On both sides of America’s ideological hellmouth, people with a stable, lucid, reasonable opinion of Hillary Rodham Clinton are so rare that we aren’t sure whether they ought to be investigated by a new House Un-American Activities Committee or protected by the Audubon Society. Even though she beat Donald J. Trump by three million votes before the Electoral College did its magic Dancing With the Stars and Stripes bit, she’s more unpopular these days than Trump himself. Talk about shattering a glass floor.
One recent poll found that a scant 30 percent of the public thinks favorably of Clinton, compared to Trump’s beleaguered but apparently irreducible 36. This is fairly peculiar, considering that she (a) holds no office, (b) hasn’t done much of anything since last November that’s worth getting pissed off about and © was voted the woman in the world Americans most admire a record 20 times, most recently in 2015. Animosity usually softens once a polarizing political figure is safely out to to pasture: just ask America’s favorite Sunday painter, aka the artist formerly known as Dubya. In Clinton’s case, it’s grown more intense.
Last week, when her campaign memoir What Happened landed with an enameled thud in bookstores, Hillary-phobia went nuclear all over again. It was as if everybody from unreconstructed Bernie Sanders partisans to brass-knuckle-dragging Rush Limbaugh fans had missed the adrenaline high of a fresh excuse to hate her guts. Even friendly (male) Democrats who can utter Hillary’s name without instantly mimicking the climactic scene of Old Yeller, like Al Franken, opined that she’d screwed the pooch by airing her 2016 grievances in print when the party needed to “move on.”
In case you’re curious, it’s not a bad book. Complaining that What Happened is self-justifying and out to settle scores amounts to ID’ing its genre, not clinching a triumphant case for Hillary’s unique wickedness. On top of that, the swipes at Sanders and even Joe Biden that everybody cherry-picked for clickbait amount to a few testy paragraphs of a 494-page book. For long stretches, the rest of it showcases Hillary The Wonk (always her comfort zone), Hillary The Paul(a) Revere She Wishes We’d Listened To, and—okay, here’s where things get tricky—Hillary The Real Person You Might Even Consider Empathizing With If You’re On Acid.
Nothing measures her revolutionary importance like the hatred she inspired.
If frustrated Democrats want her to take the ultimate blame for her 2016 defeat, she does. “I felt I had let everyone down. Because I had,” she writes early on. In fact, she and her ghostwriters feel obliged to include more of these “my bad” moments than any failed presidential candidate with a penis would, which is poignant. But she wouldn’t be human if, on top of second-guessing and ruing her mistakes, she didn’t pile up reminders of the “headwinds” that helped account for her falling short in the home stretch. They range from Russia’s interference on Trump’s behalf to how James Comey “shivved” her (it’s the single most provocative word in What Happened) by going public with the reopening of the investigation of her emails shortly before Election Day.
Wait. Hillary Clinton, human? Get outta here. She’s famous for her inability to convincingly inhabit the humdrum realm of emotional experience so-called “ordinary” people do, no matter how she natters on about how much she loves Bill and they both love Chelsea and the grandkids. Because Bill is less sincere than she’ll ever be, but infinitely better at faking it, the idea that she’s genuinely head over heels for the taffy-mouthed old fraud is more disturbing—or harder to compute, anyway—than the common assumption that their marriage is a power-grabbing sham.
Even so, America needs to make up its collective mind someday whether she’s awful because she’s a politician or because she’s no damn good at it. Compared to Bill’s syrupy zest for fraudulence, it isn’t totally to Hillary’s discredit that she behaved on the campaign trail like an ICU patient whose body was rejecting its latest organ transplant. Her demeanor as a candidate never stopped signaling the phoniness of the overly calculated, too-many-cooks mold she’d been poured into, but didn’t dare break. Bill’s love of the spotlight is an adolescent crush he never got over. Hillary has always treated the spotlight like the Voldemort she’s got to defeat to become Hillary Potter.
That doesn’t mean we think of her as Saint Hillary. Nobody in political life is a saint, Bernie included: it’s just the wrong skill set. We could go on until doomsday about Clinton’s failings, sins, and outsize baggage, starting with the enraging conviction she and Bill share that their virtue is too self-evident for any criticism of their often shaky ethics to be justified. Then there’s her/their flagrant appetite for the perks of coziness with the One Percent, symbolized in 2016 voters’ minds—with considerable help from both Sanders and Trump—by her lucrative Wall Street speaking fees. Funnily enough, even though What Happened includes a defense of those speeches, the dread name Goldman Sachs appears nowhere in the text.
On the other hand, none of this compromising stuff exactly makes her the Antichrist, certainly not compared to any male political mucky-muck who’s lasted as long as she has as on every news cycle’s front burner. Neither do “those damn emails,” which rate a chapter of What Happened to themselves. Clinton’s hunch is that future historians will be bewildered they were the dominant news story of the 2016 election, and the odds are she’s not wrong.
It was definitely dumb of her to use a private server while Secretary of State, which was was rap-on-the-knuckles stuff at best. By now, though, a widespread impression exists that her emails were crammed with recklessly shared national security secrets or rampant evidence of criminality, neither of which is true. People also get her emails confused with the WikiLeaks hack of the DNC’s computer records, but those didn’t divulge anything criminal either—just lots of embarrassing tittle-tattle Sanders partisans could seize on as evidence the Establishment was biased against him, which is how it usually goes with insurgent candidacies. That’s why they call them insurgents.
She may end up looking more consequential than Barack Obama.
So far as we can tell, Bernie’s fans still haven’t come to grips with the fact that the flood of Russia-spawned, virulently anti-Clinton smears disseminated on social media targeted them along with Trump’s supporters. Nor will we ever know for sure how many Sandersistas fell for and then helped popularize this bilge, which was ideally suited to weaponizing their distrust of her. No matter how chilling the MAGA crowd’s “Lock her up!” chants about “Crooked Hillary” were, the preferred left-wing epithet for her—“Killary”—may have been even more grotesque. But Kremlin or no Kremlin, the more demented attacks on Clinton would hardly have gotten much traction if demonizing her hadn’t been a nationwide addiction for a quarter of a century.
In What Happened, she fairly implausibly claims to be baffled by the “venom” she provokes; “I’ve been called divisive more times than I can count,” she writes, “and for the life of me, I can’t understand why.” Then, going way out on a limb, she offers this daring piece of speculation: “I think it’s partly because I’m a woman.”
What does she mean, “partly”? Ever since Bill’s first presidential campaign, Hillary hasn’t just been “a” woman. In American politics, she’s been “the” woman, or That Woman, the same way New Deal-phobic Republican plutocrats used to call Franklin D. Roosevelt “That Man” during the Great Depression. Unless Madonna counts, which she kind of does or did if you’re a 1980s sentimentalist, nobody else in Clinton’s megawatt-celebrity league has so thoroughly combined the jobs of lightning rod and battering ram in America’s female-empowerment semifinals. Because of that, losing the White House might not stop her from being seen down the road as more historically consequential than Bill was.
She may even end up looking more consequential than Barack Obama, because his temperament deflected racial stereotypes (e.g., the Angry Black Man) in a way that hers couldn’t deflect sexist ones, starting with being “ambitious.” Nothing measures her revolutionary importance like the hatred she inspired and still does even now. Call us fools, but we’d bet anything a day will come when she’s seen as more sinned against than sinning.