does not have all the positions I would like, but he has a certain kind of humanity that touches me,” she says.
Several of the people I spoke to see Clinton as lacking in humanity. It’s not just that they don’t like her—they also feel, on some level, that she doesn’t like them. “I don’t think she has a clue what people in my position need in life and certainly wouldn’t stoop to, quote unquote, my level,” says Mindy Gardner, a 49-year-old in Davenport, Iowa, who works in the produce section of a Hy-Vee grocery store. “If I could make her a profit she’d be my best friend, but I can’t, so she doesn’t know I exist.”
Gardner, who raised two children as a single mother, says she felt vaguely positive about Bill Clinton when he was elected in 1992. In 2008, she supported John McCain, and in this election she’s become a passionate Sanders backer. She sees Hillary Clinton as integral to the economic system that has left her struggling. “I’ve been working since I was 12. It seems like when I was working as a kid, my money went further than it does now as an adult, just trying to feed the kids. I could work 40 hours a week and go live in the Y because that’s all you can afford,” she says.
The Clintons, says Gardner, “removed a lot of sanctions against companies and changed a lot of laws so companies could pay their workers less, fight unions, fight health care.” Employment used to come with security and benefits, she says. “That was just common knowledge, all those things you got when you worked your butt off for a company.” Clinton, she believes, had a hand in taking all that away. “Bill and Hillary’s friends were all rich, they were the ones who owned all these companies, why not use your power to let everyone in your circle get as rich as humanly possible?”
Several of the policies Clinton has put forth would help Gardner. When I ask her about Clinton’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $12 per hour, Gardner says, “I would like to make $12 an hour, that would be nice.” But it almost doesn't matter what Clinton’s policies are, because Gardner doesn’t trust her to enact any of them. “If she was moving her lips she was probably lying about it,” she says.
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Some who loathe Clinton see her as the living embodiment of avarice and deception. These Clinton haters take at face value every charge Republicans have ever hurled at her, as well as dark accusations that circulate online. They have the most invidious possible explanation for Whitewater, the dubious real estate deal that served as a pretext for endless Republican investigations of the Clintons in the 1990s. (Clinton was never found guilty of any wrongdoing, though one of her business partners, James McDougal, went to prison for fraud in a related case.) Sometimes they believe that Clinton murdered her former law partner, Vince Foster, who committed suicide in 1993. They hold her responsible for the deadly attack on the American outpost in Benghazi, Libya. Peter Schweizer’s new book Clinton Cash has convinced them that there was a corrupt nexus between Clinton’s State Department, various foreign governments, and the Clinton family’s foundation. Most of Schweizer’s allegations have either been disproven or shown to be unsubstantiated, but that hasn’t stopped Trump from invoking them repeatedly. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, he accused Clinton of raking in “millions of dollars trading access and favors to special interests and foreign powers.”
As former New York Times editor-in-chief Jill Abramson wrote, “I would be ‘dead rich,’ to adapt an infamous Clinton phrase, if I could bill for all the hours I’ve spent covering just about every ‘scandal’ that has enveloped the Clintons.” After all that investigation, Abramson concluded that Clinton “is fundamentally honest and trustworthy.” But the appearance of perpetual scandal surrounding Clinton can make it seem as if she must be hiding something monstrous, especially to those who are predisposed against her.
“I think that Hillary Clinton is a sociopath, so I think that her main interest is in her pocketbook, and I think that’s obvious from looking at the Clinton Foundation,” says Uday Sachdeva, a 22-year-old Trump supporter from Georgia who is about to start medical school.
Sachdeva, the son of Indian Hindu immigrants, produces a podcast about sports and politics with a childhood friend, and he offers a precisely detailed—if hallucinatory—Clinton demonology, like a fantasy-football obsessive spitting out statistics. “There’s 47 suspicious deaths around Hillary Clinton. Eleven of them are her personal bodyguards, and you have Bill Clinton’s alleged rape victims,” he says. He lists a number of these figures, explaining the dubious circumstances of their demises. Some of the names are familiar, like McDougal, who died of a heart attack in a Texas prison in 1998. Others are more obscure, at least to anyone who hasn’t put in hours on conspiracy websites.
“Paula Grober, Clinton’s interpreter for the deaf, traveled with Clinton from 1978 to 1992, died in a one-car accident,” Sachdeva says. “There was another one where they found the brakes cut of a motorcycle and he slammed into the back of a truck. That would be Keith Coney.” (According to Clinton conspiracy theorists, Coney, 19, had information about the death of two 17-year-olds who’d witnessed a drug-smuggling operation linked to Bill Clinton.)
“It’s just a bunch of suspicious circumstances that all these people were friends of Hillary Clinton,” Sachdeva says. I asked him where he was getting his information, and he listed a number of sources, including Snopes.com—which has indeed reported on rumors about the Clinton body count but only to debunk them. When I mention this, Sachdeva is unfazed. “I have a propensity to think that there’s a little bit of fire in the smoke,” he says.
Not all the likely Trump voters I spoke to were quite so febrile, but like Sachdeva, they express a loathing that transcends ideology. Denny Butcher, a 44-year-old Army veteran in Raleigh, North Carolina, thinks Barack Obama’s politics are worse than Hillary Clinton’s but finds Obama far more personable. “I was against him from the very beginning, because I feel like he is about as left as left can be, until Bernie Sanders came along,” Butcher says of Obama. “He believes the opposite of what I do on almost every issue.” All the same, he says, “If I met Barack Obama on the street, there’s a good chance I’d say he’s a decent guy. I don’t get that feeling from Hillary Clinton. I don’t feel like she’s a likable person at all. At all. I think she feels like she’s above the law, and she’s above us peasants.”
Butcher was raised to be a Democrat, and he voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. He’s since moved right and voted for Ted Cruz in the North Carolina primary; he plans to vote for Trump in the general. He always disliked Hillary, he says, and his distaste intensified when, as first lady, she was put in charge of health care reform. “I felt like she’s not an elected official and she’s trying to take liberties with a position that was an unelected position. I felt like it was not her job to be involved with legislation,” he says.
In Butcher’s aversion to what he perceived to be Clinton’s sense of entitlement, I started to see how contemporary loathing of Hillary overlaps with the ’90s version. Her enemies’ caricature of her has flipped from Madame Defarge, Charles Dickens’ revolutionary villainess, to Marie Antoinette, symbol of callous aristocracy, but the sense of Clinton’s insulting presumption has remained constant.
Aside from Al Gore, whoever Bill Clinton had put in charge of health care reform would have been unelected; presidents make lots of appointments that have legislative consequences. (No one elected Robert F. Kennedy to be John F. Kennedy’s attorney general.) To me, at least, it sounded as if Butcher was angry that Hillary had stepped outside the role of a typical first lady, that she had transgressed certain gender constraints. But like most Hillary haters, Butcher rejects the idea that gender has anything to do with his antipathy. “Not at all,” he says. “Absolutely not. Nope.”
Also like a lot of people who despise Clinton, Butcher finds her invocations of gender infuriating. “I think she’s trying to tell people, ‘Vote for me because I’m a woman,’ ” he says. “Ignore the fact that I have accomplished practically nothing significant in my whole career in the public eye, but I’m a woman, so vote for me.”
Listening to Butcher brought me back to Rosner. Their politics are very different, but their assessments of Hillary Clinton are strikingly similar. Like Butcher, she’s irritated by what she sees as Clinton’s gender-based pitch. “She’s a grandmother. So am I. Big deal,” Rosner says. Like Butcher, Rosner felt that Clinton had overstepped as first lady. “She and her husband were putting her right out in front, and she didn’t handle herself well,” she says. “She certainly wasn’t a Michelle Obama.” Unlike Hillary, says Rosner, Michelle Obama “seems to say the right thing at the right time, and she is very supportive of her husband and her children, even staying in Washington after they leave office so that one of her children doesn’t have to switch schools. That’s a big deal.” Rosner may be very liberal, but not all our gut reactions are governed by politics.
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It could be that the reasons people give for disliking Clinton have changed simply because she herself has changed. She entered the White House as a brashly self-confident liberal. Early on, some of the president’s advisers sought to undermine her plans for health care reform because they were thought to be insufficiently business-friendly; in response, Carl Bernstein, one of her biographers, quotes her snapping at her husband, “You didn’t get elected to do Wall Street economics.” Then, after the epic repudiation of the 1994 midterms, in which Republicans won a House majority for the first time since 1952, she overcorrected—becoming too cautious, too compromising, too solicitous of entrenched interests. As she would say during her 2000 Senate campaign, “I now come from the school of small steps.”
In other words, people hated Hillary Clinton for being one sort of person, and in response to that she became another sort of person, who people hated for different reasons. But this doesn’t explain why the emotional tenor of the hatred seems so consistent, even as the rationale for it has turned inside out. Perhaps that’s because anti-Hillary animus is only partly about what she does. It’s also driven by some ineffable quality of charisma, or the lack of it.
No doubt, this quality is gendered; Americans tend not to like ambitious women with loud voices. As Rebecca Traister wrote in her recent New York magazine profile of Clinton, “It’s worth asking to what degree charisma, as we have defined it, is a masculine trait. Can a woman appeal to the country in the same way we are used to men doing it?” Elizabeth Warren’s forthright authenticity is often favorably contrasted with Clinton’s calculated persona, but when Warren was running for Senate against Scott Brown, she was also widely painted as dishonest and unlikable. (According to one poll, even Democrats found Brown more personally appealing.) This fits a broader pattern. Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research and the lead researcher on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, says that women who are successful in areas that are culturally coded as male are typically seen as “abrasive, conniving, not trustworthy, and selfish.”
What’s happening to Clinton, says Cooper, “happens to a lot of women. There are millions of people who will say about another woman: She’s really good at her job, I just don’t like her. They think they’re making an objective evaluation, but when we look at the broader analysis, there is a pattern to the bias.”
Among hardcore Trump supporters, the misogyny often isn’t subtle. The Republican National Convention seethed with a visceral, highly personalized, and highly sexualized contempt toward Clinton. Men wore T-shirts that said, “Hillary Sucks but Not Like Monica” on one side and “Trump That Bitch” on the backs. Buttons and bumper stickers read, “Life’s a Bitch: Don’t Vote For One.” One man wore a Hillary mask and sat behind a giant yellow sign saying “Trump vs. Tramp.” Another, an RNC volunteer, was dressed up like Septa Unella from Game of Thrones and held a naked blowup doll with Clinton’s face attached, re-enacting a scene in which Cersei Lannister, a murderous queen, is stripped naked and marched through the streets before jeering throngs. The right-wing fantasy of seeing Clinton degraded and humiliated has rarely been performed so starkly.
Most Americans, however, are not frothing partisans. For many of them, something in addition to sexism is at work in Clinton’s unpopularity—some mystery of mass media connection. There’s a reason actors do screen tests: Not everyone’s charm translates to film and video. For as long as Hillary Clinton has been in public life, people who’ve met in her person have marveled at how much more likable she is in the flesh than she is on television. “What’s remarkable isn’t that she can be funny, spontaneous, and mischievous, and has a loud, throaty laugh; what’s remarkable is the extent to which she has sequestered her personality from the media,” Gates wrote in 1996.
Twenty years later, Traister discovered a similar disconnect. “The conviction that I was in the presence of a capable, charming politician who inspires tremendous excitement would fade and in fact clash dramatically with the impressions I’d get as soon as I left her circle: of a campaign imperiled, a message muddled, unfavorables scarily high,” she wrote. “To be near her is to feel like the campaign is in steady hands; to be at any distance is to fear for the fate of the republic.”
Republican strategist Katie Packer sees parallels between Clinton and Mitt Romney, for whom Packer served as deputy campaign manager in 2012. “In a lot of ways her weaknesses are very similar to Mitt’s weaknesses,” Packer tells me. “She’s somebody who is kind of a policy nerd, somebody who is very solution-oriented. She just does not have great people skills. Because of that, whenever something goes wrong, people don’t give her the benefit of the doubt. They don’t trust her.” Politically, this is a hard dynamic to overcome; Clinton’s efforts to appear relatable only make her seem more calculating. “It comes across as stilted and staged and for a purpose, so it defeats the purpose,” says Packer.
The analogy only goes so far, however, because Romney never attracted the amount of venom that Clinton has, either from within or without his party. Which leads us back to gender. Packer is the co-founder of Burning Glass Consulting, an all-female firm that specializes in helping Republican candidates reach female voters. She has spent a lot of time studying how people react to female candidates. “The benefit you get from being a woman running is, No. 1, you’re seen as more empathetic, more relatable, having deeper feelings about things, not just approaching things in an unemotional way,” Packer says. “And 2, you’re seen as not a typical politician.”
If that’s true, it’s possible that when a woman approaches politics in a coolly pragmatic way—when she shows herself to be, in many ways, a typical politician—it makes people particularly uncomfortable. If Packer is right, not only is Clinton not behaving the way a woman is supposed to behave; she’s not behaving the way a woman politician is supposed to behave. She’s not a mama grizzly like Sarah Palin circa 2008 or a brassy dame like former Texas Gov. Ann Richards. “Because she’s not very good at these qualities that are viewed as more feminine, she loses the benefit on that front, too,” says Packer.
For Democrats, the silver lining is that Clinton’s running against Donald Trump. “I think she won the lottery ticket,” Packer says. According to Packer, there’s a way to make independent and moderate Republican women soften toward Hillary Clinton: Go after her husband’s infidelity. “One thing that causes them to come to her defense is when they feel like she’s being blamed for her husband’s bad behavior,” Packer says. Trump has done exactly that, attacking Hillary as an “enabler” of her husband’s sexual misdeeds. “The one Republican who is incapable of not bullying her is going to be her opponent,” says Packer. “The one Republican who is incapable of showing any empathy in his own right is going to be her opponent.”
That makes it more likely that many voters will do what Brian Greene did and vote for Clinton despite their distaste. Should that happen, it remains to be seen if Hillary hatred shapes her ability to govern. Cooper thinks it’s possible that once she’s no longer explicitly competing for power, the widespread public dislike of her might ebb. “When she announces she’s running for something, her unfavorability increases,” Cooper says of Clinton. “When she’s in a role, her favorability starts to creep up again.” Figures from the Pew Research Center bear this out. Clinton’s favorability ratings fell to 49 percent when she was running for Senate in 2000, then went up to 60 percent when she entered office. They’ve fallen below 50 percent during both presidential campaigns but reached 66 percent when she was secretary of state.
“It may be that the moment she starts to claim more power, it elicits a negative response,” Cooper says. We might soon find out if the same thing happens once the power is hers.