Oh boy. Where to start with this book? For starters, it’s going to annoy a lot of people. And I’m not going to lie — some of it hurts. Clinton writes that when she watches Trump on the news, or reads about him in the papers, it’s like picking at a scab. The book is a bit like that. It’s an often painful look at what might have been. And even though she says in the introduction that she doesn’t “have all the answers, and this isn’t a comprehensive account of the 2016 race”, it feels pretty comprehensive to me.
Let’s be brutally honest about two things. 1: There is no such thing as an unbiased reading of this book. And 2: How you respond to Clinton’s book will depend entirely on what you want from it.
Do you want her to fall on her sword? Are you expecting 400 pages of Clinton screaming mea culpa for not defeating Trump? If so, you will be disappointed. She owns her mistakes, and there are things that she wishes she could have done differently. But — and this is the part that has wound up lots of other readers — she is also quick to point out that there were plenty of other factors that contributed to Trump being sworn in rather than her. And she doesn’t hold back.
Do you want her to be begging for absolution? Because you won’t get that. A lot of people seem to be adding a question mark to the title, but What Happened isn’t an incredulous rhetorical question from a woman who doesn’t know why she isn’t in the White House right now.
If you want her to explain the complexity of the clusterfuck that was 2016’s presidential election in a calm and rational way, then great. You’ve got it. Just as she was the most qualified candidate, so is she the most qualified narrator for her story. Her perspective is smart, knowledgeable, thorough, and full of data. There is an awareness of shortcomings, but an admirable refusal to take the fall for all the other myriad reasons that President Trump is now a thing.
She points a lot of fingers. She will take her share of the blame, but so too must others. If you’re a Bernie Bro, there are some passages you won’t like. Also facing her steely glare is the political press, who she says treated Trump as a lucrative source of clicks and shifted the narrative away from policies to spectacle.
She had powerful and influential enemies. You may need to brace yourself for the chapter on ‘Those Damn Emails’, where she has some stern words for Comey, and on the following chapter exploring Putin’s interference, which she says should be seen as an act of war.
But it wasn’t just people that were against her. Even though it seemed inevitable that Clinton would become President, she is honest that it was always going to be an uphill battle. Looking at history, “It was exceedingly difficult for either party to hold on to the White House for more than eight years.” Being a ‘continuity’ candidate rather than a ‘change’ candidate was a challenge. Her last name was more of a hindrance than a headstart; she is fully aware of ‘Clinton fatigue’.
Cultural attitudes were also against her. She speaks frankly about sexism and misogyny, and the impact of these. Her chapter on the working class, ‘Country Roads’, is also frank about the “complex dynamic” of class and gender in working class whites:
“When people feel left out, left behind, and left without options, the deep void will be filled by anger and resentment or depression and despair about those who supposedly took away their livelihoods or cut in line.”
She stands by her policies to address the causes of the issues faced by the working classes, but admits that Trump “tapped into all these feelings” more effectively than she did. He provided an easier answer. It was just that the answer he provided was a lie.
Where Clinton criticizes both Sanders and Trump (though not equally — she is very emphatic about avoiding false equivalences) is that she sees them as stoking a mood and making promises that they either couldn’t or shouldn’t deliver. Hers is a pragmatic form of politics, full of compromise and thoroughly evaluated calculations, principled but not idealistic or purely ideological. Her policies were long reads, not headlines. And the way that we consume news now lends itself more to headline politics.
She points out ruefully that in a parliamentary system, she would have been a dead cert. I’m inclined to agree.
But there’s something else you get from this book as well; it’s a peep behind the curtain. I liked her more by the end than I had before. Don’t get me wrong — I was Team Hillary, but I would have just described her as intimidating and formidable. She is still as intimidating as ever — you certainly wouldn’t want to mess with her — and she knows she can come across as frosty and distant, saying “I wear my composure like a suit of armor, for better or worse.” But there is a real warmth to her in the book.
And this is the point where I have to use two of my least favourite words ever, because really, they are the only ones that work here. Clinton is also relatable, and sassy. Clinton is someone who puts on her yoga pants at the end of the day and knocks back some Chardonnay. She’s also someone who uses cleaning and organizing as a psychological self-care strategy. She yells at the TV when Trump is on. She watched Kate McKinnon sing Hallelujah on Saturday Night Live and had a cry. She is the pushy friend who nags you to go to the doctor, and reminds you to put warm socks on. (Yes, this really is a thing in the book. In, uh, her emails.)
And when she comes for Trump, oh it’s glorious. There’s some truly eloquent shade here.
She knows she could have won. She knows she should have won. She knows she could have phrased some points more effectively. (Though that ‘deplorables’ comment seems more prescient than ever now, right?) She knows that some of the data models were off. But — and here’s the really admirable part — she knows that we have to move on and look ahead to the next fight. Clinton’s not someone to rant and vent; she’s a fixer.
Here’s a little statistic that will make you think, and then maybe howl into the abyss:
“If just 40,000 people across Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania had changed their minds, I would have won. With a margin like that, everyone can have a pet theory about why I lost.”
If what you want from this book is Clinton’s theory, then you’re set. But stay for the shade. It’s therapeutic.