Friday, September 15, 2017

comparing writers at Slate and the New Republic on Clinton's What Happened

There have been moments over the last three to five years where I have tried to articulate to conservatives an observation I've been making that they don't seem all that open to, which is to say that "liberal" and "left" are not at all the same thing.  There's a comparable error on the "left" or "liberal" side, too, of tending to collapse all "right of me" categories of thought and people into "fascism". 

But in the wake of Clinton's electoral defeat at the hands of the Trump campaign there may be a few glimmers of opportunities to articulate the distinction between a "liberal" publication and something more like a "left" publication.   For "liberal" it would be hard to top either The New Yorker or Slate.

A few weeks after the election, I was hit by a sickening realization. Not only would my children have to learn about Donald Trump in school, but by the time they are old enough for college, there will probably be whole academic departments devoted to the study of him. (That is, assuming we still have colleges, and America, by then.) Before Trump was elected, the United States was a deeply imperfect democracy. Afterward, it became a shitty kleptocracy, run, against the will of the majority of the American citizenry, by a cruel, gaudy, grandiose lunatic. Overnight, the very texture of reality changed, becoming surreal and dystopian, like an episode of Black Mirror or a far too on-the-nose imitation of a Don DeLillo novel. Whether or not this new dispensation is here to stay, many of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out one thing. What happened?

Why it was only the election of Trump rather than Clinton that signaled the United States having become a kleptocracy is assumed rather than explained.  For a publication like Slate it's impossible to shake off altogether the impression that any variant of "what happened?" is less a serious question than a rhetorical one.  This being Slate, the transition in mind is not so much to an actual explanation as it is a transition to ...

What Happened, of course, is the title of Hillary Clinton’s new book about the 2016 election. It is, by turns, fascinating and boring, enjoyably caustic and irritatingly insipid, frank and guarded. But as a historical record, the book seems undeniably important, which is why it’s bizarre that so many people who are interested in politics seem angered by its existence. In a Los Angeles Times piece headlined “Hillary, I Love You. But Please Go Away,” author Melissa Batchelor Warnke allows that the book is “much better than I expected” but laments Clinton’s divisive re-emergence onto the political scene. In a Chicago Tribune column titled “Hillary: How Can We Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?” John Kass writes, “The vibe I’m getting is that Democrats wish someone would just lock her in the basement indefinitely.”

... There’s something faintly medieval in this need to make an epic civilizational disaster wholly the fault of one person [emphasis added] and to demand that she retreat into internal exile until she has sufficiently flayed herself

Yet Trump becoming president would seem to also perpetuate the allegedly medieval need to make an epic civilizational disaster wholly the fault of one person, as though the mere election of one person over another to an office that has not lost a whole lot of executive power in the last fourteen months constitutes in itself the transition from a representative democratic republic to a fascist state.

The fact is: No one knows exactly why Clinton lost. We’ll never untangle precisely what combination of Clinton’s personal failures, Democratic campaign missteps, Russian intervention, FBI sabotage, media malpractice, misogyny, xenophobia, and nihilistic social breakdown led to our current nightmare. But the struggle to understand all these interrelated factors will be ongoing. Clinton was at the center of a uniquely terrible and baffling episode in American history. She has a perspective no one else does. Why shouldn’t she share it?

So a hawkish Democratic mainstreamer with ties to high finance and a record of backing Gulf War 2 with a history of alienating swaths of the electorate running against a populist agitator who threw his hat in the ring with a party that spent the last few election cycles redistricting so as to improve their odds of regionally narrow but cumulatively significant electoral victories is really beyond explanation?  That explanation could be disproven, of course, but it's as though authors at Slate are incapable of imagining cumulative, multiple variables that could explain Clinton's loss at an electoral level because that kind of thinking is .... above their pay grade. 

But her limitations as a candidate are not the whole story. For Trump to become president, many different people and institutions—the Republican Party, the press, the FBI—had to fail. In What Happened, Clinton directly takes on the obsessive demand that she assume monocausal responsibility. “If it’s all my fault, then the media doesn’t need to do any soul searching,” she writes. “Republicans can say Putin’s meddling had no consequences. Democrats don’t need to question their own assumptions and prescriptions. Everyone can just move on.”

But we can’t move on. We don’t even know if the election was fully legitimate. “After a presidential campaign scarred by Russian meddling, local, state, and federal agencies have conducted little of the type of digital forensic investigation required to assess the impact, if any, on voting in at least 21 states whose election systems were targeted by Russian hackers,” the New York Times reported earlier this month.

A candidate who could not surmount those separate, let alone cumulative, obstacles was not someone who was going to get the job, let alone get the job done, which is hardly to say that Trump will get the job done as it is to say that a Democratic National Convention that seriously thought "I'm with her" was going to work as a campaign slogan is probably still not willing to learn any lessons from 2016 that aren't dangerously self-exonerating.  In traditional Christian terminology the operative term for what the DNC might want to consider at this point is called "repent".

Not that I'm particularly fond of The New Republic at multiple levels and for multiple reasons but ... since Clinton's memoir is a topic it may be a useful example of a way that conservatives could learn that liberal and left are not the same thing if they aren't busy being ensconced in the bubbles that writers at The New Republic might suggest they already exist in.  You'd think after just one controversy from a few years ago about how evangelical authors turned out to be using tools to rig spots for their books on The New York Times bestseller list that there'd be little point in claiming that the problem with conservatives is that by turning their back on the NYT best-seller list they're putting themselves in some kind of bubble.  If a conservative publisher were to decide to NOT make a bid at rigging a spot on the list for a change that might feel like it was a new thing.  But then it seems that mainstream press coverage isn't the least bit interested in the implications of controversies for popular Christian publishing on the nature and scope of American mainstream publishing in general. 
It's like the consolidation of publishing and media into a smaller and more powerful coterie of big-name players is a problem unless in this or that case a conservative publisher decides that there's no point in being identified with that coterie?  Nonetheless, this short reaction to Clinton's new book may still be instructive about the difference between a writer for Slate and, well ... :

In the first hundred pages of What Happened, Hillary Clinton writes that she decided to run for office during a vacation with the designer Oscar de la Renta and that when she lost she received an invitation from George W. Bush to get burgers. These bookends are an early sign that there is something amiss in this much-anticipated tell-all of the 2016 campaign, which attempts—and fails—to offer a diagnosis of how Clinton lost an election to the most unqualified and most loathed presidential candidate in modern history. These anecdotes suggest a fatal lack of awareness, an inability to see that she and her party may have grown out of touch. To the contrary, she says. She was the victim of forces beyond her control. Journalists, Russia, Bernie Sanders: These are a few of her least favorite things.

This book is precisely what her critics predicted it would be. What Happened suffers from stilted prose and insipid inspirational quotes, but that is par for the course for a political memoir. The real problem with What Happened is that it is not the book it needed to be. It spends more time on descriptions of Clinton’s various post-election coping strategies, which include chardonnay and “alternative nostril breathing,” than it does on her campaign decisions in the Midwest. It is written for her fans, in other words, and not for those who want real answers about her campaign, and who worry that the Democratic Party is learning the wrong lessons from the 2016 debacle.

When Clinton does discuss what went wrong, it’s mostly to point fingers. Some accusations are valid: Sexism did factor into her negative public image and into her loss. She contributes astute observations about the specific difficulties that America’s presidential system poses for female candidates. She correctly notes that well-funded right-wing actors have spent years weakening American democracy, and that a racist backlash to Barack Obama’s presidency dogged her campaign and strengthened Donald Trump. The press did mishandle coverage of her email scandal, and James Comey’s irresponsible actions helped slow her momentum at a crucial time.

But even taken together, these factors should not have been enough to cost her the presidency. Subscribing to this theory means believing that Hillary Clinton was the victim of a perfect storm of unrelated events, that there is nothing to be learned from the election of a strongman who was part of an ethno-nationalist, revanchist tide that swept across the democracies of the Western world. Clinton cannot admit that she—and her party—bear some responsibility for failing to stem this tide. Did you know she won the popular vote? She reminds us, multiple times. In What Happened, good fought evil, and evil won. It is a fairy tale. The great tragedy is that Clinton seems to think it is true.

Now if the election of Trump heralds, as some have written elsewhere, a decline in the credibility of the United States now might be a time to ask whether or not that loss of credibility has stemmed from generations worth of implications of how the United States has handled foreign policy.  It's not exactly that Vietnam was the loss of innocence we didn't necessarily have, but it could perhaps be said that Vietnam was the start of a process in which it would become impossible to simply keep cashing in on the feel-good vibes of our participation in World War II being all we needed to insist to ourselves we'll always be the good guys.  It doesn't even mean we were necessarily the good guys in World War II. Defeating a dictator is important but not necessarily an indicator of being awesome-sauce in perpetuity. 


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