So long as we’re writing alternative history here, let me tell you a surprising fact about myself: before I read What Happened, I’d never heard of Hillary Rodham Clinton. I’d never heard of Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. I may have known them once, I can’t recall. There’s a greyness in my memory, the result of some intolerable stress that has been lost as well, and it envelops not just the whole of 2016, but every political detail in the whole twenty-seven years of my life. I think back but all I see are schools and meals and birthday parties. The rest is distant and cold. What happened?
In the past several weeks I have encountered other reviews of Clinton’s book, but each of them exists in a context I can’t track. They make reference to facts and feuds and factions, references which, in order to be understood, require a living memory of what I’m told was a tremendously consequential election for the United States. But my memory is empty. I come to What Happened like some future century philologist squinting through a murky peephole to make sense of a contested past. I only know what has reached me. This book is my primary source. I want to tell you about what happened, so far as I can tell from what I’ve read here. I rely on you to tell me if I’ve got the wrong impression.
What Happened is a memoir by a now-retired politician named Hillary Clinton and it details, over the course of 500 pages, the most humiliating sequence of events I can imagine befalling a public figure. We begin in the aftermath, as Clinton prepares to attend the inauguration of Donald Trump, her victorious opponent in the recent presidential election. She tells us that she very nearly didn’t go. Ordinarily, defeated opponents and former presidents attend the swearing in ceremony as a matter of course, she tells us, but this time was different. Trump was not merely another president, but, as Clinton writes, “a clear and present danger to the country and the world.” Other government officials are boycotting the inauguration. Those who do attend—including Clinton’s husband, who had been president himself two decades earlier—find the proceedings unnerving.
George W. Bush, another former president who appears to be a good friend of Clinton’s despite coming from a rival party, describes Trump’s inaugural address as “weird shit.” The outgoing president handles the situation as best he can. But Clinton isn’t merely frightened or confused or working on a stiff upper lip. She is embarrassed. She has spent the better part of her adult life working to become the president of the United States. The recent election was not her first run at the office, although it will, she says, be her last. She believed that she would win this time. She believed that her opponent was a joke. But “the joke, it turned out, was on us,” Clinton writes. For the better part of her adult life, she has wanted one thing, and now she has lost that thing forever, lost it in sight of the whole world, and lost it to a parody-grotesque of the worst person in the world. This is a fundamentally tragic book, a memoir about defeat on a scale that I can scarcely comprehend. Clinton attends the inauguration. Then she goes home, and tries, over the course of several dozen pages, to put herself back together. That is “what happened.” The rest of the book promises to explain why.
It takes some time before we reach the explanation. That isn’t such a terrible thing. As a reader utterly unfamiliar with Clinton, I was grateful for the several hundred pages she devotes introducing herself to readers before launching in to the major intrigues of the election itself. We learn about her past as a lifelong advocate for children, her career giving tough talks to companies like Goldman Sachs (so she wouldn’t have to sit on their board), her origin as a student leader and radical protestor against the war in Vietnam. Clinton tells us at great length about her husband the ex-president, with whom she has had difficult times (she doesn’t specify what happened there) but who remains her best friend. She tells us about their house, its quiet street, its bright colors, its bedroom with high ceilings and a view of the garden. She tells us about her love for her child and her grandchildren. We learn about the pride she felt when her daughter joined the Clinton Global Initiative, which we learn is one of the most profoundly successful and well-intentioned charities in the world. We learn about Clinton’s faith. Each morning, her pastor sends her a devotional and it is often the first thing she encounters in her day.
We follow Clinton through a “day in the life” of her campaign. She flies across the country with her political staff (led by a young man named Robby Mook, who is a data genius) and her stylists (one of them recommended by Anna Wintour). She enjoys snacks, like “Pepperidge Farm goldfish crackers” (only 150 calories per 55—“not bad!” she says) and “Tito’s Handmade Vodka.” Since her last campaign, Clinton has learned to “work smart” instead of needlessly tiring herself out. She prepares for her debates against Donald Trump, who has the character of a man kicked off the set of a porn parody of The Godfather for being too much of a creep.
In several chapters, Clinton tells us about the issues closest to her heart. By the sheer number of pages devoted, her chief concerns appear to be passing sensible gun control, ending police brutality against black Americans, and helping displaced blue collar workers in the Rust Belt. Clinton writes persuasively and at length about the difficulty of being a woman in public life, mixing her own experience with new terms she tells us she’s been picking up, like “mansplaining” and “woke.”
Throughout What Happened, Clinton gives us a taste of her literary influences, beginning each section, and each chapter, and sometimes inserting inside of chapters, quotations from Harriet Tubman, Friedrich Nietzsche, A League of Their Own, Rainer Maria Rilke, Eleanor Roosevelt, TS Eliot, George Bernard Shaw, Carl Sandburg, “a sign in my house”, Nora Ephron, Muriel Rukeyser, JM Barrie, Mary Ann Shaffer, Annie Barrows, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Flannery O’Connor, WB Yeats, “a Chinese proverb”, “an African proverb”, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Robert Frost, John F. Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Henry James, and Pope John XIII. I do not know who any of those people are. It seems I’ve lost them along with every other person in this book. But from the quotations, you can tell that each of them is an advocate for kindness, perseverance, truth, and decency. You can see how each of them helped shape Clinton and her thoughts.
After learning so much about Clinton, it is difficult to read her account of the campaign itself when it arrives slightly more than halfway through the book. It is terrible to witness the tragedy unfold. Clinton ran for president, she says early on, because she “thought I would be good at the job.” Others agree, including the current president, Barack Obama, who announces at her convention that she is the most qualified candidate to ever run despite—Clinton notes—their disagreement on issues including environmental regulation and an unspecified conflict in Syria (their respective positions are not detailed; however, my research indicates that Clinton was widely believed to be “the most progressive candidate” in history, so one imagines that she disapproved of President Obama’s bellicose stance on the issue). But despite her qualifications, or perhaps due to them, Clinton endures a cruelty and depth of opposition unlike anything endured by a candidate for the presidency before her.
First, she faces a primary against a disruptive charlatan. Senator Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat, she tells us, but a socialist attempting to “disrupt” the party. Sanders is at once nearly identical to Clinton on the issues (“because we agreed on so much, Bernie couldn’t make an argument against me in this area on policy, so he had to resort to innuendo and impugning my character,” she writes) and hopelessly reactionary—a man willing to compromise on Clinton’s key issues of gun violence and racial justice in order to give free “ponies”, “magic abs”, and taxpayer-funded college education to rich children. Sanders’ supporters are vicious—Clinton calls them “Bernie Bros” twice in her book—and go so far as to boo her at the Democratic National Convention. Sanders himself, despite campaigning for Clinton (something she graciously “appreciated”), refused to endorse her for nearly a month after the end of their contest. Despite Clinton’s record and character, Sanders attacked her integrity even after the delegate math is done. This shameless new anti-Clinton strategy “[paves] the way for Donald Trump’s ‘Crooked Hillary’ campaign” during the general and does “lasting damage” to the party.
None of this compares to what comes next. In a section called “Frustration,” Clinton reveals that it was not only her Republican opponent who she was up against in the general election last year. Beyond Trump, Clinton must contend with a news media that operates under special “Clinton rules” designed to make all of her behavior appear nefarious, most notably a server management issue during her time at the State Department. She is attacked by Republican congressmen and Senators, who haul her before pointless special committees in order to score cheap political points on TV. She is “knifed” by FBI director James Comey, whose release of a damning and unprecedented letter only days before the election costs Clinton essential margins in several states. Beyond all of this, Clinton faces an unprecedented espionage effort by a man named Vladimir Putin. Putin, Clinton tells us, has a personal grudge against her born of her previous work as Secretary of State and in order to keep her from the presidency, he orders Russian intelligence services to attack her candidacy on all fronts.
The Russians seed propaganda through American social media networks. They steal internal emails from her campaign and release them at the most damaging possible times. They hack voting systems and even collaborate directly with members of Trump’s campaign. This was an act of war, Clinton writes, and one cannot help but sense an unspoken anger at President Obama, who knew what was going on, but chose not to make a public declaration.
In other reviews of What Happened, I have seen the claim that Clinton refuses to take responsibility for her loss. Perhaps this is in reference to some other book or statement long since lost to my memory, because in this book, it simply isn’t true. In nearly every chapter, Clinton repeats some version of the idea that the blame for losing the 2016 election rests with her alone. It is only that given everything else we learn—given the “tribalism” of the electorate, the vendetta of the Russians, the opposition that she, like all subversive figures, faced from even her own state’s secret police—given all of those things and how all of those things are invariably mentioned either immediately before or immediately after any moment when Clinton takes responsibility for her defeat, given all of that it is difficult to escape the impression that while she might take the blame, no reasonable person would put the blame on Clinton.
Indeed the strangest element of What Happened is the widespread belief, both within and without the Clinton campaign, that she would win. I can only take her word that this was widely believed, but it is difficult to fathom. The Clinton I discovered in these pages was a radical. From the moment she left her position as president of Wellesley’s Republican club (a detail she mentioned, much to my shock, in the book’s final pages), Clinton fought relentlessly against the entrenched, reactionary forces of her nation. As a young woman, she demonstrated against the imperial war in Vietnam. As an attorney, she was on the front lines against Jim Crow. In public service, she stood up not only to despots like Vladimir Putin, but to the most powerful corporations in the United States, proposing redistributive taxes and “truly universal” health care, even flirting with a guaranteed basic income funded by capital derivatives from nationalized resource services.
Writing about the decline of American labor solidarity, Clinton writes that “being part of a union is an important part of someone’s personal identity. It helps shape the way you view the world and think about politics. When that’s gone, it means a lot of people stop identifying primarily as workers—and voting accordingly—and start identifying and voting as white, male, rural, or all of the above.” This account of class-consciousness puts Clinton to the left of even celebrated American essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates. How could anyone be naïve enough to believe that her victory was guaranteed? She was a radical taking on the establishment and the establishment is never more vicious than when it is protecting itself from a figure who has proven herself willing and able to defeat them. For the Clinton of What Happened to win the Presidency in a country like the United States would have been miraculous. Nothing in the history I can remember suggests that this was ever likely.
I should confess that there are several other things that I found strange about this book. Like a good philologist, I am sensitive to hidden meaning, to subtleties that would be clear to a reader familiar with the context of a book but which can elude even an agile mind with no other frame of reference. The dissonance between Clinton’s politics and her perceived chances was my first clue that not all was what it seemed here, but it was not the last.
There are moments in What Happened when you are made to question the reliability of its narrator. Beneath the account of a revolutionary campaign for the presidency, you catch glimpses of something else. A common trick in memoirs is endearing self-effacement, the process by which a narrator lets you know they aren’t entirely free of faults but do so without ever coming across as entirely unsympathetic. Clinton provides us some meta-commentary on this front, explaining in some of the book’s most persuasive chapters how difficult this task can be for women in public life.
But in the realm of the book itself, I began to suspect that Clinton was overplaying her hand on purpose, as if trying to alert me to some deeper meaning in the text. I noticed moments when Clinton reveals darker impulses, the kind that made me question how reliable this narrator was meant to be. Early in the book, Clinton fantasizes about yelling at a teenager who failed to vote. Later, she hints—cryptically—at a past membership in the Republican Party. After a long section that reckons honestly with the power and virulence of sexism in public life, Clinton chooses—as a crowning example of this tendency—the criticism she receives for voting to authorize the Iraq War. In several passages, she mentions how well taken care of she and her family were when they lived in Arkansas’ Governor’s Mansion, but only cursory research revealed that a good deal of the staff during the Clintons’ time there consisted of felons laboring under the Thirteenth Amendment’s loophole for slave labor among the convicted.
As I noticed more and more of these inconsistencies, it dawned on me that despite its conventional appearance, What Happened does not follow the most basic rule of memoir; indeed, it does not follow the most basic rule of storytelling: the characters are meant to change. Despite all of the dramatic action here, Clinton leaves the plot precisely as she entered it—a warrior against the forces of reaction, bested in an election by forces beyond her ability to defeat, but nonetheless resilient and optimistic about the future. “In 2016, the U.S. government announced that Harriet Tubman will become the face of the $20 bill. If you need proof that America can still get it right, there it is,” she writes at the end of the introduction.
Despite everything that happens, she still believes it on the final page. Nothing but her own career trajectory has changed. This is true of the other characters as well. Throughout the book, they are less people than ideas, roles flickering in and out of the drama. Barack Obama is gracious. Bernie Sanders is a scold. Donald Trump is evil and Bill Clinton is loyal. Chelsea is a source of pride. The only exception is George W. Bush, who contains multitudes. He’s an old rival, but he’s a pal. He’s a sage, but he can be blunt too. He’s a war criminal, but he’s funny. Sadly, Bush only appears on a handful of pages. Beyond him, none of these characters appear fully human. None of these events quite add up. None of this felt like reality so much as it felt like a notion of reality, a distortion brought on by some external force acting beyond the periphery of the events described in the pages. I am beginning to feel as if I remember something, something key—but it eludes me.
Clinton is indisputably an intelligent and accomplished public servant, as well as the author of several books. I was at least confident that these lapses could not be a mistake but were instead a deliberate signal to the reader. This was a more sophisticated literary project than my earlier, superficial reading suggested.
What I believe now is that What Happened is a memoir about power, one that accomplishes through the sympathetic portrayal of a heroic character a vision of danger more subtle and persuasive than could be achieved by way of a more straightforward polemic. It is no mistake that the book begins with former presidents of all parties brought together by wariness of the newest member of their club, how they console one another with social offers, how above all they are civil to one another, how more than half of them come from only two families. This is a book about how power preserves and reproduces itself, at times through the naked domination of a Trump figure, but more often, and perhaps more alarmingly, through the slow churning transformation of an idealist like the Hillary Clinton we meet here.
It is a book about how the structures of capital and empire turn even the brightest young radicals into its servants, how it can turn a student who implored her college class to discover “ecstatic modes of living” into a candidate angered by black activists’ impatience. The true plot of this book is about an anti-Vietnam War radical who later finds herself celebrating the “values-driven” foreign policy of American Empire. It is about an heir apparent who is felled by international antagonism and the malfeasance of covert operatives but who does not ask how all this spy craft came to power in the first place. It is about how a bright, ambitious politician can believe, truly believe, that she has been fighting for the same values all her life and yet become someone who could only be unrecognizable to her younger self.
Some of the most convincing moments in this memoir concern Clinton’s apprehension about the enormity of the power she is trying to inherit. It is an immense and monstrous thing, beyond the capacity of any human being to take on without some practice. Clinton tells us how she pauses and breathes and makes herself ready by setting aside her anxieties and qualms. These moments are a microcosm for the whole project here. They are infrequent and easy to miss. But you can find them hidden between the long passages about her daughter, whom she truly, clearly loves, and who appears in this book like nothing less than the next Clinton meant to take up the quest for American power.
The true intentions of this book were hiding in plain sight from the beginning. On page nine, Clinton writes that the core feature of authoritarianism is “attempting to define reality.”
“This is what the Soviets did when they erased political dissidents from historical photos. This is what happens in George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eight-Four, when a torturer holds up four fingers and delivers electric shocks until his prisoner sees five fingers as ordered. The goal is to make you question logic and reason and to sow mistrust toward exactly the people we need to rely on: our leaders, the press, experts who seek to guide public policy based on evidence, ourselves.”
That is, authoritarianism is the malicious campaign to make ordinary people distrust authority. This book is about how someone can come to believe that. How despite play-acting conflict between its factions, power exists to remake itself. How it intoxicates and corrupts beneath a veneer of good intentions. How it makes you forget what happened—to the country, to the world, to yourself.
For all its artlessness, What Happened achieves a kind of art. Official history is a soft blanket and this one, for all its sorrow, is more comforting than most. But if we’re to avoid being transformed ourselves, we should be honest in our own history. So I admit: I do know who Hillary Clinton is, of course. It would be lovely to forget and to relearn this book’s version of reality, but I lived through the horror of the election and I lived through the horror afterward. We are all living through that horror now. Each of us watched the interplay of wealth and violence—which has for centuries handed the reigns of our dying planet back and forth between the rival factions of our oligarchy—snag on the misdirected fury of its discontents and drop power into the waiting hands of an unusually cruel narcissist.
We saw it happen not because Hillary Clinton is particularly wretched or terrible—no one person is so consequential—but because the depravity of our empire is straining under its own weight. Because it is barely able to tolerate its contradictions anymore. Hillary Clinton is not singularly responsible for any of this, but this book is not about Hillary Clinton, not really. It’s about power. I meant that. It’s about what you have to believe if you believe that an adequate response to the present moment consists of trusting the experts, recalibrating the polling computer, and returning the Democratic Party to power. It’s about what to do if you missed what happened, if you forgot what happened, if you want all of this to happen again.