Much of politics is about shades of gray; it is hard to see things in black and white. But there’s one subject on which it is possible to be categorical: Donald Trump. He is not only the worst US President in living memory, he is also an international embarrassment.
Nor is this a surprise. During the election campaign, Trump displayed all the traits he would later bring to the White House: he was rude, bigoted, sexist, racist, ignorant and generally inept. His campaign saw frequent changes of staff and should have been torpedoed by the Access Hollywood tape where he bragged about grabbing women by their genitals.
And yet, Trump won. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, who Barack Obama once described as the most qualified candidate to run for President, went down to a defeat that was such a shock that her campaign staff had to cancel the elaborate victory celebration that they had already planned and she had to junk her triumphal speech. (According to this book, they ordered every flavour of ice-cream they could find, instead.)
As Bernie Sanders has pointed out, Clinton stood against the most unpopular Presidential candidate in history. And she still managed to lose.
How was that even possible?
What Happened is Clinton’s attempt to answer that question. While there are snippets of autobiography, the odd personal detail, testimonials from people who seem to love her and invocations to Americans to resist the worst aspects of the Trump Presidency, the operative part of the book is her defence of her candidacy.
The crux of Clinton’s case is that she had the election all sown up till FBI Director James Comey declared that the bureau was re-opening the investigation into her e-mails. Comey later said that the investigation had found nothing but by then, argues Clinton, the damage had been done.
While there is no doubt that Comey behaved strangely, did Clinton really have the election in the bag before his intervention? It’s hard to say. She relies on polling data to support her case. But then, many pollsters also believed that she would win the Presidency almost to the moment that Trump won the election. So pollsters do not always provide the most reliable testimonials.
Her other arguments are stronger. She says that the Russians interfered in the election to defeat her, a view for which there is now some independent verification. She says that sexism makes it hard for a woman to get elected in America which is fair enough, though, it must be said, racism did not prevent Obama from winning the Presidency twice. She believes that she was the target of a right wing disinformation campaign, which spread lies and fake news through Facebook (which performs the same role there as Whatsapp does here) and that her supporters were intimidated and abused by organised trolling, sometimes from bots. This sounds kind of familiar to us in India so there may be something to it.
She rejects the suggestion she did not focus enough on key Rust Belt states (she won the popular vote but an archaic American institution called the Electoral College, which gives certain states a disproportionate say in choosing the winner, allowed Trump to get in) or ignored the white working class. And she manages to sneakily blame Obama for the indifference of poor Whites to the Democratic Party which, they believed, had sold them out to global free trade interests and African-Americans.
It is a well-argued case. But it ignores Clinton’s fundamental problem. As she notes, it would have been really unprecedented for the Democrats to have won the White House for a third time. The only way that could have happened was if the party offered a new vision or a new kind of candidate. Even Republican voters rejected their own leaders and picked outsider Donald Trump because the prevailing mood was for change. That’s why Bernie Sanders did so well in Democratic primaries and appealed to a new generation.
Hillary, on the other hand, just offered more of the same. More of Obama’s policies, more of the Clinton legacy and more of the traditional Democratic party. At a time when Americans looked for change, she was the wrong candidate at the wrong time. In retrospect, the Democrats should have done what the Republicans did. Bernie Sanders, their outsider, may have defeated Trump, the Republican’s outsider. And Bill and Hillary could have stuck to touring the world and giving high-priced speeches to fat cats.
But then, everything is always clearer in hindsight.