Hillary Clinton uses her new memoir to draw parallels between Donald Trump’s “war on truth” and the Soviet Union and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
“Attempting to define reality is a core feature of authoritarianism,” the defeated presidential candidate writes in What Happened, published on Tuesday. “This is what the Soviets did when they erased political dissidents from historical photos. This is what happens in George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, when a torturer holds up four fingers and delivers electric shocks until his prisoner sees five fingers as ordered.”
The goal is to make you question logic and and reason and to sow mistrust, Clinton writes. “For Trump, as with so much he does, it’s about simple dominance.”
She argues that Trump has taken “the war on truth” to a whole new level. “If he stood up tomorrow and declared that the Earth is flat, his counselor Kellyanne Conway might just go on Fox News and defend it as an ‘alternative fact,’ and too many people would believe it.”
The cathartic 469-page memoir is heartfelt, honest and at times funny as it tries to come to grips with Clinton’s personally and politically catastrophic defeat last November. She identifies many reasons, including racism, sexism, the late intervention of the FBI and her own mistakes.
She writes: “I was running a traditional presidential campaign with carefully thought-out policies and painstakingly built coalitions, while Trump was running a reality TV show that expertly and relentlessly stoked Americans’ anger and resentment. I was giving speeches laying out how to solve the country’s problems. He was ranting on Twitter.”
Clinton peppers the book with insults aimed at Trump. These include: “a clear and present danger to the country and the world”; “he’d remade himself from tabloid scoundrel into right-wing crank”; “for Trump, if everyone’s down in the mud with him, then he’s no dirtier than anyone else”; “he had no ideological core apart from his towering self-regard, which blotted out all hope of learning or growing”.
Clinton also shows little affection for her rival for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, identifying him as another causal factor in her defeat. “His attacks caused lasting damage, making it harder to unify progressives in the general election and paving the way for Trump’s ‘Crooked Hillary’ campaign. I don’t know if that bothered Bernie or not.”
Clinton was hammered by both Sanders and Trump over her paid speeches to Wall Street. She admits these were a “mistake”, explaining: “Just because many former government officials have been paid large fees to give speeches, I shouldn’t have assumed it was okay for me to do it. Especially after the financial crisis of 2008-09, I should have realized it would be bad ‘optics’ and stayed away from anything having to do with Wall Street. I didn’t. That’s on me.”
The Russia factor
The Clinton campaign’s frustration with a lack of media attention toward reported attempts by Moscow to interfere with the race were well-known. But Clinton dedicates a lengthy section not simply to how she and her aides became increasingly aware of Russian efforts, but also to warn that Vladimir Putin has only just scratched the surface.
Clinton attests to sharing a relationship with Putin that has long been “sour”, saying of the Russian president: “Putin doesn’t respect women and despises anyone who stands up to him, so I’m a double problem.”
It was for that reason, and her desire to pursue a more hawkish posture toward Russia, that Putin had developed a “personal vendetta” against her, Clinton writes.
But, she writes, she would not have anticipated the assault that was subsequently waged against her campaign, and the minimizing of Russia’s role behind it.
“This wasn’t the normal rough-and-tumble of politics,” Clinton writes. “This was – there’s no other word for it – war.”
The wounds are reopened with each revelation about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Clinton confessed that she has followed “every twist and turn”.
As one of the young attorneys who worked for the House judiciary committee’s impeachment inquiry into Richard Nixon, Clinton advises the Trump-Russia investigation is “much more serious” than Watergate.
Each time a new shoe drops, Clinton can’t help but hear Trump’s infamous words to her in their final debate when she confronted him over his affinity for Putin: “No puppet. You’re the puppet.”
“This man is President of the United States,” Clinton writes, “And no one is happier than Vladimir Putin.”
But her emails
Clinton is at her most scathing when she reflects on the coverage of her decision to use a private email server as secretary of state. In a chapter dedicated to what she calls the single most decisive factor in her loss, Clinton envisions a history class, 30 years from now, in which students learn about the election that “brought to power the least experienced, least knowledgeable, least competent President our country has ever had”.
“Something must have gone horribly wrong,” Clinton writes, “then you hear that one issue dominated press coverage and public debate in that race more than any other.”
“‘Climate change?’ you ask. ‘Health care?’ ‘No,’ your teacher responds. ‘Emails.’”
The imaginary conversation continues, with students asking if a crime was committed or damage to national security. “‘No and no,’ the teacher replies with a shrug … Sound ridiculous? I agree.”
She ultimately blames FBI director James Comey, who 11 days before the vote told Congress that the agency had uncovered a new stash of Clinton-related emails, as being decisive in her loss. “My team battled serious headwinds to win the popular vote, and if not for the dramatic intervention of the FBI director in the final days, I believe that in spite of everything, we would have won the White House.”
‘On being a woman in politics’
This is the title of a powerful chapter in the book. In it Clinton argues that sexism and misogyny played a role in the 2016 election. “Exhibit A is that a flagrantly sexist candidate won,” she writes. “A whole lot of people listened to the tape of him bragging about sexually assaulting women, shrugged, and said, ‘He still gets my vote.’”
But Trump did not invent such attitudes, she continues, describing sexism and misogyny as “endemic” in America, pointing as evidence to the YouTube comments or Twitter replies when a woman dares to voice a political opinion. To say it is not easy to be a woman in politics is an understatement, she goes on.
“It can be excruciating, humiliating. The moment a woman steps forward and says, ‘I’m running for office’, it begins: the analysis of her face, her body, her voice, her demeanour; the diminishment of her stature, her ideas, her accomplishments, her integrity.”
The former secretary of state admits that she hesitates to go on, mindful that her words might act as deterrent to women considering a career in politics. “I can’t think of a single woman in politics who doesn’t have stories to tell. Not one.
“For the record, it hurts to be torn apart. It may seem like it doesn’t bother me to be called terrible names or have my looks mocked viciously, but it does. I’m used to it – I’ve grown what Eleanor Roosevelt said women in politics need: a skin as thick as a rhinoceros hide.”
Clinton admits she was taken aback by the “flood of hatred” that only seemed to grow as election day drew nearer, with crowds at rallies calling for her imprisonment and T-shirts depicting her severed head like Medusa. “Now people seemed to think I was evil. Not just ‘not my cup of tea’ but evil. It was flabbergasting and frightening. Was this all because I’m a woman? No. But I believe it was motivation for some of those chanters and some of that bile.”
In an episode that emerged in previews of the book, Clinton recalls how Trump hovered behind her during the second presidential debate, two days after the released of the Access Hollywood tape in which he boasted about grabbing women’s genitals. “Now we were on a small stage and no matter where I walked, he followed me closely, staring at me, making faces. It was incredibly uncomfortable. He was literally breathing down my neck. My skin crawled.”
What to wear
Clinton’s pantsuits became a trademark – a white suit to accept the Democratic nomination; red, white and blue suits to debate Trump three times. Clinton supporters formed an invitation-only Facebook group called Pantsuit Nation.
“As a woman running for President, I liked the visual cue that I was different from the men but also familiar. A uniform was also an antidistraction technique: since there wasn’t much to say or report on what I wore, maybe people would focus on what I was saying instead.”
If there is one regret Clinton singles out in her book, it is comments she made that, while taken out of context, reverberated across middle America with irreversible consequences. “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” she said.
She had a plan to reinvest in opportunities for coal miners, whose jobs had been replaced by a 21st century economy. But Clinton acknowledges candidates were trained not to produce such devastating soundbites. “If you were already primed to believe the worst about me, here was confirmation,” she writes. “I felt absolutely sick about the whole thing. I clarified and apologized and pointed to my detailed plan to invest in coal communities. But the damage was done.”
Clinton agonised over whether to attend. “After the mean-spirited campaign Trump ran, there was a decent chance I’d get booed or be met with ‘Lock her up!’ chants if I went.” But she was persuaded to be there after checking with George W Bush and Jimmy Carter, both of whom had decided to attend.
“At some point in the day’s proceedings, Michelle and I shared a rueful look. It said, ‘Can you believe this?’”
Clinton asks poignantly: “What would I have said if it were me up there?” To be the first woman to take the oath would have been “an extraordinary honor”.
Trump’s inaugural address was “dark and dystopian”, she writes. “I heard it as a howl straight from the white nationalist gut.”
“‘That was some weird shit,’ George W reportedly said with characteristic Texan bluntness. I couldn’t have agreed more.”
So what happened?
Along with her blunders and Comey, Clinton refuses to bow down to the notion that the election was not about race. When those who voted for Trump listed their top priorities as national security and immigration, Clinton writes, “that’s a polite way of saying many of these voters were worried about people of color — especially blacks, Mexicans and Muslims, threatening their way of life.”
Cautious not to indict all of Trump’s supporters as racist or xenophobic, Clinton nonetheless states: “You had to be deaf to miss the coded language and racially charged resentment powering Trump’s campaign.”
But she adds: “I go back over my own shortcomings and the mistakes we made. I take responsibility for all of them. You can blame the data, blame the message, blame anything you want – but I was the candidate. It was my campaign. Those were my decisions.”