In the 2020 Election, It’s Still the Men Vs. Hillary Clinton

Supporters of both Bernie and Trump appear fixated on a familiar — and somewhat irrelevant — foe

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers a keynote speech during the American Federation of Teachers Shanker Institute Defense of Democracy Forum at George Washington University on September 17, 2019 in Washington, DC. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

I hate to say “I told you so,” but here we are: We have less than 90 days left in 2019, the 2020 election has been underway for almost a year now, and Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders partisans are still campaigning against Hillary Clinton.

The most notable offender, of course, is the president, whose obsession with the alleged corruption and lawbreaking of “Crooked Hillary” has shown no sign of slowing down (not even while he deals with his own impeachment issues). Last week, the Washington Post broke the news that the Trump administration has been escalating its investigation into (brace yourself) Hillary’s emails. Though the FBI dropped its investigation into Clinton’s use of a private server long ago, the State Department has contacted as many as 130 of its own current and former officials who had emailed Clinton’s private address, notifying them that they had “been identified as possibly bearing some culpability” in security violations. The individuals were typically let off the hook shortly afterward; though the State Department has denied that the investigation was politically motivated, exasperated former officials told the Post it was nothing more than “an obscene abuse of power and time,” and a way for Republicans “to keep the Clinton email issue alive.”

Trump isn’t the only one nursing old grudges. For weeks, Bernie boosters have been demonstrating a kind of perverse Clinton nostalgia: No matter how often they tell her to go away, they can’t seem to stop talking about her, as in the case of the Cut writer Sarah Jones, who recently castigated Clinton for daring to speak in public, while also writing a 600-word article about various things she’d said on her book tour. The Bernieworld obsession with Clinton often determines views on all other candidates, as in the case of Jacobin writer Meagan Day and others who have argued that Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is fundamentally untrustworthy because “Warren has attracted a lot of impassioned Clinton supporters.” (Incidentally, attracting the supporters of prior candidates is, of course, what political candidates typically try to do.)

We can recognize different levels of responsibility here. Trump’s fixation with Clinton is overtly pathological. His tweets for the name “Hillary” reveal that he’s mentioned her an average of 6.7 times per month in 2019 alone (I don’t have the heart to go back further) and involves a more blatant abuse of power, as in devoting State department resources to a frivolous investigation just to boost his own profile. Trump’s Clinton compulsion is also overtly misogynist. Trump has crafted his appeal around hostile sexism, and pitching himself as the one man willing to put that uppity bitch Hillary in her place — that “place” being her grave, or a prison cell, as all those “HILLARY FOR PRISON” bumper stickers will attest — works to cement his status as America’s aggrieved white male id.

The Clinton bug in Sanders’ camp is more diffuse — it’s a collection of grudges nursed by pundits and promulgated on social media, not a top-down order from the man himself. But the boundaries between the official Sanders campaign and his vocal supporters have always been porous; his 2020 campaign has actually hired some of his louder and more polarizing 2016 boosters, such as former Intercept editor Briahna Joy Gray or general Twitter loudmouth David Sirota, and Sanders’ own theory of change rests on his ability to command popular anger. This is the man who once said he would pass his legislation by getting “a million young people” to protest outside Mitch McConnell’s window until he caved. If Bernie plans to govern via angry crowd, then it is fair game to discuss the angry crowds that have already gathered in his name.

To a greater or lesser extent, both men are stuck in the same quandary: Since most of their initial public support derived from the idea that they could beat Hillary Clinton, they have to somehow keep beating her, in perpetuity, to maintain their mystique. (Trump actually did beat her, of course; many Sanders partisans still believe the conspiracy theory that he actually won the 2016 primary, and that his victory was mysteriously stolen away by Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.) Trump’s efforts to keep the lock-her-up momentum going are more transparently pathetic. Defeating Clinton was the one clear moment of unmitigated success he’s had as president, and his team keeps invoking her name or her supposed crimes, over and over, to remind people of the glory days. It has had diminishing results: Seeing Rudy Giuliani complain that Trump is being scrutinized by the media in a way that would never happen to “the Clintons and crooked Clinton Foundation” makes you realize that Hillary has become the “Free Bird” of Republican politics: a song that everyone is sick of, but they just keep playing it because the crowd used to cheer.

Clinton was — and still is — a bogeyman, and it is much easier to run against the boogeyman than it is to run against an ordinary female politician.

It’s easy to understand why so many people miss having Clinton as a punching bag. She was a central figure in the culture wars for decades, serving as a flashpoint for innumerable gendered concerns — working mothers, educated women, women who run for office, or stay with cheating husbands, or keep their maiden names. Her image was so distorted from years of attacks that many Americans felt automatic dislike for her without knowing why. Clinton was — and still is — a boogeyman, and it is much easier to run against the boogeyman than it is to run against an ordinary female politician.

Yet Clinton has lost her last race; she will not run again. None of the current Democratic candidates has her unique baggage, or her ability to inspire knee-jerk fury in vast swaths of the population. No one has Clinton’s unique talent of making a man look like an establishment-defying hero just for disagreeing with her. Some Sanders and Trump supporters seem to have decided that, if fate will not provide a Hillary Clinton for them to run against, they will have to invent one. Enraged Sanders supporters often attack his most successful female rival, Elizabeth Warren, with language that feels cut-and-pasted straight from 2016: “She is a corporate shrill [sic]! She is a sellout ! She’s an opportunist !” as one perhaps overly enthusiastic social media supporter recently told me. Yet Warren is so famously committed to economic populism that both Wall Street executives and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have declared her their sworn enemy; criticisms of her as a corporate tool have so far failed to stick, or even pass a basic sniff test. Trump continues to hopefully suggest that Joe Biden is “crooked” or guilty of crimes far exceeding his own, but no lock-him-up chants have yet arisen in the streets. Without several decades of Clinton-family conspiracy theories, the smears don’t have the same resonance or sting.

I almost don’t dare suggest it (not least because of what the comments to this piece will look like) but in the end, history may be providing Clinton with the last laugh here. Men are running against Clinton because that’s what they know how to do: Run against Clinton. It turns out to be a very limited skill set when Clinton herself is not in the race. Without a caricatured crook to rail against or put down, her rivals are faced with the most difficult challenge of all: making the case not against her, but for themselves.

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Columns published far and wide across the Internet.

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