In 2004, I moved to Washington, DC to start a new career in politics. I joined up as a web editor at a nonprofit called the Center for American Progress. CAP was, and still is, an amazing organization that is dedicated to pushing progressive and liberal policy ideas. They are a left-leaning think tank inside a city that spent most of the 80’s and 90’s having only right-wing ones. Their work was and remains important and necessary. Also, the organization was entirely dedicated to getting Hillary Clinton elected president.
When I worked there, the heads of the organization were John Podesta and Neera Tanden. The person directing communications and messaging was Jennifer Palmieri. These names might sound familiar to you, because some of them were people who already worked for Bill Clinton, and all of them were people working for the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Looking at the recent election results, it’s difficult if not impossible to reflect on all this in retrospect. None of what I’m saying here dismisses or negates the ideas that CAP pushes, it merely notes the structural underbelly of the machine—and “machine” is the best word for this. For my entire adult life, the Democratic Party machine has been the Clintons. CAP has wonderful goals, but they were also the coating for the goal of making Hillary Clinton president. Obama made Clinton Secretary of State because it would put her in a better place to run for president. The Clinton Foundation did and I hope continues to do amazing work globally, but it also existed to strengthen Hillary Clinton’s credentials to be president. For literally two decades, the entire machine—the gears, engines, lubricants, pistons, drivers, engineers, and hell, the passengers—of the Democratic Party inside Washington DC has been Hillary Clinton. And that machine just exploded over the Atlantic Ocean and its pieces are scattered across thousands of miles of ocean floor now.
It is, in retrospect, astonishing how much the Democratic Party seemed unaware or uninterested in just how many people didn’t like Hillary Clinton. We will parse the statistics for decades on this election, but the one that keeps sticking with me is the one taken after the election about the likability of the two candidates. Clinton and Trump were noted for their historical low approval ratings throughout the election, but this is the poll that showed where it mattered: People who liked Clinton but hated Trump voted overwhelmingly for Clinton. People who liked Trump but hated Clinton voted overwhelmingly for Trump. People who hated both of them voted overwhelmingly… for Trump.
The biggest fear and problem I have with the election post-mortems are the return to the idea that middle-class and working-class white votes are somehow more important than anyone else’s. They’re not, but where Clinton failed wasn’t in thinking they weren’t more important; it was thinking they weren’t important at all. Clinton had numerous policy proposals that would have benefited the white working class. They weren’t emphasized, and as a result, Middle America continued to buy the message that Clinton simply didn’t like them.
There is something very frustrating, looking at what I noted before, about the Clinton machine having been preparing all this for sixteen years, and yet in all that time simply assuming these latent issues would never be a factor. The Democrats simply assumed resentment and anger about NAFTA wouldn’t be an issue. I’m not even talking about watching what happened with Bernie Sanders during the last year here; they had literally sixteen years to figure out a message about this, and they didn’t. The Democrats failed to craft any positive message about unions, even after a decade of Wisconsin politics proving that voters were willing to dismiss that Democratic mainstay for the promise of economic restoration.
And that’s really where we lost here: it didn’t matter if this was all bullshit. It’s what they wanted to hear. They thought the system had abandoned them. And the system was Hillary Clinton. The Republicans had their machine too; until last year the same familiar names in DC and on television insisted Jeb Bush would be the Republican nominee. Trump offered a year’s supply of utter bullshit wrapped in the promise that at least if you let him try, it wouldn’t be one of the family dynasties that screwed you over all this time. Bush was destroyed first, and brutally, and Clinton should have seen this coming. Like so many other things, she didn’t.
I have incredible sympathy for Hillary Clinton on all of this. It wasn’t fair. The attacks on her were borne from obsession and misogyny and irrational hatred and the desperate need for her opponents to create a living target of their hatred and resentment. Her highest approval ratings were three to six years ago, when many were able to focus that on the black guy instead. But at the end, Trump was able to capitalize on this cruel, unfair, but unmistakably and unavoidably true concept: half of America hated Hillary Clinton. I have spent my entire adult life watching half of America hate Hillary Clinton.
Clinton is a human being. She’s a woman who had been abused and attacked for much of her life, and I think any rational person would understand, if not condone, the paranoia and sensitivity and carefulness that would define her campaign. It would define her inner circle, her loss-versus-gain data operation, her private server. But all of this was designed to try and work around half the country’s dislike of her, instead of trying to improve it. So Clinton gambled her campaign, and the country, on the idea that people would hate Donald Trump more, and unfortunately thanks to demographics and the Electoral College she lost that bet.
When we look back on this in the future, and are demanded to inarticulately point out a single point where Clinton truly lost this election, it won’t be James Comey or the emails or Bill’s adultery or Benghazi. It will be the “basket of deplorables” remark. It was that moment when Clinton’s demographic strategy was doomed, because it gave millions of people looking for a reason to hate her—hate her in a way that made supporting a racist, sexist, incompetent fascist justifiable—an excuse to say they felt like she hated them back. This was the moment when Clinton rationalized white supremacy in Middle America.
I want to be clear here that I’m not trying to ignore or dismiss the significance of racism and white resentment in this election. I look at this as a given, and something that will require its own separate examination and ongoing discussion beyond the purview of this piece. On election night, I decided to take a break from social media because as a straight, white man, I think the last thing anyone needed was my perspective on how this “might not be as bad as it looks.” There is a meanness in our culture, perhaps perpetuated by the news, perhaps social media, perhaps just the true nature of ourselves. But whatever it is, it festered and popped this year, and it gave millions of people a reason to hate, and we’re going to have to look at this, and we’re going to have to talk about it.
I am choosing, deliberately, to not end all this with either thoughts or predictions, pessimism or optimism. I certainly have all of that, but that’s not why I wrote all this. You may all take this for what you will. Better people than me will get into it further, but I’d have been remiss in not at least trying to explain what I saw from my experiences and so I hope I’ve done my best here.
Image: Bill Mauldin