I seem to remember it was a young Susan Sarandon who said that the whole world should be eligible to vote in the American presidential elections, as the US president has an enormous effect on absolutely everyone. I think she was talking about Ronald Reagan at the time, but the sentiment has always been relevant. Probably even more so today.
It is still possible that Donald Trump may become president on 8th November, but the more likely victor is Hillary Clinton, which will mean, that apart from an eight year hiatus for Barack Obama, since 1989, the world’s most powerful nation will have been run by one of two dynasties; the Bushes and the Clintons.
That would probably be reason enough for Hillary Clinton not to be voted in, but there are many other reasons why she is seen as Hobson’s choice; the best of a bad bunch, the least worse of the two most unpopular presidential candidates in recent times.
So, why is Hillary Clinton so reviled?
It is worth looking at a recent article in the Economist, which puts her unique position in American political history into some kind of perspective:
To understand how well-regarded Hillary Clinton was as a senator and then as secretary of state, forsake those closest to her. A coterie of longtime retainers, such as her factotum Huma Abedin and Maura Pally of the Clinton Foundation, appear to worship her with a protective fury that admits no fault. But then also discount the views of those sometime Clinton associates who earn their bread by trashing the Democratic nominee—such as Dick Morris, inventor of the phrase “triangulation” to describe Bill Clinton’s political method. When not writing anti-Hillary polemics, he is chief political columnist of the National Enquirer, a tabloid which describes the 68-year-old candidate as a predatory lesbian on the edge of death.
For a more dispassionate critique of Mrs Clinton, who is reckoned to be the second-most-unpopular presidential nominee ever, after her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, listen to some of the less partial operatives and politicians who have worked with her over the past 25 years. Less favoured Clinton retainers offer more nuanced praise of their boss than the gilded coterie. A workaholic, she is relentlessly demanding of her employees’ time and loyalty and can be icily critical, sometimes unfairly, says an aide who has been drawn into playing a much bigger role in Mrs Clinton’s campaign than she wanted: “Hillary’s not always warm and fuzzy.” But by the standards of most politicians she considers Mrs Clinton a decent boss—one who calls her staffers on their birthdays and when they are bereaved: “Not many senators do that.”
Mrs Clinton’s former congressional colleagues—including the Republicans she wooed assiduously on Capitol Hill, though they had sought to destroy her husband’s presidency, and her, in the 1990s—speak even more admiringly of her. “I got on very well with her, she’s a likeable person. When it comes to dealing with Congress, she’d be a big improvement on Barack Obama,” says Don Nickles, a former Republican senator from Oklahoma who helped wreck the health-care reform Mrs Clinton tried to launch in 1993, and with whom she then worked to extend unemployment benefits. “She’s hard-working, true to her word and very professional,” says Tom Reynolds, a former Republican congressman who collaborated with her in upstate New York. “That’s not just in the Senate. She’s been like that all her life.”
This, to put it mildly, is not a characterisation supported by Mrs Clinton’s ratings. Around 55% of Americans have an unfavourable view of her; about the same number do not trust her. Yet, among those who know Mrs Clinton, even critics praise her integrity. She is a politician, therefore self-interested and cynical at times—yet driven, they say, by an overarching desire to improve America. More surprising, given the many scandals she has been involved in, including an ongoing furore over her use of a private e-mail server as secretary of state, not many of those who have dealt with her seem to think her particularly shifty. Even some of her foes say the concern about her probity is overblown. “People can go back decades and perhaps criticise some of the judgments that were made,” Michael Chertoff, who was the Republican lead counsel in one of the first probes into Mrs Clinton, the Senate Whitewater Committee, but has endorsed her, told Bloomberg. “That is very, very insignificant compared to the fundamental issue of how to protect the country.”
What then explains the depths of Mrs Clinton’s unpopularity, which on November 8th will drive millions of Americans to justify voting for a man whom they have heard boast of groping women? Having opened up a six-point lead in recent weeks, she is nonetheless likely to prevail. Yet she would return to the White House as its most-reviled new occupant of modern times. Mr Trump has suggested she could even be assassinated—and the experience of his rallies suggests he might be right. Neck veins thrumming, his supporters call Mrs Clinton “evil”, and a “killer”.
Yet the antipathy to Mrs Clinton is not merely a right-wing hate fantasy: she is also mistrusted within her party. Almost a third of Democrats said they disagreed with the FBI’s recent decision not to prosecute her—their presidential candidate—over her e-mail arrangements. It is hard to think of another politician whose public image is so at odds with the judgment of her peers.
For Mrs Clinton’s cheerleaders, the disparity is enough to prove she has been traduced. Yet politics is about winning over the public, as well as colleagues, and the fact that Mrs Clinton is much less good at this is partly her fault. For such a practised politician—she delivered her first major address, on graduating from Wellesley College, almost half a century ago—she is a dreadful public speaker. Her speeches are mostly wonkish and dull, workaday constructions of a politician who appears to view human progress as a series of nudging policy improvements. Mr Obama’s vision is not dissimilar; but where the president elevates it with magical rhetoric, Mrs Clinton’s performance is so hammy as to annoy. “She sucks the life out of a room,” groans a member of her husband’s separate (and in fact rival) adoring coterie.
This hurt her during her first presidential run, in 2008, when the public mood was less radically against the establishment politics that Mrs Clinton encapsulates almost to the point of parody. With trust in the federal government now at the lowest sustained level ever recorded, the damage was bound to be worse this time. Indeed, on the left, Mrs Clinton is especially unpopular among younger voters, who are most mistrustful of the government and most liable to demand radical change.
Hence their voluble support for Bernie Sanders, whose outsiderish credentials were confirmed by the fact that he had only recently joined the party whose nomination he sought. By pillorying Mrs Clinton as an apologist for a predatory elite—to which effort her lucrative past speechmaking on Wall Street provided ammunition—the Vermont senator assisted in her vilification. Over the course of the primaries, her favourability ratings worsened especially among millennials; 60% voted for Mr Obama in 2012, but by the time Mr Sanders threw in the towel, only 31% had a positive view of Mrs Clinton.
This was not only true of millennial men but also of women; the latter have proved largely unmoved by the prospect of America’s first woman president. Older women, who backed Mrs Clinton in the primaries by big margins, are often enraged by this. Madeleine Albright, a previous secretary of state, warned of a “special place in hell” for women who do not support other women. Yet it seems younger women do not see the logic of this, perhaps because they are less likely to have experienced maternity leave and gender-related pay disparities, two areas where women are most likely to report sexism.
In short, it is also hard to think of a politician less suited than Mrs Clinton to combating America’s rock-throwing mood. But as an explanation for the strength of America’s antipathy to her, this is inadequate—not least because she was until recently one of America’s most popular figures. When she left the State Department, in 2013, 65% of Americans had a favourable view of her. Why do almost as many now feel the reverse?
Two bits of context are important. First, Mrs Clinton has been here before. Almost from the moment she came to national attention, in 1991 during her husband’s first presidential campaign, people took against her. “Like horse-racing, Hillary-hating has become one of those national pastimes which unite the elite and lumpen,” read a profile of the by-then beleaguered First Lady in the New Yorker in 1996. The second bit of background is that no one quite knew why.
That Mrs Clinton kept getting mired in scandals—including, by 1996, an alleged conflict of interest over a rotten property investment the Clintons had made in Arkansas—plainly didn’t help. They left an impression of her that was often unflattering. She came across as secretive and perhaps not quite punctilious in her observance of the law. There were suggestions she had overcharged clients of her legal practice (though she broke no law). But the most serious allegations, including several pursued by Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who uncovered Mr Clinton’s dallying with Monica Lewinsky, were dismissed as unproven or baseless.
A better characterisation of the antipathy to Mrs Clinton, which doubts about her probity reflected, was a vaguer sense that there was something inappropriate about her. This dogged her in Arkansas, where she was considered too independent-minded to be the First Lady of a southern state. It was unfair; even her reluctance to take her husband’s name was controversial. Yet sympathisers struggled with the way the personal and professional seemed to overlap with Mrs Clinton.
The wellspring of that concern was the Clintons’ marriage. To their detractors, it has always seemed a cold-hearted professional agreement, mainly to the advantage of Mrs Clinton. Yet those who saw her as cynically piggybacking on her husband’s success underrated her accomplishments; by her mid-20s, she was a Yale legal scholar and social activist of national repute; her speech at Wellesley had been widely covered in the press. Moreover, the Clintons were always upfront about their collaboration; Mr Clinton promised a “two for the price of one” presidency. And if that could help explain why Mrs Clinton never forsook her adulterous husband, something her critics also object to, there have been stranger marriages.
Even now—though it is reported Mr Clinton’s philandering never ended—friends of the couple convincingly describe their mutual affection. “They’re often holding hands,” says an aide to Mrs Clinton. Yet if their partnership was deeply rooted , that didn’t mean America had to like it. Indeed, there were reasons not to.
During her husband’s first presidential run, Mrs Clinton was allegedly involved in trashing the reputations of women who had claimed to have had affairs with him. It was the sort of allegation that might be forgiven in a jealous wife, or in a professional campaign manager. But in a woman who claimed to believe her husband’s protestations of innocence, and an avowed feminist, it seemed obnoxious.
As the most powerful First Lady there had ever been—with an office in the West Wing and responsibility for reforming a health-care system that represented 15% of the economy—she faced stiffer attacks. Again, these were often exaggerated responses to errors for which she was only partly to blame. “Hillarycare” was too complicated and pursued too secretively. But though the unelected Mrs Clinton was partly to blame, so was her husband. Yet it was she who got it in the neck. At a speech she gave for the reform in Seattle, protesters waved “Heil Hillary” placards and invited her to “Fly yo’ broom”.
Both Clintons were flawed. Yet the ferocity of such barrages reflected something more: the deep fault-lines the couple were straddling. The first baby-boomer president and his pushy wife represented a cultural shift that much of America feared. “She was not only a baby-boomer but a strong woman, which was felt by some to be a threat,” says Robert Reich, labour secretary in Mr Clinton’s administration. The obvious inference, that Mrs Clinton’s unpopularity was fuelled by sexism, has always annoyed her critics almost as much as she has. But it is otherwise hard to explain the gap between the measured criticism Mrs Clinton’s behaviour has sometimes invited and the unbridled loathing that has shown up in its place.
It was also apparent in the fact that Mrs Clinton’s standing improved after the revelation of her husband’s canoodling with Ms Lewinsky. Recast as a wronged woman, a less threatening female archetype, she seemed more likeable. Moreover, the criticisms most often levelled at Mrs Clinton are plainly sexist. She is said to be “shrill”, “ambitious” and, in the gutter where Mr Trump fills his opposition files, deviant.
Whenever she has sought power, including in her two Senate and first presidential campaigns, such criticisms have been aired, and in the latter case her ratings plunged. That she was in for another pounding this time was predictable—yet the pitch of loathing is unprecedented.
The press had a hand in that. An analysis by researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School of eight mainstream outlets, including CBS, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, found they were more critical of Mrs Clinton than any other Republican or Democratic candidate. In the first six months of last year, she was the subject of three negative statements for every positive one; Mr Trump received two accolades for every carp. “Whereas media coverage helped build up Trump,” the researchers concluded, “It helped tear down Clinton.”
An obvious explanation is that Mrs Clinton’s strengths, including the most detailed platform of any candidate, do not make interesting news. Compared with the surprising enthusiasm for Mr Sanders, they were therefore hardly covered. (Maybe that was a good thing; the Harvard researchers found Mrs Clinton was the only candidate whose platform received net negative coverage.)
And, as so often, she was also quickly enshrouded by scandals. These concern her alleged culpability for the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi in 2012; her lucrative speechmaking; the governance arrangements at the Clintons’ foundation; and her private e-mail server, which was revealed in March 2015, shortly before she announced her run. Within weeks, Mrs Clinton the super-qualified front-runner had been recast as a scandal-dogged fading star. In the first year of her campaign, her net favourability fell by 20 points.
Also characteristically, Mrs Clinton was partly to blame. However reasonably she must fear harassment, her e-mail arrangements and protracted efforts to deny there was anything wrong with them warrant criticism. Or as Joe Lieberman, a former Democratic senator and vice-presidential candidate, puts it: “The Clintons have been through a lot, they’ve had a lot of people searching through their garbage, but even so…” All the same, the weakness of her candidacy and the seriousness of her alleged offences have been exaggerated.
The predominant journalistic take on Mrs Clinton’s primary campaign was that she risked losing to a wacky socialist no-hoper. In fact, she crushed Mr Sanders so utterly—by almost 4m votes, in the end—he clearly never stood a chance. Coverage of the scandals has been even more misleading. On Benghazi, which bothers Mr Trump’s supporters especially (at his rallies, people reel off lists of witnesses they say Mrs Clinton has had killed) seven official investigations have shown she has no case to answer. Her speeches and activities at the foundation have also been exaggerated; both were politically fatheaded but, on the evidence available, not corrupt.
Because she was culpable over her “damn e-mails”, in Mr Sanders’s phrase, it is a more complicated case. Yet the prevailing view of the scandal, promulgated by the media and Mr Trump, that her misdeeds were serious enough to warrant an FBI indictment, always looked fallacious, and so it proved. A 250-page FBI report into its investigation into the affair, describes Mrs Clinton inheriting an institution with shambolic communication procedures, which she and her too-pliant aides perpetuated. It suggests her e-mail arrangement was motivated chiefly, as she maintained, by her desire to send private and personal e-mails from a single device, her BlackBerry. That was partly because Mrs Clinton is so technophobic she does not know how to use a desktop computer. It is also reasonable to assume the arrangement was intended to give her maximum privacy. Either way, it was permitted.
The problem was that 193 e-mails containing classified information were exposed to Mrs Clinton’s private server, which was not permitted. Yet the FBI, predictably, concluded Mrs Clinton’s offence was not premeditated, a usual condition for a prosecution in such cases. In the annals of political misdeeds, future historians will not pause on Mrs Clinton’s e-mails long. But they will marvel at how an exaggerated belief in her malfeasance almost created the conditions for Mr Trump to seize the White House.
What, in the end, is fuelling that belief? Mrs Clinton’s political failings and the insurgent mood are plainly contributing. Yet, even if you are inclined to judge Mrs Clinton harshly, it is hard not to conclude that latent sexism is a bigger reason for her struggles. With his feel for America’s worst instincts, Mr Trump sought to arouse a misogynist repulse to Mrs Clinton from the start. When she left a debate stage during the primaries to use the lavatory, he called it “disgusting”. A tweet reading “If Hillary can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?” was retweeted from his Twitter account (naturally, he said he knew nothing about it).
He now suggests his opponent and former wedding-guest (“a terrific woman,” he used to call her,) is guilty of murder and adultery. His supporters wear T-shirts reading “Trump that bitch” and “Hillary sucks, but not like Monica”. More than half of white men, the engine-room of Hillary hatred, say they have a “very unfavourable” view of her—20 percentage points more than said the same of Mr Obama, whom they did not care for, in 2012.
They are responsible for the pitch of Hillary-hatred in this election. It always seemed likely that women would, in the end, rally against that assault. And so, belatedly, they have, with a wave of women voters now breaking for Mrs Clinton. She leads among women by 20 points, while Mr Trump leads with men by seven. If that gender gap holds, it would be the biggest ever. According to simulations by Nate Silver, a data guru, if only women voted, Mrs Clinton would win with 458 electoral college votes to Mr Trump’s 80. If only men voted, he would win.
This indicates the vast and countervailing social pressures, towards and against change, colliding in this election. Mrs Clinton, who has never felt able to protest against the chauvinism she has encountered, must feel vindicated, in a sense. But she is lucky, too. In Mr Sanders and Mr Trump, she has faced two opponents who could scarcely have been better designed to exaggerate her weaknesses and denigrate her strengths. Yet they were also, perhaps, the only plausible opponents that Mrs Clinton could actually beat.