Time and again, [Donald Trump] resurrected his favorite enemy, Hillary Clinton, as if she possessed powers that made her more than human and thus someone to be feared despite her retirement from politics.
Journalist, CNN commentator, and author of a number of histories and biographies Michael D’Antonio tackles the subject of why Hillary Clinton, a lifelong public servant and one of the most qualified candidates ever to run for president of the United States, has for four decades also been a looming boogeyman of the right.
This subject is endlessly fascinating to me, and although Hillary-as-demonic-force is strongly associated with the further reaches of the right, much of the myth around this concept has permeated more reasonable, fact- and logic-based media as well. It’s a bit of where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and a lot of good old sexist, misogynist, patriarchal bullshit.
It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so detrimental and potentially dangerous. Still, there are moments of levity. When D’Antonio covers the range of sexual rumors attributed to Hillary, the ridiculousness of this giant criss-crossing web of conflicting conspiracies is laughable. She can’t be frigid AND a lesbian AND a swinger. It just underscores how those who like to frame her as a monster barely have any preference about what form that monster assumes.
The genesis of hating Hillary came when she was married to Bill Clinton as he ran for governor of Arkansas and — horror of horrors — she didn’t take his last name. Pearls, consider yourself clutched! She already had an established career herself as an attorney and had published under her maiden name, among other reasons for not wanting to change it, let alone the biggest two I can think of: she didn’t want to, and who cares (didn’t change mine either!). D’Antonio pulls no punches about her ambition and aspirations, another target she’s been repeatedly pummeled for which also began to come under fire around this time, but it’s really no surprise with her own professional successes by that point that she didn’t want to change her name and was interested in continuing her own upward career trajectory.
But her second big sin at that time was that she didn’t conform to southern standards of gracious, carefully cultivated femininity. She was described as not being “stereotypically womanly or feminine,” and D’Antonio notes, “There it was, the trump card that anyone could play, at any time, against any ambitious woman. No amount of achievement or intelligence could exempt Hillary Rodham from standards of femininity determined by society at large and enforced by anyone who chose to take on the job.”
The foundations were further laid for criticism in that she really just did so much, both personally and publicly. She was an extremely active and engaged First Lady of Arkansas, not to mention her accomplishments while serving that role for the nation. But in a typical catch-22 against women, this was perceived negatively, as well as the fact that the more that you do, the more something occasionally won’t work out or will be badly received.
From establishing this starting point against the backdrop of her education and the era’s feminism, D’Antonio methodically goes down the list, debunking the infamous scandals and conspiracies that have been pinned to her: Whitewater (the Clintons actually lost money on the real estate investment), Vince Foster’s suicide (a tragic event made even more so by a nonsensical murder conspiracy), being called a bitch by prominent figures (hypocritical Newt Gingrich, whiny bro/Kenneth Starr protege Brett Kavanagh); Benghazi, Pizzagate, the emails.
Much of this is already easily google-able but D’Antonio has a good narrative style and is very thorough in his approach. He also helpfully ties events into their context, through figures like “political radio performer” Rush Limbaugh, and relates incidents to the wider narrative that was continually building around her.
He also puts political concepts into context, like the worsening of health care accessibility and why so many people who are protected in this area find it difficult to care about those who aren’t. Or the tricky difficulties particular to Fox News viewers: “As literacy experts have discovered, 95 percent of Americans fail a standard test that involves reading opposing newspaper editorials and evaluating their claims…multiple studies would find Fox viewers even less well informed than average when compared with those who use other news sources. In effect, Fox News made people who already struggled with information they received less knowledgeable.” Perfect.
And of course there’s plenty of space devoted to the vitriolic obsessiveness with which Trump hates her, making a fascinating case for precedence in deep history: “the president and others needed her in the way that ancient peoples needed ghosts and goblins and devils. Historically, demons were unconscious projections of the insecurities and negative impulses of their creators. ‘They’ were heaped with sins and shortcomings so that “we” could feel pure.” He goes on to rightly call Trump the “least qualified major-party candidate in modern times,” thus explaining his need to label his opponents with “the traits that marked him.” Crooked being the obvious example coming to mind.
In truth, Clinton had always been regarded by her opponents as more monster than person…As such, it wasn’t enough for her to be defeated in an election. Instead, she had to be humiliated and then obliterated that even history would forget her. (Officials in Texas actually voted to remove her from history lessons taught in the state’s schools but reinstated her after a public uproar.)
I mean…thank goodness there was an uproar? But what in Stalinist revisionist history hell?
It’s also strange because her approval rating as First Lady was quite high at 67%, and “she would also rank highest when Americans were asked which women in the world they admired most, eclipsing even the glamorous Princess Diana.” D’Antonio adds that “Although Hillary’s poll numbers indicated her popularity, the picture was complicated by the fact that very few people were ambivalent about her.”
So many of the criticisms against her, or supposed evidence of her immorality and/or evil, are so patently ridiculous but it’s clear that they lodged into Americans’ collective psyche. Like David Brock’s 1994 article in The Spectator which notes that the Clintons’ cat, Socks, “often threw up.” Imagine, for a moment, that your morals were judged in part on the gastrointestinal behaviors/shortcomings of your pets. Just imagine what this person has been up against throughout her entire adult life in the public eye. The mind reels. And that’s not even touching on her clothes, or the political minefield that is her appearance in general:
Inference via wardrobe was not something men endured, but just as her hairstyles were regularly plumbed for meaning, Hillary’s garments were reviewed as if they signaled the contents of her soul.
I suppose there’s nothing shockingly new or groundbreaking here, all of this should register as quite obvious, but D’Antonio writes smoothly and compellingly, and following the build-up of this mythology piece by piece is just staggering. In the end it made me respect her infinitely more, although I can only wish that material like this would reach the eyeballs of those who need it most.
The Hunting of Hillary:
The 40-Year Campaign to Destroy Hillary Clinton
by Michael D’Antonio
published July 28, 2020 by St. Martin’s Press
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.