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The Deification of Hillary Clinton

Susan Bordo's new book asks us to accept a version of Clinton that doesn't exist.

Drew Angerer / Staff

Susan Bordo is right about one thing: Sexism is real and Hillary Clinton has been subjected to it. The spectre of Hillary-the-nasty-woman is persistent and familiar—but it’s only one of the many reasons Clinton lost her latest White House bid. The story of her defeat is a complicated one, encompassing rising anti-establishment fervor, campaign error, and yes, prejudice. But you wouldn’t know it from reading Bordo’s new book.

Melville House, 272 pp., $24.99

In The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, the feminist scholar seeks to absolve Clinton for her loss to Donald Trump. To do so, she presents a raft of justifications: James Comey, Wikileaks, conservatives, Bernie Sanders, and dumb young people. There is scarcely a mention of policy positions Clinton took during her campaign that were less than inspiring, or of moments when the candidate seemed to misread the public mood—such as her repeated claim that “America is already great.” Any rational analysis of Clinton’s career and campaigns must include an examination of her mistakes, but Destruction is not rational. Bordo starts from the conviction that Hillary Clinton, as “the most qualified candidate in history,” should have won. Clinton’s actions interest her less than what she deems as Clinton’s greatness. It’s not an investigation but a deification.

This is personal for Bordo, who admits as much in her introduction. Clinton reminds her of the subject of one of her previous books, Anne Boleyn—another woman she sees as a victim of “nasty caricature,” “factually loose biographies,” and “sensationalization.” Bordo herself and Hillary Clinton are also a bit alike, she tells us. They share a “generational” bond and faced similar decisions about their professional lives as women. This observation has merit, but Bordo weights it more heavily than it deserves. She takes Clinton’s suffering on herself.

“This book is hard to write as it requires revisiting events that caused me pain, anger, and frustration,” she writes, adding that though some may mock her for calling her feelings “trauma,” she spent 2016 “in a state of perpetual fury and helplessness.” She adds, “I often found myself waking up way too early, then falling asleep at unexpected times, not because I was sleepy but because consciousness felt like a burden.” Recall that this is a book about a politician, not a memoir of post-traumatic stress or bereavement.

In fact, Destruction reads more like an exercise in public relations. Clinton is not a representative of the “establishment,” Bordo argues, but has consistently been a progressive. If conservatives hadn’t vilified her in the ’90s—if Bernie Sanders hadn’t run against her—she would have defeated Donald Trump.

It’s a fragile argument that relies heavily on scapegoats. Chief among them are Millennials. Young women disliked Clinton, Bordo argues, because they “weren’t around” for the GOP’s character assassination of her in the ’90s, and did not realize how unfairly she had often been portrayed—or understand the sexism she had to overcome. “They hadn’t experienced a decade of culture wars in which feminists’ efforts to bring histories of gender and race struggle into the educational curriculum were reduced to a species of political correctness,” she insists. “They didn’t witness the complicated story of how the 1994 crime bill came to be passed or the origins of the ‘super-predator’ label (not coined by Hillary and not referring to black youth, but rather to powerful, older drug dealers).”

This is interesting language. Bordo does not attribute the crime bill to Bill Clinton; it’s as if this legislation appeared out of the void. And though Bordo is right that Hillary Clinton did not coin the term ‘superpredator,’ she doesn’t mention that Clinton certainly did use it to refer to children. Via Politifact, here’s Clinton’s full quote: “We need to take these people on. They are often connected to big drug cartels, they are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators—no conscience, no empathy.”

Bordo’s revisionism is evident in her fixation on Bernie Sanders. According to Bordo, Sanders unfairly maligned Clinton for her “establishment” tendencies. Bordo does not acknowledge, however, that Clinton campaigned as a pragmatic realist and consciously sought the support of conservative defectors from the GOP, while Sanders ran as a more idealistic democratic socialist. This conflicts with Bordo’s portrayal of the candidate as a true leftist.

So do Clinton’s policies. Bordo insists that Clinton supported universal health care in 2016, which is only partly accurate. Clinton supported Medicaid expansion and the public option, but these policies aren’t as expansive as Sanders’s commitment to Medicare for All. On the federal minimum wage, welfare, and foreign policy, she sat to Sanders’s right. She supported a $12 minimum wage, with the small proviso that cities should be able to raise it higher if they choose. And she had a long-standing record of support for American military intervention abroad—a tough sell to young voters jaded by endless war. These are facts Bordo chooses to ignore.

Bordo commits the same error in her treatment of the Monica Lewinsky affair. Lewinsky, she writes, “has steadfastly insisted that there was nothing abusive (or even disrespectful) about Bill Clinton’s behavior.” This misconstrues Lewinsky’s statements. In a 2014 piece for Vanity Fair, Lewinsky called the relationship consensual but also wrote, “My boss took advantage of me.” These assertions aren’t contradictory; many women could apply the same language to their own experiences. But Bordo twists Lewinsky’s words in order to cast both Clintons as victims of a rabid press. In reality, both retained substantial influence and privilege while Lewinsky suffered lasting vilification. Power protects itself. Bordo, who teaches gender studies, must know this.

But she’s uninterested in interrogating the implications of Clinton’s power. Her argument that Clinton is a consistent progressive can’t survive the admission that Clinton has made many missteps in her long career and has had to own, as she put it herself, many “hard choices.” It’s incompatible with the fiction she’s created: Hillary-the-revolutionary, to counter Hillary-the-establishment-elitist. The result is incoherent. Clinton is either a uniquely qualified candidate, or an easy target for uninformed millennials. She can’t be both.

In the process of canonizing Clinton, Bordo infantilizes her. As first lady, Clinton obviously did not pass the crime bill or welfare reform, but she publicly supported both. Was she Bill’s puppet? That’s an unlikely role for an intelligent and accomplished woman. We should instead assume that Clinton said what she said because she believed it. Opinions change, but if would-be presidents choose to evolve they must expect to do so in public. Voters were right to question her about her old statements. They weren’t wrong to find her wanting. They were forming their opinions of the candidates by learning about their political commitments. Bordo does not.

But Bordo’s book is useful in one sense. It crystallizes an emerging tendency in liberal discourse: the notion that critics of Hillary Clinton are either trolls or naive children. Bordo makes much of “Bernie Bros”—loud, male Sanders supporters who, she says, harassed Clinton supporters at rallies and abused female reporters on Twitter. The examples she cites are certainly rude (one allegedly called a Clinton supporter a “lying shitbag”) but this is a thin argument weakened further by her revisionism. She slams Sanders himself for his “uncharacteristically mild” response to the tweets. “He never criticized the misogyny in their attacks on Clinton,” she writes. This is flatly inaccurate: Sanders called them “disgusting” and told the press, “Look, anybody who is supporting me that is doing the sexist things is—we don’t want them. I don’t want them.”

To Bordo, rude Twitter users prove Sanders’s inadequate commitment to the left. Bordo never asks if her one-sided framing is evidence that she lives in a bubble, and what a telling oversight. Female Sanders supporters would have told her that Clinton backers are also guilty of online harassment—and that the label “Bernie Bro” has been deployed to erase the very existence of left-wing women, drowning out valid critiques of Clinton’s platform. It’s red-baiting by another name.

Millennials are not children, either. Ranging in age from 18 to 35, many recall Clinton’s tenures as senator, 2008 candidate, and secretary of state with clarity. Many fought in the Iraq War she supported. Others demanded marriage equality long before her political “evolution” on that matter. Still more struggled to afford education and health care while she cast herself as the great pragmatist in 2016: Single-payer health care, she told voters, “will never, ever come to pass.” Nevertheless, most millennials voted for her last November. If this does not satisfy the nation’s Susan Bordos, they are not to blame.

Bordo’s objection seems to be that anyone opposed Clinton at all, even from the left. What she does not grasp—and is seemingly not interested in grasping—is that Clinton’s critics from the left were not opposing a caricature of her as some kind of right-wing political operator. We opposed Clinton-the-hawk and Clinton-the-means-tester. Our objection was about politics, not personality. Similarly, we do not reject the feminism of Bordo and Clinton because of its ideological rigidity, as Bordo suggests. We reject it because it is insufficient. America was not “already great.” Our lives are proof.

Destruction offers no real lessons for Democrats. It’s a hagiography, written to soothe a smarting party. That is precisely why they must ignore it: There is no path forward that does not account for past mistakes. Hillary Clinton’s destruction was at least partly her own making, and if Democrats want to start winning elections it’s time they saw the truth.