It is difficult to tally how many conversations I have had with someone making extreme, paranoid and hateful remarks about Hillary Clinton. Often the accuser’s eyes open wide, spittle begins to form at the corner of his lips, and he declares that the world’s greatest monster is the former senator and secretary of state.
Once in a bar, two acquaintances rambled at torturous length about the email “scandal.” They had no clue what the then-presidential candidate had plotted with her private server, but they knew it was diabolical. No evidence is necessary if the suspect is Hillary Clinton — a villain who rivals Professor Moriarty and Saddam Hussein.
My simple questions regarding Clinton’s exoneration by the Justice Department, internal State Department review and FBI report made it painfully clear that if these two men were not obsessed with a minor email storage procedure, they would find another reason to cast Clinton into the fires of hell. First on the fringes of the right wing and eventually the general population, Americans since the early 1990s have condemned the woman for unprovable offense upon unverifiable innuendo. It is likely that no modern public figure has faced greater hostility, slander and scrutiny.
A close friend of mine, whom I immensely admire, enthusiastically supported Sen. Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary, but was reticent to vote for Clinton. “She is deceitful by default,” he said. The problem with adopting an absolute position is that it creates circular logic. If Hillary Clinton is incapable of telling the truth, then every statement she utters is a lie. The axiom eliminates the need for investigation of thoughtful evaluation. The case is closed before it opens.
Susan Bordo, a Pulitzer Prize nominee and feminist literary critic, interrogates the American media and political discourse in her new book, “The Destruction of Hillary Clinton,” with the hope of discovering how and why the flawed but largely noble political figure became the subject of such widespread scorn that survey respondents have consistently found her “less trustworthy” than her 2016 opponent, Donald Trump, a compulsive liar and snake oil-soaked con man.
The result is an important but incomplete examination of the strange political life of Hillary Clinton. Bordo has provided an interpretively annotated campaign narrative, re-creating the horror show of 2016 almost week by week. Due to no fault of Bordo, who writes in an accessible and enjoyable style, the reading experience is as sickening as ingesting medicine meant to induce vomiting because we know how awfully the story ends.
Bordo sharpens her focus most clearly and closely on sexism, exposing how gender stereotypes, misogynistic assumptions and chauvinistic typecasting have made it nearly impossible for Clinton or her supporters to influence, much less control, public perceptions about her ideology and candidacy.
In the 1990s, Bordo reminds readers, commentators objected to Clinton, calling her “Lady Macbeth of Little Rock” and an “aspiring philosopher queen.” Critics abhorred her radical feminism, believing she was an unsympathetic moralist. In 2016 she was cartoonishly amoral. For the far left or hard right, she didn’t seem to possess any redeeming virtues and appeared to be a self-serving elitist who counted “Clinton cash,” to quote the title of a best-selling book, while watching Americans die in Benghazi and her Wall Street friends liquidate middle class wealth.
Millions of Americans also believe without awareness of cognitive dissonance, Clinton is a master manipulator of the political pair of aces — the woman’s card and victim card — and simultaneously an enabler of her husband’s adulterous affairs.
The incoherence of Clinton hatred becomes more decipherable when Bordo cites polling data demonstrating that in 2015 Americans routinely ranked “least trustworthy” alongside Clinton, Carly Fiorina — an obscure Republican candidate with no prior experience in politics. A recent poll, not yet available when Bordo took to writing, has showed that any Democrat but Elizabeth Warren would currently defeat Donald Trump in an election. Can anyone guess what Clinton, Fiorina and Warren have in common?
Bordo explores familiar territory when she illustrates her feminist thesis with powerful examples about misperception. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both appeared as if their jugulars would explode mid-speech as they bellowed at rallies, their faces turning red, but only Clinton faced relentless mockery and criticism for her “shrill” and “loud” delivery.
Many Americans, committed to nothing but blindness, still insist that sexism played no role in the outcome of the 2016 presidential race. That’s even with the knowledge that 13 women accused Donald Trump of sexual harassment and assault, after leaked footage of his boasts of similar criminal behavior, failed to resonate with the same power as questions surrounding Clinton’s email decisions and habits as secretary of state.
Bordo deftly handles the email issue to cast her story with identifiable culprits responsible for the “destruction of Hillary Clinton.” James Comey, a chronic abuser of his power and the hideously perfect personification of the FBI’s right-wing culture, is the head snake, but there are other important characters slithering around the wreckage.
Bernie Sanders, the progressive revivalist and faith healer, began his campaign with the famous exhortation, “Enough with the damn emails,” but soon began castigating Clinton as a counterfeit progressive firmly resting underneath a manhole of Wall Street. With clever, roundabout phrasing, he would find a way to pair the word “integrity” with the email triviality and to reference the popular classification of Clinton as “lesser of two evils.” The Sanders doctrine, assigning authenticity to him alone, was not something his religiously fervent supporters would soon forget. It did not help that, for reasons of ego or something else as yet unexplained, Sanders stayed in the race long after it was all but impossible for him to win.
Various members of the media contributed to the destruction. Bordo makes the most of a Harvard University study of the primary showing that even aside from the email “scandal,” 84 percent of the television news coverage of the Clinton campaign was negative, compared with 43 percent for Trump’s and 17 percent for Sanders’.
The avalanche of attacks on Clinton followed the mass media’s fixation on, what Daniel Boorstin, called “pseudo-events.” “A pseudo-event,” Bordo writes, “is something that acquires authority not because it is accurate, but simply because the media has reported it, repeated, exaggerated it, replayed it, and made a mantra of it.”
The most absurd pseudo-event, among many possibilities, was the “serious” discussion regarding Clinton’s health after she almost collapsed during a spell with pneumonia. Speculation that Clinton was near death dominated social media, while media outlets asked what Clinton was hiding. As of the time of this writing, Hillary Clinton is still alive.
The existence of Hillary Clinton is objectionable to many Americans. In a strange and self-serving review of “The Destruction of Hillary Clinton,” Sarah Jones, the social media editor at the New Republic, accuses Susan Borno of “canonizing and infantilizing” Clinton before mawkishly defending millennials who refused to support the Democratic nominee for president.
Jones is correct that Bordo undermines her credibility by entirely ignoring the failures, errors and injurious decisions of the Clinton campaign, but the crucial choice is one of emphasis. In telling the story of Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton, and in attempting to explain an outspoken buffoon and bigot’s rise to the office of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy, is it really best to focus on how Clinton should have spent more time in Wisconsin? Jones actually devotes attention to how Clinton supported raising the minimum wage to $12, while Sanders went for the full $15. The $3 difference will surely comfort elderly people, who may no longer receive Meal on Wheels services, and the poor teenagers who, thanks to Trump, may not be able to apply for Pell grants for college.
It is on the matter of accountability for the suicidal populism of the American people that Bordo also fails. The entire time I spent reading “The Destruction of Hillary Clinton,” I kept asking, but why? Why did so many people — especially men — believe all the smears and fall for all the tricks against Clinton? The power of propaganda is awe-inspiring, and the influence of the mediocre mass media is immeasurable, but there are flaws of character and intelligence among large swaths of the general public rendering people susceptible to the allure of pseudo-event reporting.
Gore Vidal recalled a private conversation he had with Hillary Clinton when he asked her why so many people, “especially the most ignorant of the population,” to use his words, “straight white men,” hate her. She laughed, and with a jocular delivery answered, “I remind them of their ex-wives.” Vidal added that Clinton has a sardonic sense of humor much too witty and sharp for the American people.
Bordo approaches Vidal’s depth of insight when she wonders if the young women who despise Clinton do so because she reminds them of their mothers. Bordo tosses out this gem and pulls it back after only a paragraph, like a rock band playing a few seconds of a classic riff only to abandon the song altogether.
It is easy to undress Comey for his obvious and odious misdeeds, just as it is straightforward business to ridicule the mainstream television media for sexist reportage. The real task awaiting the bold writer is to inspect a large percentage of the American people for the deformities and defects of intellect that would allow them to select Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. In this same population, large numbers disbelieve evolutionary biology but support the torture of terrorism suspects.
During one of my conversations with a rabid opponent of Lucifer — I mean, Hillary — I noticed that he used the exact same language to bash and brand the politician as he did to insult his wife. I told him I was appalled by the language he used to describe his spouse, but never followed up on the Clinton connection.
I have a feeling that the real story behind the “destruction of Hillary Clinton” is visible at that intersection.