Review of Hillary Clinton's 'What Happened': Inside a doomed campaign

The former First Lady pulls no punches in her compelling account of the reasons why she lost the presidential election to Donald Trump

November 11, 2017 07:09 pm | Updated 07:09 pm IST

 Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

When even master pollster Nate Silver failed to correctly predict a devastating election loss, there is only one word that can explain “what happened”: insurgency. At least this appears to be the takeaway of Hillary Clinton, the U.S.’s first-ever woman presidential nominee, on the troubling events that, despite her winning the popular vote by nearly three million, cost her and the Democratic Party the White House.

In What Happened , her first book since her defeat in the November 2016 presidential election, the former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State pulls no punches in providing a compelling account of the many factors that she blames for a loss that left her “shell-shocked.”

Ms. Clinton, who has relied on yoga, long walks in the woods and a healthy dose of cable television therapy to recover from the unexpected turn of events a little more than a year ago shows a remarkable level of objectivity in being able to analyse and critique her own campaign strategy.

Disquieting questions

In doing so, she paints a canvas of American politics that raises disquieting questions about the direction in which the country is headed, rife with sexism and misogyny, pervasively infiltrated by Russian covert operatives, and ruled by a fearful, hateful conservative class that would stoop to any low to maintain its grip on power. Two broad sets of causative factors can be discerned in the list of reasons that Ms. Clinton says led to the victory of her opponent, controversy-ridden real estate billionaire Donald Trump. First, in terms of the big picture, she argues that a toxic convergence of economic anxiety, unsubtle bigotry and endemic voter suppression dealt a death-blow to her prospects.

What Happened
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Simon & Schuster

What HappenedHillary Rodham ClintonSimon & Schuster₹699


The question of perceived economic disenfranchisement of blue-collar workers has now become a red-flag issue. Did Ms. Clinton accord it that level of importance during her campaign? Yes and no, it seems.

Somewhere along the way, she admits, she made a terrible gaffe about shutting down coal miners’ jobs in the search for a greener energy policy — alternatively dubbed the Democrats’ “war on coal” by Republicans. Yet, she quickly backtracked from that remark and spent many precious campaign hours in the coal-mining states of West Virginia.

That was probably too little, too late. In the final analysis, she admits that middle-class Americans concerned about what they perceived as the deepening economic malaise afflicting them may have cared more about having an empathetic, angry, not-politically-correct listener for president than an analytically-sound woman leader who could present a coherent ten-point policy plan to boost infrastructure spending and create blue-collar jobs.

Populism has its benefits, clearly, but comes with a dark side too, manifested after eight years of government under the U.S.’s first ever African-American president, as racism, xenophobia, misogyny and a penchant for violence.

The email saga

A second set of factors that Ms. Clinton argues contributed to the undoing of her Obama-style, data-driven campaign strategy, was the stunning, unprecedented letter from Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey, scarcely 36 hours before Election Day, that more emails of Ms. Clinton’s had been discovered in an investigation (the Anthony Weiner episode) unrelated to the main enquiry into her use of an unofficial email server, which itself she describes as an ultimately unsubstantiated campaign to malign her.

Some facts are worth recounting here: first, the investigation into the email “scandal” was closed by the FBI in the summer of 2016 after finding no evidence of wrongdoing or compromise of classified material.

Second, there was, as Ms. Clinton laments, a sustained narrative of “false equivalence” in the U.S. media, which portrayed her use of a non-official email server as a sin that was as grave as Mr. Trump boasting on video about committing sexual assault, and his decidedly anti-woman, anti-Muslim, anti-Latino, anti-disabilities view of the word.

While history will be the judge of why the email controversy became as important as it did in 2016, the role of Russian interference in subverting the campaign and election has cast a shadow on U.S. politics that will not go away anytime soon.

Part of the problem, Ms. Clinton says, was that America was ripe for such infiltration: “Many Americans had lost faith in the institutions that previous generations relied on for objective information, including government, academia, and the press, leaving them vulnerable to a sophisticated misinformation campaign.”

The hacking of the server of the Democratic National Committee followed by release of thousands of its emails by Wikileaks, and waves of fake news unleashed on social media targeting American voters, only underscored Moscow’s interest in engaging in under-the-radar propaganda and covert subversion, she notes.

What Happened is striking for its honesty, even if on balance it reads as one long justification for Ms. Clinton’s election defeat. The book is, however, peppered with admissions about errors made, and blame accepted for these mistakes, and to that extent it glows as a credible review of a disturbing, murky period in American history. It will be read over and over again in years to come as that country attempts to unravel the machinations of its 45th president.

What Happened ; Hillary Rodham Clinton, Simon & Schuster, ₹699.

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