The night before last year’s US presidential election, on 7 November 2016, Bruce Springsteen performed at a rally for Hillary Clinton in downtown Philadelphia. He played three songs: ‘Thunder Road’, ‘Long Walk Home’, and ‘Dancing In The Dark’. But he broke-up his acoustic set by speaking, briefly, from what looks in the YouTube video like a teleprompter. “The choice tomorrow couldn’t be any clearer,” he said. “Hillary’s candidacy is based on intelligence, experience, preparation, and a vision of an America where everyone counts … This is a country where we will indeed be stronger together.”
I remember watching a live stream of that performance and feeling, for the first time since Clinton had secured the Democratic nomination in June, that the former Secretary of State might not actually win. You don’t have to credit Springsteen – as I do – with any kind of special prophetic insight into America’s national character to see that his muted enthusiasm for Clinton reflected a broader public unease. Polls showed that Clinton was the most unpopular presidential candidate in modern American history – except for Donald Trump. And, one way or the other, that grim dynamic cost her the race. In Philadelphia, Springsteen’s reluctant surrogacy for the Democratic nominee seemed, somehow, to foreshadow the result.
Clinton herself was oblivious to the looming disaster. In fact, she was so confident that she was going to beat Trump, she didn’t even bother drafting a concession speech. “At 1.35am, the AP called Pennsylvania for Trump. That was pretty much the ballgame,” she writes in What Happened, her sprawling 470-page account of the election campaign. “I hadn’t prepared mentally for this at all. There had been no doomsday scenarios playing out in my head.” The shock was shared by Barack Obama, who nonetheless urged her to concede quickly in order to legitimise the incoming Trump presidency: “Obama was concerned that drawing out the process would be bad for the country. It was hard to think straight, but I agreed with him. That’s what I would have wanted had the shoe been on the other foot.”
In retrospect, the scale of Democratic (and wider liberal) complacency was astonishing. Trump was clearly unqualified for high office. Even if you ignored the allegations of sexual assault, the repeated bankruptcies, the relentless lying, and the history of racist innuendo, his inability to grasp basic policy details – or focus on a single subject for more than 30 seconds – should’ve automatically disbarred him from power. But that’s not the point. For pretty much the entire duration of the presidential contest, most of the available data suggested that the Republicans had a 30 to 40 per cent chance of retaking the White House. As soon as Trump wrapped-up the GOP primaries, having dispatched 17 more experienced and better-established candidates, he stood a realistic shot of beating Clinton, whose own flaws had for so long been on such open and awkward display in American public life.
Clinton, of course, doesn’t see it that way. In What Happened, she attributes her loss to a handful of unforeseen factors, notably Bernie Sanders, whom she criticises for being insufficiently supportive of her candidacy; the media, which she attacks for giving Trump too much airtime; and the Russian government, which she believes hacked her campaign’s online infrastructure in an effort to undermine US democracy. Above all, though, she blames former FBI director James Comey. His decision to reopen an investigation into her use of a private email server while she was at the State Department was, she insists, what really tipped the election in Trump’s favour, just as it reached its crucial closing stages: “[Comey’s intervention] led to a week of wall-to-wall negative coverage. In six out of seven mornings from October 29 to November 4, it was the lead story in the nation’s news cycle. Republicans dumped at least $17 million in Comey-related ads into the battleground states. It worked.”
But Clinton’s analysis would be more persuasive if it weren’t so transparently self-serving. According to What Happened, her campaign made no major strategic mistakes, and there was no one better placed on the broad left of American politics to succeed Obama in the Oval Office. If she was at fault for anything, she eventually concedes, it was being too erudite and accommodating at a moment of rising populist outrage: “When people are angry, they don’t want to hear your ten-point plan to create jobs and raise wages. They want you to be angry, too … I skipped the venting and went straight to the solving.”
It is this characteristic that makes What Happened such a frustrating and dispiriting read. The book was written for purely exculpatory reasons. Clinton presents herself as the victim of an epic political stitch-up, orchestrated by the FBI, the Russians, the GOP, and the left. In reality, she had every advantage going into the race. The Republicans were a mess. Her opponent was a joke. She had more money than Trump, as well as a virtual monopoly on media support. And yet she still lost (albeit on an electoral college technicality).
Clinton wanted to be seen as a ‘consensus-building’, ‘bipartisan’ national leader – a champion of middle American interests. “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia,” her ally, the Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, remarked in July 2016. And that, largely, is where she went wrong. Clinton’s ties to Wall Street and the private sector, her lack of a coherent economic message, her countless triangulating u-turns on everything from same-sex marriage to the war in Iraq, and her palpable sense of dynastic entitlement worked against her. They demoralised traditional Democratic constituencies – progressive voters, African Americans, and the poor – pushing the presidency further out of reach.
In one respect, however, Clinton is absolutely right: we shouldn’t underestimate the role played by race in getting Trump elected. Indeed, Clinton views public attitudes towards race – as opposed to class, inequality, or economics – as the key indicators of Trump’s support, and a core source of his appeal to the 63 million (overwhelmingly white) Americans who endorsed him as their Commander-in-Chief.
The extraordinary structural and cultural force of racism in modern America is the subject of We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy by the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates is relatively unknown in the UK, but in the US he is a literary star. His 2015 memoir, Between The World And Me, about his experiences as a black youth in Baltimore in the 1980s, won a National Book Award, prompting comparisons with James Baldwin. Eight Years is a collection of Coates’s essays for The Atlantic. They span Obama’s two presidential terms and conclude with a searing epilogue that casts Trump as America’s first explicitly, defiantly white president.
For Coates, it’s no coincidence that Trump entered the political arena arguing that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States: the one-time reality TV celebrity launched his political career as an advocate of birtherism, “that modern recasting of the old American precept that black people are not fit to be citizens of the country they built.” Trump’s whiteness, Coates’s says, isn’t notional or symbolic. It is fundamental to his political identity: “Trump is truly something new – the first president who entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president … It’s almost as if the fact of a black president insulted Trump personally … [He] has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own.”
Coates is a brilliantly caustic and incisive writer. His most pointed criticisms are aimed not at the Republican right, which brandishes its racism relatively openly – in defence of Confederate monuments, for instance, or white-on-black police violence – but at liberals, whose prejudices tend to express themselves in superficially benign ways.
He takes particular issue with the concept of the ‘white working class’, a category of the American electorate that has assumed near-mythical status with some Beltway commentators in the aftermath of Clinton’s defeat. Rather than accept that racism is a systemic, embedded feature of American life, Coates argues, the media has identified white economic alienation as the principal motor of Trumpism, thereby raising it “as a shield against the horrific and empirical evidence of trenchant bigotry … The maintenance of white honour and whiteness remains at the core of American liberal thinking.”
Having faced-off against Trump, Clinton is now held up as his ideological antithesis, but she once shared in this mindset: “During her 2008 primary campaign, Clinton evoked the old dichotomy between white workers and loafing blacks, claiming to be representative of ‘hardworking Americans, white Americans’,” Coates writes. “[And] during Bill Clinton’s earlier campaign for president, it was Hillary herself who had deployed the ‘super predator’ theory of conservative William Bennet, who cast ‘inner city’ children as ‘almost completely unmoralized’.”
Coates is often accused of being excessively pessimistic about America. When Obama was in office, he was one of a handful of journalists regularly invited to the White House for off-the-record meetings with the president. On one occasion, a few weeks before last year’s vote, the two of them discussed what still seemed, even then, like the remote prospect of a Trump win: “If there was a difference between me and [Obama], it was that I thought Trump wouldn’t win, whereas Obama thought, categorically, that he couldn’t. What amazes me looking back on that day is the ease with which two people, knowing full well what this country is capable of, dismissed the possibility of a return to the old form.”
And that, perhaps, is the core problem: America has always been capable of electing someone like Donald Trump – it’s just that almost everything Hillary Clinton did made Trump’s election more likely.
This article is a review of What Happened by Hillary Clinton and We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates.