At 2 in the morning after Election Day in 2016, the absence of Hillary Clinton walked onto a stage at the Javits Center in Manhattan. The absence of Hillary Clinton is vast. It pullulates like slime mold across the internet; it screams from TV screens; it peers dim and terrified from behind Clinton’s own eyes. Since the election, it’s grown to swallow the whole of American and international politics. But that night, it appeared in the form of her campaign chair, John Podesta. He came out gangly and enthusiastic, flapping a cavernous mouth open and shut to strange, wild applause. Clinton, he told the crowd at her campaign headquarters, would not be appearing to make her concession speech. “We can wait a little bit longer, can’t we?” he said. “Everybody should head home. We should get some sleep. We’ll have more to say tomorrow.” Clinton herself didn’t appear until hours later: coiffed, grinning wryly, sepulchral. Between the two speeches, stories and rumors circulated, frantic gnats twirling in her absence. Hillary Clinton had locked herself in her hotel room. Hillary Clinton refused to talk to anyone. Hillary Clinton was insensate, or catatonic, or drunk or mindless on Xanax and disbelief.
What could she have been thinking? Everyone suffers disappointments and defeats, but this was a unique experience. For decades, she had wanted to be the most powerful person in the world (back in the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion, she and her husband had let a few friends in on their plan for “eight years of Bill, eight years of Hill”). She had served in almost every level of American government; she was smart; her résumé was perfect. And she had lost twice. Once, to a preternaturally charismatic newcomer who rode the bloodied tides of history to become the first black president. No shame in that. And then, that night in 2016, she lost to a rambling con man, a deranged clown with comic white circles under his eyes, a washed-up former reality-show host who knew nothing, understood nothing, believed whatever the last person he spoke to had told him and had the dubious honor of being the least popular major-party nominee in U.S. electoral history. Donald Trump had undone years of careful scheming. It had all been for nothing. How must that have felt?
This is why I can’t entirely agree with the chorus of people who rushed to condemn What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s “intimate view” of what it was like to go up against Trump in the 2016 election. On the left, a quick consensus formed: Clinton lost; she has nothing useful to say anymore and never did; she needs to shut up and go away immediately. It’s not really so clear. Hers is a strange story in an increasingly strange world. It’s one that needs telling. And as her die-hard defenders proclaimed, Clinton can write a book if she wants, and nobody gets to stop her. They’re not wrong. She has every right to write a book about the election. But not this book. Nobody should ever be allowed to write a book like this.
You can play a dire game with What Happened. Call it the $20 Million Game. Open the book to a random page and remember that Clinton sold her last book for an advance of $14 million, and then consider that the figure for this one is probably even higher. “You could say my campaign started with a snappy internet video … but I think it started with something a lot more ordinary: a Chipotle burrito bowl.” Twenty million dollars. A monstrously mangled idiom: “Never wrestle a pig in the mud. They have cloven hooves, which give them superior traction.” Twenty million dollars. A description of something called alternate nostril breathing: “This practice allows oxygen to activate both the right side of the brain, which is the source of your creativity and imagination, and the left side, which controls reason and logic.” Twenty million dollars. And a double whammy of artless literary allusion, in response to some early idiocy of Trump’s: “The episode was silly, but also an early warning: we were in a ‘brave new world.’” Line break. “If the inauguration on Friday was the worst of times, Saturday turned out to be the best of times.” Twenty million dollars. An impossible amount of money. For this.
She’s not trying to be honest or readable; Clinton is still desperate for you to support her campaign. Everything she writes feels metallic in the mouth, weightless and inauthentic. She starts her book with a record of what she felt watching Trump’s inauguration. “Deep breath. Feel the air fill my lungs. This is the right thing to do. … I’m imagining I’m anywhere but here, Bali maybe? Bali would be good.” This is not how a 69-year-old woman writes. It’s an imitation of how some of her fans write, a sterile, chatty facsimile of a first-person blog. She wants, still, to be relatable.
“In the past,” Clinton writes in her introduction, “for reasons I try to explain, I’ve often felt I had to be careful in public, like I was up on a wire without a net. Now I’m letting my guard down.” Maybe that’s true. But the unguarded recollections in What Happened sound a lot like someone who will be stuck in election mode for the rest of her life. They sound ghost-written and focus-grouped, scrubbed to a shine, as fake as anything any career politician says from the podium. Just like on that night in Midtown Manhattan, when Podesta delivered a non-concession in her place, she won’t face the audience. As Kafka taught us in Before the Law, sometimes there’s nothing behind the guard. This book was written by the absence of Hillary Clinton.
In literary terms, the book could be classed as a Mary Sue self-insertion fanfic. Reading What Happened induces a horrifying claustrophobia, the feeling of being pent up in a small room as someone delivers an unending lecture about how much better they are than everyone else. Like every horrifying little room, this one is cluttered with cutesy sayings on every wall. Each chapter begins and ends with an inspirational quote about believing in yourself and reaching higher, 25 epigraphs in total. One (“It is hard to be a woman. You must think like a man, act like a lady, look like a young girl, and work like a horse”) is attributed to “a sign that hangs in my house.”
To be fair, Clinton acknowledges that she made mistakes — but they are all of a particular type. Her optics were faulty; her messaging went out of tune. She didn’t successfully communicate how great and progressive she really is, how wrong you were to dislike her. This is a politician who never made craven or reactionary decisions, just tough choices and hard compromises. Her wars are glossed over; her racist 2008 campaign disappears almost entirely; her support for the Honduran coup regime that murdered Berta Cáceres is unmentionable, disappearing into a warm fug of “kindness and love.” Sometimes it’s even more direct. “I have friends who get frustrated with their spouses who, instead of listening to them vent about a problem and commiserating, jump straight into trying to solve it. That was my problem with many voters: I skipped the venting and went straight to the solving.” She failed because she was simply too good at making things better.
Clinton endlessly details minor episodes from the campaign and at the end of each one triumphantly announces that the whole kerfuffle only proves that she was right all along. NBC’s Chuck Todd, she tells us in one episode, “actually criticized me for being too prepared. I’m not sure how that’s possible — can you be too prepared for something so important? Does Chuck ever show up for Meet the Press and just wing it?” A strange tic emerges, where everything her campaign did that was tin-eared and senseless is presented only as a peril wisely avoided. We made sure not to appear elitist. We made sure the race wouldn’t look like a coronation. Repeatedly, she details what she should have said in debates and interviews; that familiar shame of coming up with a snappy rejoinder 10 minutes after an argument’s finished is spun out into an entire book. It’s as if she’s describing a different campaign: Not the one she led, but the one she would lead if she had another chance.
What Happened doesn’t describe a real election but the image of one; it’s soaringly, malignantly useless. It offers no juicy insider details about the campaign, just a dry accounting of who attended which event and occasional remarks on how wonderful it all was. It doesn’t even really answer its own implicit question. Clinton’s book was sold as an explanation of how the most qualified candidate in history could lose to a man like Donald Trump. After all, the question of why she lost has been pored and debated over for nearly a year; we’ve all been trying to give it an answer. But most of Clinton’s actual analysis of the subject is confined to a short chapter, “Why,” wedged into the closing sections of the text, and it’s nothing new. No original take, no personal reflections, just what amounts to a précis of think pieces from Vox, The Atlantic and The Washington Post. There’s even a graph of the words she most frequently used in speeches, with a big Vox watermark underneath. And while Clinton devotes an entire chapter to “those damn emails,” widespread voter disenfranchisement merits just three out of nearly 500 pages. After all, it didn’t happen to her.
Vagueness seeps everywhere. Discussing her decision to launch a second presidential bid, Clinton protests that she wasn’t simply after power. “I wanted power to do what I could to help solve problems and prepare the country for the future. It’s audacious for anyone to believe he or she should be President, but I did.” What problems? Solve them how? The answers reveal a strange antinomy of her liberal-centrist leadership cult. Clinton’s policy team started using data and focus groups to work out what problems Americans were concerned with, and started scouring think tanks for solutions. Clinton is not partisan or ideological. She simply follows the facts. In other words, she did something that absolutely anyone else should be capable of doing. She is an exceptional individual who deserved to be president, precisely because she’s just another cog in the bureaucratic machine. In the counter-democratic universe of establishment managerialism, elections are just another interview process for another government job; the winner should be the person with the most gold stars on their résumé, and we can trust that they’re embedded enough in the mechanisms of government to use their authority properly. It’s a politics of systems and social control: Power is always a question of efficiency and problem-solving, never one of justice.
Most of all, the howling absence of Hillary Clinton is felt whenever she tries to describe what interests me most: how it actually felt to lose. Usually, it’s deeply unpleasant to mine someone’s pain for your own enjoyment. Nobody owes me her suffering or her vulnerability — unless, that is, she’s writing a book about it. A book about defeat that doesn’t tell you what that pain is really like isn’t a testament to its author’s unblinking bravery. It’s just a bad book. Clinton has no visceral insight into those sad hours on election night in her hotel room. Instead we get a few scraps of cliché — “It was like all the air in the room had been sucked away, and I could barely breathe” — and crowding mundane detail. “My brothers and their families were around. Someone sent out for whiskey. Someone else found ice cream — every flavor in the hotel kitchen.”
Later, as the Trump administration whirred into chaotic motion, we don’t get an insight into how she felt but a series of coping strategies. It’s like a self-care book written by a serial killer. Aside from the alternate-nostril breathing, she drinks plenty of Chardonnay but refuses antidepressants. (“Wasn’t for me. Never has been.”) She redecorates her other mansion, the one next door to the mansion she lives in. She retreats from her quest for world domination, returning to the simple joys of being a multimillionaire. In one revealing anecdote, a well-wisher sends her a thousand origami cranes. Hanging them up inside your house, the accompanying note tells her, brings you good luck. Clinton hangs them on her porch.
In the end, Clinton simply does not have the right tools to tell her own story. Many critics are upset that she spends her book blaming her defeat on Bernie Sanders and James Comey and Russia and everyone but herself. What did you expect? Her book could never have been anything else. This is crystallized in one minor but telling detail: Occasionally, she refers to a “now” in which the reader reads, a “now” that’s explicitly identified as late 2017. What Happened is not meant to last; it’s not meant to be pored over for years to come. It exists in the provisional present of politics. It’s a campaign book, written after the fact.
Clinton’s story deserves something better. She got the genre wrong: This shouldn’t be a memoir or a self-care guide or a polemic. It should be a piece of tragic theater. Clinton is a creature of hubris, an Icarus or a Phaethon. She wanted power, she fought hard for it and she nearly had it. But then she met her double and her opposite. Every Hamlet needs a Fortinbras.
Trump, too, is a member of the New York ruling classes. He is also blissfully unencumbered by any cohesive ideology, preferring “deals” (read: bipartisanship) and “answers” (read: solutions). He is also someone who wanted power; not to do anything in particular with it, but because he thought he deserved it.
Clinton was a wonk and Trump was a clown, but in the end the smartest people in D.C. couldn’t find an insult that would actually hurt the stupidest man in American political history. Only a Trump could defeat a Clinton. Lesson learned. But in tragic theater the hero tends to die at the end. No wonder so many people want Clinton to just go away: The story’s over, and the moral has been delivered, but the curtain refuses to fall.
Tragic heroes tend to die, yes, but not all of them. Sophocles’ Oedipus survives Oedipus Rex, just as Hillary Clinton survived the 2016 election. Like her, he has gone blind. Unlike her, he has become a prophet. What Happened could have been a far better and more honest book, with one tiny change. Remove all the countless epigraphs and replace them with the lines spoken by the sad, broken hero of Oedipus at Colonus:
O Athens, have pity on this poor relic of Oedipus,
The shadow, no more the man!
Sam Kriss is a writer surviving in London.
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