They were everywhere this summer, the wanna-be statesmen, the failed comedians, the conspiracy theorists and entrepreneurs with political convictions, or absolutely no convictions, selling the national id. In Cleveland, they trawled the streets outside the Republican National Convention, shouting, “Hillary’s lies matter!” or “Hillary for prison!” – the slogans stamped on buttons, T-shirts, bumper stickers, decals, trucker hats, hoodies, onesies. At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, diehards in Bernie 2016 shirts held signs reading “#NeverHillary” or “Shillary,” or handed out posters renaming the Democratic nominee “War Hawk” or “Goldman Girl” or “Monsanto Mama.” Everywhere the venom was carefully packaged and rigorously on-message. One button, plumbing the depths of the anti-politically correct, read “Life’s a Bitch – Don’t Vote for One.” Another promoted a “KFC Hillary Special: 2 Fat Thighs, 2 Small Breasts…Left Wing.” There were images of an angry Hillary giving America the finger and countless others of her yelling, scowling, looking mean. “Hillary sucks, but not like Monica!” yelled one T-shirt vendor, who told me he’d sold almost 500 shirts in Cleveland with that catchphrase. “Trump that bitch!”
A San Diego lawyer I met in July wore a lapel pin depicting Hillary Clinton as Lucifer. “She’s an evil person,” he told me. “Evil.” He’d come to this conclusion, he said, after reading Armageddon: How Trump Can Beat Clinton, written by former-Bill-Clinton-adviser-turned-National-Enquirer hit-man Dick Morris, which shot to Number Three on The New York Times bestseller list. For much of the summer, three of the top five books on the list were direct attacks on Hillary Clinton (a fourth, Glenn Beck’s Liars, is an attack on progressives more broadly). The lawyer admitted that he really had no idea if Clinton was actually evil – he didn’t pay careful attention to her record – it was more of a feeling.
Feeling, for lack of a better word, is what drives most Americans’ perceptions of Hillary Clinton, one of the most complex and resilient figures in U.S. politics, yet also, after decades of probing scrutiny, less a real person than a vessel for Americans to collectively project their anxieties, fears, frustrations and identity struggles. Across the country, people of every political persuasion – men, women, millennials, baby boomers – told me they were eager for a woman president, just not this woman. Clinton is “inauthentic,” some say, as well as selfish – “Her eyes are on her own game,” one Democrat noted – calculating and corrupt. Another told me, “She’s a fucking liar.”
The pervasiveness of these sorts of terms in the national conversation about Clinton tells us far less about her character than it does about the character called “Hillary Clinton,” the construction of a sustained and well-funded strategy by the right to shape the way we talk about Clinton, what we believe we “know” about Clinton and also how we view her statements, gestures, actions, policies and, most crucially, her mistakes. “There’s just a huge amount of bullshit, and it’s been going on for decades,” says Bobbie Greene McCarthy, Clinton’s friend and former White House deputy chief of staff. “This is too important of an election to buy into a false narrative. But the noise just drowns out any sort of critical thinking.”
In November, Americans face a historic choice: Vote for a man who is widely considered one of the most unqualified people to ever run for president, or cast a ballot for a woman whose qualifications for the job exceed those of just about any other candidate in the modern era. Electing the first woman president of the United States will be a revolutionary act, as terrifying to some as it is thrilling to others, but her victory is anything but inevitable. There’s a very real chance the visceral hatred, or at minimum the visceral ambivalence, toward Hillary Clinton could hand the election to Donald Trump.
There are valid criticisms to be made about Clinton. She is one of the least transparent politicians in recent memory. Her 2002 vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq is seen by many, including Clinton herself, as a mistake. As an unapologetic capitalist, whose wealth, family philanthropic foundation and Wall Street ties speak to a cozy relationship with the political and financial elite, she is seen as emblematic of the “rigged” system Trump and Bernie Sanders have campaigned against. And, like many politicians, Clinton has bobbed and weaved over the course of her career, sometimes tacking to the right.
Still, she is fundamentally liberal, and running on a highly progressive platform that includes raising the minimum wage and passing gun-safety measures like universal background checks. Clinton has also been a tireless advocate for women and families since the 1970s and, unlike any secretary of state before her, made global women’s issues a key point on her agenda. “She is somebody who wants to be president for all the right reasons,” says Clinton’s longtime aide Jennifer Klein, who is currently advising Clinton on women’s and girls’ issues. “I mean, that’s the irony of all of these negative characterisations: You couldn’t find a person who is more dedicated to improving people’s lives than Hillary Clinton.”
In an article in March for The Guardian, the former editor of The New York Times Jill Abramson analyzed the relationship between Clinton’s fundraising and policy positions over the past few years and concluded that Clinton was “fundamentally honest and truthful.” She noted that the same conclusion was drawn by PolitiFact, which after exhaustive analysis found Clinton to be the most honest of this year’s presidential candidates. Yet Clinton received far more negative media coverage during the 2015 primary season than either Sanders or Trump, according to a study by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“It’s almost like these journalists don’t know how not to undermine her,” one of Clinton’s supporters lamented, noting Matt Lauer’s widely panned September 7th national-security forum on NBC. Lauer devoted more than a quarter of his interview with Clinton to her private e-mail server, skipping right over most of her foreign-policy bona fides, and then without pushback let Trump express support for Vladimir Putin, make a thoroughly erroneous claim that he’d never supported the Iraq War and defend a tweet asserting that women who join the military somehow should “expect” to be sexually assaulted.
Several days later, while leaving a ceremony commemorating the victims of 9/11 in Lower Manhattan, Clinton visibly stumbled. Captured on video, it was reported as a “fainting spell” – even Tom Brokaw suggested that Clinton might want to consult a neurologist – thus giving further credence to Trump’s assertion that she lacks the “stamina” to be president. When Clinton’s campaign acknowledged that the candidate had been diagnosed with pneumonia two days earlier but had chosen to press on without informing anyone but her closest allies, the media responded by noting that her “penchant for privacy,” as The New York Times put it, “threatens to make her look, again, as though she has something to hide.”
Running for president is both exhausting and stressful; in 2004, John Kerry also came down with pneumonia during his presidential campaign. Though Clinton has been campaigning and fundraising relentlessly, so much so that her running mate, Tim Kaine, noted he had trouble keeping up with her, almost none of the media reports pointed out that ill or not, she nonetheless showed up to the 9/11 ceremony.
That Clinton has been held to a higher, and often altogether different, benchmark is both “shocking in 2016” and also not surprising, says Abramson, who, as the first female editor of the Times, was perceived as “pushy” and later fired in part over a pay dispute in which Abramson argued her compensation was less than that of her male predecessor. “When a woman achieves the top position in an important American institution, clichés like ‘too ambitious’ and ‘shrill’ easily get applied,” she says. “Where, when a man exhibits those traits, it’s seen as a sign of leadership.” With Clinton, she adds, it’s very telling that when she left her job as secretary of state, 69 percent of Americans approved of her, the second-highest rating recorded in history. “She was an international and national icon,” says Abramson. “But she was subordinate to Obama.” Once Clinton announced her intention to run for president, her poll numbers took a dive of more than 10 points.
And therein lies the rub: Hillary Clinton, one could argue, is right on par with any number of male politicians who have made compromises and who, as human beings, are flawed, lose their tempers, occasionally drop the f-bomb and do many other things that Clinton, as a woman, has been excoriated for. “With Hillary, everything she does is either different from what men do and it’s ‘wrong,’ or it’s the same thing that men do and that’s ‘wrong,'” says Robin Lakoff, a professor emeritus of linguistics at U.C. Berkeley. “And that’s because the underlying thing about Clinton and her candidacy is it’s not normal. Normal is a male candidate, a male voice, a male tie.”
The controversy regarding the 30,000 State Department e-mails that Clinton stored, wrongly, she acknowledges, on her private server in Chappaqua, New York, is typical of many attacks on Clinton – less about the substantive issues than it is about her character. That Clinton maintained a private e-mail server came to light during an investigation by the House Select Committee on Benghazi, whose chief purpose, Rep. Kevin McCarthy admitted in September 2015, was to bring down Clinton’s poll numbers, part of what he called a “strategy to fight and win.” Now in its 10th iteration since the Benghazi attack in 2012, the committee has failed to find the federal government, or Clinton herself, guilty of any criminal wrongdoing.
Most recently, its members alleged that Clinton lied to Congress during her 11-hour testimony in October 2015, based on supposed inconsistencies between Clinton’s statements and those of FBI Director James Comey, who in July declared that his office, while finding no legal reason to recommend prosecution, nonetheless found that she and her staff had been “extremely careless” in handling possibly classified material.
Putting aside the propriety of Comey personally weighing in on the matter – something former Department of Justice spokesman Matthew Miller called a “gross abuse of his own power” – the entire controversy over e-mails that were, depending on the telling, either classified at the time or possibly not classified correctly or classified after the fact or not classified at all, but contained information that may or may not have been classified, has been covered in one or more major publications every single day (but four) for the past 562 days, according to the liberal digital-media company Shareblue. Clinton’s e-mails now rival the Watergate scandal as one of the most reported stories in political history.
A widely circulated Quinnipiac poll from last fall found “a majority” of American voters associated Clinton with the word “liar.” This was then repeated, verbatim, on every cable network and morning show, prompting both NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and CBS’s Scott Pelley to push Clinton to respond to the perception that she is untruthful. “Have you always told the truth?” Pelley asked her, suggesting, by simply posing the question, that she hadn’t. Clinton responded, “I’ve always tried to.”
In fact, the Quinnipiac poll wasn’t representative at all. A Mediaite analysis found the “majority” figure came from a predominantly Republican sample of respondents; only about 30 percent of Democrats polled said she’s untrustworthy. Just one commentator, CNN’s Jake Tapper, noted that in his reporting. “That’s where I see the gender barrier in this election cycle,” says one Democratic strategist who worked on Clinton’s 2008 campaign. “It’s not manifest in Hillary being called a bitch all the time. It’s in the assault of words, the willingness to verbally assault a person all day long with this glee.”
The offensive against Hillary Clinton fits into the context of a much larger cultural and political assault: the Republican-led “War on Women,” a term that’s been maligned and in some ways overused, but nonetheless speaks to the lengthy and concerted effort on the part of the GOP to control women’s bodies and wages in order to reduce women’s power. It’s mostly forgotten that Republicans, not Democrats, were the original champions of women’s rights: leading the charge for women’s suffrage and also backing the Equal Rights Amendment from its inception in 1923 to its proposed ratification in 1972. This changed toward the end of the Nixon administration, which seized the opportunity to exploit cultural fears of women’s liberation – much in the way it embraced racism in the South – for political gain.
Richard Nixon’s 1971 veto of a bipartisan national child-care bill – drafted in part to enable more American women to enter the workforce – specifically referred to day care’s “family-weakening implications.” The same “hostility toward modern women,” as New York‘s Frank Rich noted in 2012, continued through the 1970s with far-right conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly leading the successful effort to defeat the ERA, while religious conservatives like Jerry Falwell declared war on abortion in the wake of Roe v. Wade.
Women asserted their independence, pursuing higher education in greater numbers and flooding the workforce, but the idea of true equality, the original goal of feminism, refused to take. Instead, an attitude echoed today by Trump supporters held that men were either dominant to, or emasculated by, women. By the time Ronald Reagan and his New Right coalition assumed power in the 1980s, an anti-feminist backlash was well underway. The accompanying message, says Susan Faludi, who chronicled the phenomenon in her 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, was “if you seek independence, you will be deeply unhappy and cast into this pit of loneliness, despair, infertility and spinsterhood.”
Into this fraught climate strode Hillary Clinton, wearing a power suit. It was 1992, later dubbed the Year of the Woman, after a record number – four – were elected to the Senate, but it might have referred simply to the mother, wife and corporate lawyer who became first lady. Earnest, with an almost genetic inability to not say exactly what was on her mind, Clinton was labeled by the press as both “a svelte vision of feminist influence” and a “yuppie wife from hell.”
The outrage stoked by Clinton’s 1992 comment about her decision, as the first lady of Arkansas, to not simply “stay home and bake cookies and have teas,” but to continue her work as an attorney, reflected the larger split on the subject of working women in America. Some heard her statement as a feminist cri de coeur, others as an attack on traditional motherhood. “Most women do not wish to be liberated from their essential natures as women,” the vice president’s wife, Marilyn Quayle, said at the 1992 Republican National Convention.
“Hillary was proof that all those women sitting around in consciousness-raising groups in the Seventies had made an impact,” says early feminist leader and journalist Marilyn Webb. No prior first lady, with the possible exception of Eleanor Roosevelt, had so forcefully asserted her independence. “She was a symbol of all the change that men at that time didn’t want,” says Webb. “This was the White House – where Jackie Kennedy lived, for God’s sake. A feminist coming there was too jarring for a lot of people.”
With remarkable alacrity, “Hillary-hating,” as historian Henry Louis Gates wrote in The New Yorker, became “one of those national pastimes which unite both the elite and the lumpen.” Writers like David Brock, then at the right-wing American Spectator – which depicted Clinton as a witch on one of its most successful covers (and referred to her as the “Lady Macbeth of Little Rock”) – and talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh coalesced into what Hillary would later call a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” The New York Times‘ William Safire wrote that she was both a “congenital liar” and a “vindictive political power player.” Elsewhere she was derided as a selfish, untrustworthy, incompetent, ball-breaking “bitch,” a “closet lesbian” and a terrible mother. Brock, who underwent a liberal conversion in 1997 and is now a pro-Clinton strategist, recalls standing in the hallway at the American Spectator, looking at various cover stories with the magazine’s publisher, “and he says something like, ‘Can we find some more women to attack, because these Hillary covers are really working.’ “
That Clinton was, according to those who know and work with her, devoted to her daughter, fundamentally collaborative, and well-versed in the nuances of policy was not part of the discussion. Nor was her determination, after the failure of her 1993 proposal for comprehensive health care reform, to press on and work with members of both parties to create the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which Clinton succeeded in getting passed in 1997.
Also forgotten, notes former Texas state legislator Wendy Davis, is that Clinton’s decision to attend the 1995 U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing was radical at the time. “The talk shows said she didn’t have the ‘right’ as first lady to get involved in diplomacy,” says Davis. “But she went, and she spoke in a very forceful way that ‘women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.’ It was a deeply held commitment that she’s exhibited throughout her public career.”
These acts, which reflected Clinton’s pragmatic idealism, were cast as a symbol of either her incompetence or her supposed “entitlement.” This tactic of inverting a person’s greatest strength until it becomes, somehow, their weakness, was perfected by men like Roger Ailes and Karl Rove in the “Swift boating” of John Kerry in 2004. “Kerry is a legitimate war hero. So what did they attack him for?
That he wasn’t a war hero,” says Heather Booth, a progressive organizer who worked on the campaign for Clinton’s health care bill. Barack Obama, similarly, was a symbol of a new, more egalitarian America, and the so-called birther movement shed doubt on his even being American. “Hillary Clinton, in my personal estimation, is a genuine, honest, warm, caring person,” says Booth. “So what was the strategy? To take it and slam her on it and say she’s not warm, she’s not caring, she’s dishonest, she’s ‘inauthentic.’ And if you keep repeating it, finally what people learn and remember is the negative things that were said – even though there’s no factual basis for believing them.”
One afternoon during the Republican convention, I ran into one of the more nefarious members of the far right, longtime Trump consigliere Roger Stone. Nattily dressed in a seersucker suit and red suspenders, he was roaming the bar of Cleveland’s Renaissance hotel, posing for fan photos. At one point, Stone briefly looked up at a shot of Clinton on TV. “That evil witch,” he said, narrowing his eyes. Stone, whose loathing for Clinton knows no bounds (“She’s a short-tempered, venal, foul, abusive, abrasive, diabolical, cold, scheming, power-mad, lunatic fraud,” he told me last spring), sees a certain beauty in the Trump campaign, not to mention the now-defunct Sanders campaign, which brought thousands of young people into the political process. “They don’t remember any of the scandals [Hillary] was involved in,” Stone says, with obvious satisfaction. “Nothing’s old news if you’ve never heard it before. It’s new to you.”
Many of Stone’s favorite, largely debunked conspiracies cast Clinton as an “enemy of women” and have often been marketed to young women by other young women. Last December, for instance, Katherine Timpf, a 27-year-old right-wing commentator, published a story for the National Review Online titled “Hillary Clinton Is Not a Feminist.” The gist wasn’t merely that Clinton stayed married to an “alleged serial rapist,” as Timpf put it. It was that Hillary herself was, in Timpf’s eyes, guilty of a sort of bystander rape; that in reportedly referring to the women with whom Bill Clinton had sexual entanglements as “trash” and scoffing at their allegations, Hillary was violating the code that says all accusers should be taken seriously.
This argument, centered on the perception of Hillary Clinton as an “unbelievably nasty, mean enabler,” as Trump has put it, can be traced back to an op-ed penned in 1998 by then-right-wing pundit Arianna Huffington, who denounced Hillary as “enabler-in-chief.” This past winter, nearly 20 years later, the Times editorial board reinforced the characterisation: “For decades, Mrs. Clinton has helped protect her husband’s political career, and hers, from the taint of his sexual misbehaviour,” the paper noted, citing, among other examples, Hillary’s decision to stand next to Bill during a 1992 press conference in which he denied having an affair with Gennifer Flowers.
As this narrative picked up steam, Fox produced a handy online “Millennials Guide to Bill Clinton’s 20+ Sex Scandals” (The Washington Post later followed suit with its own “Millennials Guide”), while television pundits mused about how this would all play with young women. “The lurking danger for Hillary Clinton is, first, was she enabling the behaviour, and, more important, assaulting the reputation of the accusers?” former CBS pundit Jeff Greenfield said on Morning Joe in January. To which Joe Scarborough replied that the feminists who attacked the credibility of Monica Lewinsky had “a lot to answer for” when it came to “Monica … a 22-year-old whose life was effectively destroyed.”
There was no mention of who, actually, was responsible for the destruction. While Hillary may have privately referred to Lewinsky as a “narcissistic looney-tune,” and Betty Friedan, at one point, called her “a little twerp,” Lewinsky became a household name equated with blow jobs, thanks to Clinton trolls like Newsweek‘s Michael Isikoff, who spent most of Bill Clinton’s presidency relentlessly pursuing stories of infidelities fed to him by members of the organised right. Columnist Maureen Dowd won a Pulitzer for her coverage of Lewinsky, whom she denounced as “ditsy,” lacking in “brains” and also “predatory,” even at one point likening her to Glenn Close’s bunny-boiling character in Fatal Attraction.
The first lady – or “Saint Hillary,” as Dowd and several other Times writers snarkily dubbed her – had, by her own and others’ accounts, suffered a combination of profound anger, hurt and self-recrimination due to her husband’s acts. This, it was briefly said, “humanised” her. “Mrs. Clinton’s image has gone from too controlling and ambitious to that of a victim,” Jane Mayer noted in The New Yorker in August 1998. “Americans have never liked her more.” This perspective of Hillary as “victim” gradually began to disappear, however, and was replaced by what seemed the more relevant take of a feminist icon slut-shaming her husband’s paramours.
Now it is seen as perfectly valid to consider the culpability of Hillary Clinton, who The New York Times recently called “a president’s wife turned presidential candidate,” with regard to her husband’s infidelities – to discuss her “guilt” for staying married to him, and to cast this, as some political watchers have, as an act of raw, Claire Underwood-style ambition rather than something far more complicated. Or on the other hand, to urge Clinton, as Morning Joe‘s Mika Brzezinski sympathetically tried to do this past May, to “speak from the heart,” maybe even get emotional about what were clearly the worst few years of her life.
The message in this, of course, is that were Clinton only more revealing – the quintessentially, and stereotypically, feminine trait – she would be more “likeable,” albeit in a way that would simultaneously make her look “weak.” “She could use this to her benefit in a very real and vulnerable way,” Brzezinski said. “I bet you it would be incredibly moving. And I bet you we would all have nothing to say.”
The Clintons’ long and toxic relationship with the media has produced something casually described as “Clinton rules.” Last year, Vox’s Jonathan Allen explained it: “The Clinton rules are driven by reporters’ and editors’ desire to score the ultimate prize in contemporary journalism: the scoop that brings down Hillary Clinton and her family’s political empire. At least in that way, Republicans and the media have a common interest.”
This has been the galvanising factor in a seamless and unprecedented merger between the far right and the journalistic mainstream. Recently ensconced Trump campaign chief and former Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon is also the co-founder of the Government Accountability Institute, a nonprofit investigative outfit reportedly backed by right-wing billionaire and Trump donor Robert Mercer. As Joshua Green noted in a 2015 profile of Bannon for Bloomberg Businessweek, GAI “builds rigorous, fact-based indictments against major politicians, then partners with mainstream media outlets conservatives typically despise to disseminate those findings to the broadest audience.”
Given the dwindling investigative budgets at many news organisations, both journalists and their editors have proved receptive. One thing Bannon learned about journalists, he told Green, is “they don’t let [their politics] get in the way of a good story. And if you bring them a real story built on facts, they’re fucking badasses.” The clearest example of this has been in the attacks on the Clinton Foundation, its fundraising and its ties to the State Department, which kicked off in May 2015 with the publication of a book by GAI’s president, Peter Schweitzer, titled Clinton Cash. Even before it was published, Clinton Cash was “the most anticipated and feared book of a presidential cycle still in its infancy,” wrote Amy Chozick in The New York Times. Chozick reported that the Times, The Washington Post and Fox News had all signed “exclusive agreements” with Schweitzer to report on some of the book’s storylines.
One of these pieces, which ran in the Times on April 24th, detailed the Russian acquisition of lucrative uranium-mining rights from a Canadian company headed by Frank Giustra, one of the Clinton Foundation’s largest donors. The deal required approval by the State Department, and although the story didn’t prove the donations played any role in the outcome, the Times nonetheless concluded, “The episode underscores the special ethical challenges presented by the Clinton Foundation.”
That the Times allowed itself to be used by GAI to deliver a heavily partisan message went unmentioned. Instead, Clinton Cash quickly became both a New York Times bestseller as well as the jumping-off point for what is now 16 months of investigations by news organisations into the Clinton Foundation (which I looked into in a 2010 story for this magazine). Not a single one of these investigations has yielded any evidence of a quid pro quo. What the stories have found is evidence of Clinton doing the standard work of a secretary of state: meeting with Nobel Prize winners and corporate titans, some of whom also happened to be foundation donors (one, telecom entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus, is both a Nobel winner and a donor, as well as Clinton’s friend). A recent story in the Times revealed the efforts of Bill Clinton’s longtime deputy Doug Band to secure diplomatic passports for himself and two others in order to travel with the former president on a humanitarian mission to North Korea. In an e-mail exchange, Hillary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin told Band she’d try, but the State Department never fulfilled his request.
If the State Department e-mails reveal anything, it’s evidence of the kind of garden-variety access and favouritism that, unappealing and corrosive as it may be, is not only what Washington runs on, but what most industries run on, including journalism. Perhaps a more damning example of favouritism would be what Vice President Dick Cheney showed for Halliburton, the company he once ran, which went on to become one of the main profiteers of the Iraq War that Cheney so aggressively pushed for. Halliburton, dogged by allegations of corrupt billing practices, made $39 billion off Iraq. Cheney, accused of many things, including pay for play, rarely saw his capacity to lead called into question.
With just over a month left before the general election, maybe it’s time to consider who Hillary Clinton actually is. As one Clinton admirer put it to me, she is “the truest feminist”: self-actualised, mature and beholden to nothing but herself, her ideas and, indeed, her ambition. Female self-determination has been for generations of Americans a threatening concept, which is why American women’s quest for true equality has progressed haltingly, challenged at times by women themselves. Feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan is fascinated by the dislike that young women, in particular, seem to have for Hillary Clinton. “They project on her the same kind of contempt they used on each other in seventh grade,” she says. “And when you ask why, you hear, well, it’s e-mails. It’s that she stayed with Bill Clinton. But the reasons they give never explain the intensity of the dislike – and what’s more, there’s permission for that; they don’t have to explain it.”
What women know, consciously or not, is that we do not live in a “post-gender world,” as some young women I’ve met firmly believe, but in a world where a quieter and far more pernicious misogyny continues to thrive, baked right into the political culture where women still occupy only 20 percent of the seats in Congress. There is still, after nearly a century of trying, no Equal Rights Amendment. It was notable that during the primary campaign, “I don’t vote with my vagina” became a phrase heard often among female Sanders supporters, while women who supported Clinton were often heckled as, simply, “vaginas.” Women who support Clinton often add, “but not because she’s a woman.” Why? “Because,” as one 25-year-old New Yorker told me this summer, “everyone always says, ‘You’re just voting for her because she’s a woman,’ as if you’re stupid and not thinking for yourself.”
There is a persuasive argument to be made, particularly for women, that voting for Clinton because she is a woman is the right thing to do. Despite Trump’s recent attempts to promote his social agenda as woman-friendly, there is every reason to believe a conservative administration, such as the one that Trump is proposing, would largely kill such policies as equal pay for women; universal day care and early-childhood education; and paid sick leave. A conservative majority on the Supreme Court would have a devastating impact on reproductive rights, crucially in the states where women’s access not only to abortion but also to contraception is now in jeopardy. While the Koch brothers may not be funding Trump, they are actively involved in statewide races across the country, pouring money into fiscally and socially conservative candidates who, if they win, will continue to chip away at all facets of women’s rights.
Clinton understands the undertones of the attack. She stands in opposition to the Hyde Amendment, for instance, which, with a few exceptions, prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion, a measure that disproportionately impacts poor women. She sees a “concerted, persistent assault on women’s health across our country,” as she said in June, not only in the number of Planned Parenthood clinics that have been forced to close in the past few years, but also by legislation such as the Blunt Amendment (which failed to pass in 2012 by just three votes), which would have allowed employers to forego parts of their employee health care plans, including services like birth control, based on “moral” grounds. “This entire race is about gender,” says Gilligan, who continues to marvel at how many obstacles exist for women in America. “Those are the issues that are playing out now, through Hillary Clinton.”
But the other story is easier. Following a whiff of corruption, however false, is addictive. There is, in fact, something impure, if not improper, about private e-mail servers and sky-high speaking fees and what’s known as “public-private partnerships,” an idea long touted by Bill Clinton and exemplified by institutions like the Clinton Foundation, whose annual Clinton Global Initiative conference tends to look a lot like Davos. This is the world where Bono, a global humanitarian and celebrity, feels OK about making a personal request to the State Department to inquire if he might beam his upcoming tour to the International Space Station (according to the State Department e-mails, his request was denied). Of course Muhammad Yunus, a world-renowned social entrepreneur who pioneered the idea of microcredit and microfinance, gets a private audience with the U.S. secretary of state, and so does the head of Dow Chemical, because why wouldn’t they?
During the DNC, in the park across from the Wells Fargo Center, where the convention was held, a few hundred people gathered every day. They were all in one way or another on the Bernie Sanders train, which was also the “Fuck the System” train and the “We’re Fucked, Regardless” train, every person having some issue that left them disenfranchised, each in their own uniquely unhappy way. This group yearned for someone to root for who didn’t have political baggage, who was idealistic and inspiring and also a savvy packager, like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. Mostly, they wanted a candidate who could feel their pain, which was deep and visceral and unfocused – kind of like their hatred of Hillary herself – and which they somehow felt that Clinton, despite her endless public humiliations, couldn’t understand.
We live in an era of dire straits and instant gratification, which is why a boorish billionaire was able to say, “Build a wall!” and millions cheered and nominated him for president. But long before all of that, in the pre-recession era, before 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, everything felt vastly different, with one crucial exception: the national discomfort with Hillary Clinton and everything she represents, which is strong and unequivocal female leadership. The nativist politics represented by the candidacy of Donald Trump did not happen in a vacuum – nor did the ferocious attacks on Hillary Clinton. If she loses, says the Berkeley linguist Robin Lakoff, “The line will be, ‘A woman can’t win.'” The majority of activists in both political parties, she notes, are men, “and an awful lot of them are not enthusiastic for a woman. Hillary Clinton pulled it off by God knows how many years of steely determination. She is not ‘inevitable.’ She has been running this race since 1992.”