An Avoidable Fate: How Clinton’s Campaign Cost America

6 months ago Alger Mag Editor 0

Tens of millions of Americans awoke the morning of November 9th, 2016 to find that their nightmare was real. Donald Trump, the great national joke of twelve months earlier, suddenly threatened their rights to live in this country, their healthcare, their marriages, and the ability of our planet to sustain human life. In the days and weeks afterwards, the reality has set in that the United States of America faces an unprecedented crisis. The new leaders of the country seem to offer the wrong answers to every single question. How did we get here? Where will we go? How will we survive?


In the weeks and months that followed the election, the Great American Punditry sprang into action, producing simplistic, easily-regurgitated answers to the immensely complicated question of Trump’s victory. The simplest and most popular of these was some version of the following: Trump won solely because his racism and sexism (also here) appealed to voters. The pundits who pushed this idea saw racism, sexism, and little else in his campaign; Trump was his early comments about Mexican immigrants, the overlap between his supporters and white supremacists, the leaked tape in which he admits to sexually assaulting women. According to this hypothesis, the requisite number of voters were in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania waiting to vote for a sufficiently racist candidate, while a similarly crucial number of voters in these states stayed home because they refused to vote for a woman.

But this hypothesis unravels. If you believe, as most liberal pundits do, that racism and misogyny are simple character flaws that more enlightened members of society have exorcised from themselves, then Trump voters are morally inferior beings. Of course, any explanation of this one-dimensional and convenient is necessarily incomplete. Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, those crucial states won by Trump, were also won by Barack Obama. Any theory that claims that deep-seated racism prompted these states’ transition must grapple with the reality that four years ago they voted for the first Black president, a man whose middle name is“Hussein” and was rumored to be Muslim. Clinton was, of course, an unpopular candidate who did not manage to turn out voters at the same rate as Obama. Many Trump voters were, like their preferred candidate, racist and misogynist, but this did not decide the election. Racism and misogyny certainly make Trump possible. White supremacy and misogyny are part of the fabric of the U.S.; were this not the case, Trump would be unelectable. But blaming Clinton’s narrow loss on these longstanding historical facts is an assertion that this white supremacy and misogyny cannot be overcome by politics. This assertion is reactionary and false.

As the weeks and months since the election have worn on, the commentariat in America has been offering a different answer: Trump won because of a Russian conspiracy. He has considerable financial ties to Russia and had to fire his former campaign manager because of his unseemly connections to the ousted pro-Russia president of Ukraine. He favors a far less aggressive and more cooperative American stance towards Russia. These connections are suspicious, but the apparent smoking gun is the hacked Democratic National Committee emails released by WikiLeaks. Anonymous leaks from the CIA allege that these emails were procured by Russian hackers — and so a hysterical liberal outcry claims that this election represented some sort of coup d’etat, that Trump is a “Putinite stooge.”

We should question the veracity of these claims. Decades of evidence suggest that Americans should not trust the CIA, especially when they are making anonymous leaks that have serious foreign policy consequences; see, for example, leaks suggesting the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Conceding the leaks are true and Putin ordered the release of hacked DNC emails, its effects have been overestimated. Democrats have two ways of considering this release of emails. The first possibility is that they actually did decide the election, in which case Democrats should ask themselves why Americans would find private emails so damning. The second is that the mostly already-known information released by Wikileaks — for example, that the DNC and Clinton campaign were colluding against the Sanders campaign in the primary — did not really affect the outcome, and the Russian hackers were, like so many Saudi and Israeli donors, also trying to shape the outcome of the election in their best interest. Blaming Russia is popular because it fits in nicely with the pervasive Russophobia left over after the massive cultural mobilization against the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Our movies already have Russian villains; it seems fitting that our election would have one as well. This answer allows those actually responsible for this loss to be absolved of any blame whatsoever. We will correctly assign this blame later; for now we look to the next incomplete answer.

Clinton herself placed the blame on FBI director James Comey, whose letter to Congress several days before the election served as an unpleasant reminder to the country that their next president was under federal investigation and might be indicted. The idea that 100,000 people had forgotten that Clinton was under federal investigation and changed their minds last-minute is decidedly far-fetched. Even if it were somehow true, it places the blame on Comey for simply doing his job, and not on Clinton for actually breaking the law, nor on the Democratic Party for nominating her in spite of this federal investigation.

Outcry after the election proclaimed that Clinton was the real winner, because she won the popular vote. But Trump’s victory is a total victory; political campaigns know that they win by winning the electoral college. It is what he and Clinton were campaigning for, and the popular vote total is irrelevant. Third parties are not to blame either – while it is true that Clinton would have won had all Stein and Johnson voters voted for her instead, it is also true that she would have won had every Trump voter voted for her. Blaming third-party voters for Clinton’s loss presumes that Clinton somehow deserved their vote, or that their vote would have necessarily gone to her rather than to Trump or abstaining. If she deserved their vote, she would have received it.

It should be suspicious that the explanations offered by liberals place the blame for their loss on seemingly uncontrollable external factors. Whether they ascribe the loss to an instinctive reaction against female leadership, the actions of a single government bureaucrat, or a secret Russian conspiracy, they all rationalize their defeat as inevitable. This feeling is understandable; at the moment, countries around the world are dealing with resurgent right-wing movements. Great Britain’s exit of the European Union served as an augury of the Trump victory, as did the election of Modi in India, Erdogan’s consolidation of power in Turkey, and the removal of Rousseff in Brazil. However, the victory of this right-wing uprising did not have to be inevitable, at least not in the United States presidential election of 2016. Of course, the United States is not immune to the global conditions shaping this authoritarian spring; these conditions are, perhaps, the reason that this election was even close, the reason that a candidate like Trump was even palatable to enough Americans to get through the Republican primary.

But Trump was not inevitable in 2016. He should have lost badly. A global trend towards the hard right could have been prevented from taking hold in the United States, at least for another four years. An overwhelming share of the blame for Trump’s victory falls on the shoulders of Hillary Clinton and her campaign.

Hillary Clinton lost the election because of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Writing for Politico in December, in the most comprehensive article on Clinton campaign strategy published since the election, Edward-Isaac Dovere described an arrogant Clinton headquarters which eschewed the staples of political campaigns, from lawn signs to state party outreach.

Dovere and others provide an endless catalogue of mistakes.The campaign was plagued by infighting, and when high-level staffers weren’t lashing out at each other they were arguing with the DNC. The campaign dedicated three times more of their campaign’s resources to paid internet commenters than to Latino outreach. The Clinton campaign spent huge amounts of money getting out the vote in Chicago and New Orleans, two cities in states whose elections were foregone conclusions. Ironically, their motivation in doing this was fear that Trump would lose the electoral vote but win the popular vote. The campaign avoided Michigan and refused to meet requests by the field headquarters there for additional funding and volunteers. This was a bizarre attempt at reverse psychology; the Clinton team was trying trick Trump into believing he had already lost the state. The most spectacular blunder of all, however, was Hillary Clinton’s failure to visit Wisconsin even once after its primary.

These campaigning errors are indicative of a deeper flaw: a total inability to connect with Americans on a ground level. The Brooklyn-based campaign could not win sufficient voters in Midwest cities to defeat Trump; outside of these cities, they failed completely. The simple explanations offered by the liberal establishment reflect an unwillingness to reckon with this failure.

There are dozens of reasons not to vote for Hillary Clinton. For war hawks, there is her failure in Benghazi; for anti-interventionists, there is her vote to invade Iraq. For Black Lives Matter, there is her infamous speech about “superpredators,” and for All Lives Matter, there are her “Mothers of the Movement” appearances. So many of her stances had changed over the years that when she came out with a policy program that many Americans generally agreed with, they didn’t believe her. She declared herself opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership after calling it the “Gold Standard” for trade agreements; she called for the legalization of gay marriage after supporting DOMA.

Clinton was the candidate of the lukewarm, the person you should vote for if you weren’t quite sure how you felt about any of this. She ran not on any substantial vision of change in the country, but instead on the vague notion that “America is already great” – a notion which failed to address that the many Americans whose lives have worsened do not feel the same. It was her turn, her supporters insisted; she has been waiting for the Presidency for years and now she deserved it. The slogan “I’m With Her” was regurgitated more than any proposal for fixing the myriad problems faced by the country. In this, it is clear that many of Clinton’s more prominent backers, including Democrats powerful enough to be known as “superdelegates” and much of the pundit class discussed above, were disconnected from the reality of politics. Theirs was a world where the guarantor of success was a strong resume and two letters of recommendation.

If there was a concrete idea driving the Clinton campaign, it was the single platform of not being Donald Trump. Trump, it was believed, was simply too vulgar to appeal to the well-to-do Republicans who lived in less rural areas. Senator Charles Schumer described the strategy succinctly in July: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” The campaign embraced this idea wholeheartedly by marching to the right. Clinton sought and received the endorsement of various officials from the Bush administrations, including George H.W. Bush himself. She declared in a speech in August that the racist campaign of Donald Trump was “not the Republicans we have known.” The Democratic party gave Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a centrist Republican famous for his racist stop-and-frisk police profiling policies and his poor tax ban on soda, a primetime slot at the convention. This strategy alienated those voters to Clinton’s left who had previously been energized by the Sanders campaign; Clinton’s increasing resemblance to mainstream Republicans made it easy for them to stay home on election day or cast a protest vote.

This explicit rejection of lower-income voters in the hopes of gaining those with higher income is only the latest step in the Democrats’ long process of abandoning poor voters. Their attempt to trade in blue-collar supporters for wealthy suburbanites clearly failed in those crucial states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Even if this strategy had worked in the short term, it would have failed in the long term. Clinton’s coalition would have fallen apart before the inauguration. Even if moderate Republicans preferred Clinton to Trump, they would continue to support their congressmen as they obstructed her agenda at every turn. This centrist strategy, doomed from the start, never came to fruition – the Clinton campaign failed to convince enough moderate Republicans to vote for them.

In summary, the Clinton campaign lost the 2016 presidential election for three reasons. The first was their failure to run an organized campaign in key states. The second was their failure to provide the country with any coherent vision of the future, a vision that was made doubly necessary by their uniquely unpopular candidate. The third was a poor tactical choice, a gamble on white-collar suburban Republicans that failed.


Now, after the election, what do the Democrats stand for? Their continued willingness to appease the opposition, even when they are in power, has handicapped them from making lasting gains. They are willing to sacrifice any goal to weather a right-wing attack: remember their insistence that single-payer healthcare is never going to happen and universal college education is unrealistic. Indeed, it increasingly seems that the only policies Democrats are unwilling to sacrifice are perpetual war in the Middle East and Wall Street profits. The party wasted their unitary government from 2008-2010 on a largely ineffective healthcare plan and a weak financial regulatory bill. President Obama, meanwhile, expanded the American surveillance state and continued its interminable wars in the Middle East and North Africa. All promises of hope and change and an end to Guantanamo torture are long forgotten. They have instead opted to run to please everyone, making compromise after compromise, with no long-term strategy for success except for blind faith in the continued loyalty of growing populations of minority voters.

Republicans provide a grand vision of the future for their supporters, albeit a reactionary one. They seek to “Make America Great Again.” They promise to eventually deliver a country that explicitly favors their white, Christian voters by banning immigrants and abortion. They maintain their power by playing dirty: they gerrymander, pass voter identification laws that disproportionately disenfranchise Democrats, and court the support of the most powerful billionaires. Meanwhile, Democrats keep on losing. Since Obama’s election in 2008, the party has lost over 900 state legislature seats, 12 governorships, 69 House seats, and 13 Senate seats.

Democrats have allowed Republicans to become, at least symbolically, defenders of the rights of working people. The Republican promise to do this is a powerful lie. In the the best-case scenario, when the falsehood of this title becomes clear, the Republican coalition may begin to fall apart while the Democrats’ close relationship with Wall Street falters as they continue to lose seats and can no longer effectively enforce the whims of finance capital. The performance of the markets following Trump’s election and his multiple billionaire cabinet appointments demonstrate that Trump and the American finance industry are willing to have a symbiotic relationship. Democrats who are no longer afraid of displeasing their Wall Street donors are free to engage in the kind of social democratic Bernie Sanders populism that actually wins states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. When Democrats are back in power, they should, like Republicans, pass policies that keep them there – but by expanding voter rights rather than restricting them. However, before they even regain power, Democrats must adopt an even more aggressive obstructionism against the Trump government than the Tea Party Republicans utilized against Obama. The stakes are too high for anything less.

How will we survive? Concerned citizens cannot realistically prevent the advance of Trump and his hordes, but they can slow them. To do this requires a mass mobilization not seen in the US since the 1960s; it must reach beyond huge protests and into communities existentially threatened by the Trump regime. Immigrants and refugees must be defended, as well as those on the margins of society who may lose their access to food, their health care, and their homes in the cutbacks on social services. Meanwhile, political institutions down to the smallest levels — city councils and universities — must be taken over and utilized to defend innocents from the new federal regime.

Republicans may undo the New Deal completely and privatize the entirety of America’s social safety net. Trump’s provocative stance against China will reveal the tenuousness of America’s Asian foothold and will almost certainly escalate the unwinnable war in the Middle East. A large-scale conflict in Iran has never been more likely. Simultaneous conflict in Iran and China means that American resources are going to be stretched painfully thin. When this process is complete and its failure is evident, Democrats may regain power, but not before massive damage has been done to the already frayed social fabric of this country and the already slipping position of our nation in the global arena. Regaining power is not impossible, but by the time a less vindictive coalition once again takes the helm, it may be too late for America.


by: Patrick Cleary