You and I have come a long way since we shared a dude-filled taxi late last year. Back then, we feared that Trump would be the demon prince of our feverish imaginings, and that the Democrats would putter feebly around Martha’s Vineyard before combusting into self-immolating fire. Now, of course, it’s a different world: Trump is full of burgers and defeat. There is a resistance in the land. Still, it’s never too late to consider how we got here. Which is why I’ve been so enthused about this new tell-all book, “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.” We agreed to read it and send letters back and forth, like recent conscripts in a medieval nunnery writing about the snares of devil.
“Shattered” is written by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, who wrote a 2014 biography of Secretary Clinton, “HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton.” This new work is a factual recounting and close-to-oral-history retelling of the star-crossed Clinton campaign—the writers had unfettered access to anonymous sources inside the crusade. “Shattered” has been making all kinds of noise up and down the Potomac, and every other watery metonym which stands for wealth and power. It’s appropriate; the days since the Election of Donald Trump have been a cage-match of the blame game—with one side using evidence and the other using the cringiest of memes to make their points. It’s a crazy muddle, the wind seems to say.
All kidding aside, what kind of book is “Shattered?” Let me cut to the chase: “Shattered,” despite being by sympathetic journos, says November is Clinton’s fault.
On a prosaic level, “Shattered” is the kind of post-campaign document we know all too well. This kind of book blooms after every Presidential election, like toadstools after the rain. They always sell, because every election is in some way a referendum and explanation of cultural, social, and economic trends. In its tone, “Shattered” is a lot of the same old tricks in the same old bottles. The authors deal the factual cards in the dispassionate, reasonable-voice tone as usual: this many delegates were served, this state is crucial, this power-broker did this. This horse-race style of political analysis—a school of thought which elides cause, issues, platforms, programs—is a habit for Washington writers, and it’s a pain. You can find its antecedents as far back as Theodore White’s “The Making of the President, 1960.” It’s been done. It will be done again.
However, this is only its form. In its actual content—and the actual context of its publication—it strikes me like the hammer-blow of Thor. The effect of this mild-toned recounting is akin to throwing a hundred Black Cat explosives in the children’s ward. It is the single harshest critique of the Clinton Campaign, and by extension, the neoliberal worldview of the Establishment Democrats that I can imagine … precisely because it is so sympathetic to received opinion, centrist ideology, and polite official-media stances. For instance, I suspect the authors tacitly agree that it was Clinton’s time—they accept the questionable premise of entitlement—and yet every sentence they write argues against it. Even without serious consideration of what Bernie or Trump stood for. even with obsessive, exclusive focus on Hillary, they cannot help but reveal what happened.
And what did happen? There are a thousand unnatural shocks in this book, but they come down to a few gape-mouthed surprises:
— Hillary had no idea why she wanted to run.
— The high-end political operators don’t just believe the wrong things; they actually have no idea what they are doing.
— The Democratic Party is just as bafflingly retrograde and hapless as you can imagine.
— Political satire is now dead, but not by Trump’s hand; it’s the Clintons wot done it.
The book disproves conspiracy theorists wrong. The Clinton Campaign directors were the highest-status and highest-paid persons in the game, and this was their result. The question of whether this same team would have been able to win if Clinton had allowed them to is kind of pointless: they were grown from Clintonworld, and were beholden to it.
Criticism of Hillary is nothing new. There have been anti-HRC books mooked together since the Nineties. But if the candidate is the campaign, this is the most damning volume ever written about Clinton.
Most of all, “Shattered” puts the boot to the elite notion. The elite notion is an idea which practically every pundit and political writer, myself included, has held at one time. Simply: that the people at the top of the political ladder (even if they are centrist) are insightful geniuses operating at a Lyndon Johnson-level understanding of politics. This is the American idea of expertise, applied to Washington life. Boy, this book kicks that confabulation straight to hell.
Those among us who supported Bernie, even those of us with twenty years of political experience, had this consolation: That Hillary Clinton, even if she was a centrist appeaser of capital and the war machine—well, she was still competent, right? She knew how to run the government. She had aced the tests. She was a cold-eyed mechanic and industrial-strength technocrat, and so we would have competent, if not just, governance.
Wrong. Hillary and her team weren’t just wrong on their positions, they were wrong in their operations. This book cuts to the heart of American politics: the campaign was a ludicrous boondoggle that makes the writing of the Twilight series seem like an ecstasy of calculation. I’d call it shameful hustle, but even that gives the Clinton HQ a predatory edge that it didn’t have. From start to finish, the campaign was the candidate: an entitled, hapless, undisciplined mess. Brooklyn never stopped giving itself credit that it didn’t deserve.
Just as fraudulent as the rest of our supposed meritocracy. They were so bad at their jobs that Trump beat them. Jesus. The true horror of this narrative is that it almost makes you root for the Orange Goblin by the end: the arrogance and bloviating of Team Clinton is so off-putting, the stakes so high, that there’s a grim justice behind the final turnout. Nobody wants to cheer for the iceberg, so why does this story about the Titanic seem like it ends too soon? Will our special boy Robby Mook ever work in this town again?
Bernie would have won,
As you said, Shattered is a D.C. normie’s book written by D.C. normie writers, mainstream to its insipid, horse-race-obsessed core—Hillary’s clueless beltway bubble fourth estate constituency, basically—and even they can’t help but write a scorching takedown of what must be, when you consider the opponent, the worst major campaign in American history.
Before we get to the really good stuff, I do want to take a moment to point out the absurdity of the conventional wisdom run amok in this text. There are so many good examples, most of which rely on over-emphasizing stupid televised moments that nobody actually cared about, but the richest example, by far, comes in the conclusions they draw about why southern African-Americans went for Hillary by huge margins over Bernie. In their telling, an absolutely critical moment came in a primary debate between the two, when Hillary just hammered Bernie over the fact that Bernie criticized Obama, at times harshly, while she was a loyal foot soldier. The tactic was phony as hell, like everything Hillary did during the campaign, transparently designed to accomplish a short-term political goal. To read the authors’ re-telling, this was a transcendent moment for her, and one that had a major influence on the massive victories that followed in the southeast.
But, um, there are a few facts I’d like to point out:
1. This was the sixth debate between the two, and was watched by approximately 8 million people, the third-lowest total to that point.
2. Polls already showed that Hillary was trouncing Bernie among the African-American demographic, particularly in the South.
3. As the authors acknowledge, that exchange ended with one of Bernie’s most memorable lines of any debate, when he said, “Well, one of us ran against Barack Obama; I was not that candidate.” And they even mention that this dominated the press coverage that night and the next day!
The point I’m making is that this shit did not matter one bit. Hillary could have spent two hours on stage twirling around and speaking in tongues, and the voting in the South would have gone the same exact way. Bernie actually schooled her at her own game, but that also was completely insignificant. But the passage is a great microcosm of the major flaw of this book, which is that the writers are so insanely wrapped up in their own DC worldview that they failed to learn the major lesson of the election—voters didn’t care about this inside baseball bullshit! It’s amazing to me that even as they thoroughly documented Team Hillary’s massive failure to understand the “mood of the electorate,” they couldn’t wrap their brains around it either. The book adheres to the old rules of political stagecraft and a Sorkin-esque temptation to over-emphasize significant moments, even as it makes the larger point that none of the old rules apply. It’s like if somebody wrote a book about Orville and Wilbur Wright, but constantly wrote little interjections insisting that air travel was not scientifically possible.
Okay, but forget that. Let’s talk about the content, which was still so juicy that it made the book a speedy read. As you said, they did a very good job of showing how Hillary’s entire modus operandi made running a smooth political operation almost impossible. She has an unbelievable instinct for creating rivalries, sowing division, and generally undermining everybody on her team, and it’s followed her throughout her career. One of the funniest parts of the book was how they set out to duplicate Obama’s “no drama” campaign from 2008, and failed miserably almost from the start. If you are Hillary Clinton, it turns out that you are doomed to imbue paranoia and conflict into everything you touch—the Midas touch, except instead of gold, it’s shit.
(Side note: Can you imagine what a horrible disaster her presidency would have been? The authors LOVE to say that Hillary was so bad at imagining a central narrative for her campaign because she was so “wonky,” such a detail freak, and it’s so obviously a load of bunk. It actually gives me nausea to picture how she would have fucked up her second big chance at passing health care policy, or executing a war in Syria, or whatever…call me a savage progressive, if you will, but I have trouble believing in a world where constant incompetence suddenly disappears when she sits in the Oval Office.)
So that’s the systemic part. But the individual part is almost as awesome. Robby Mook deservedly takes a ton of shit for running a weird, closed-off, secretive shop (chip off the old block!), and thoroughly fucking up an analytics operation that purported to usher in a new age of campaign management, and turned out to be successful only in its arrogance—a quality that prevented Mook and everyone else from seeing that actually, it sucked. But bad as Mook was, I want to give a special shout-out to Huma Abedin, who has to be the worst goddam piece of toxic poison that has ever been involved in an American presidential campaign—and yes, that includes the time McGovern picked Thomas Eagleton as VP, and then had to immediately rescind it because Eagleton’s doctor declared him unfit for office (I’m paraphrasing history, btw). Even without all the Anthony Weiner shit, Abedin seems like she made it really hard for anybody to reach Clinton, or for Clinton to delegate effectively, by acting as an almost-literal body shield, and creating a culture of secrecy and doubt that “siloed” the candidate within her own campaign—to the point that it seems like Abedin was practically acting autonomously, and perhaps sending out dictates from Hillary that were actually coming from her.
And then, oh God, the Weiner stuff…if I have anything nice to say about Clinton after reading, it’s that when it comes to her close confidantes, she’s nowhere near as ruthless as advertised. In fact, she should have been way more ruthless with both Abedin and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. I may be failing to heed my own lesson about over-valuing single incidents, but I get the feeling that if Hillary had dumped Abedin back when the first Wiener embarrassments hit the news, long before this campaign began in earnest, she might be president right now.
Finally, I want to talk about Trump. I had the same strange feeling as you did reading about the general election, which was that I became disassociated from the reality of what happened in November, and almost felt like I was reading about distant history. The nausea and anxiety that dominated my life for a month after his victory was gone, and I actually laughed while reading about his antics. This is the tricky part about Trump—if you forget the horror, his entire campaign is goddam hilarious. It’s an act of complete stupid audacity, and to watch his careening zeppelin wreck of a presidential bid actually succeed against the obsessive, planned-to-the-minute-detail, gigantic market-tested Clinton operation…well, it’s exactly the result you’d expect in a comedy. The blowhard wins, and life frustrates and then demolishes the best-laid plans of the presumptive winner.
I’ll shoot a couple questions your way—did you leave this book with any new sympathy for Clinton? Did anybody from her team actually come off well? And how badass is Bernie for refusing to say the hokey “I’m with her!” line at the end of the video ads that they never used?
Oh, it was so great that Bernie wouldn’t say “I’m with her!” For an autopsy, this book is genuinely uproarious. Not by design. In “Shattered,” when Bernie won’t make a big deal about Hillary’s emails, the writers are puzzled. And later, when he objects to muttering the worst campaign phrase ever, they treat it like an old lunatic’s caprice. Holding beliefs is alien to them. People who loathe Bernie parade his deviations from left politics, as if we didn’t love him for his fabulous disheveled don’t-give-a-shit-ness.
Hillary Clinton didn’t know why she wanted to be President. That still floors me. Then again, every page has big-wow revelations.
When Hillary is scrounging through her staff’s emails, like a Mom searching her kid’s car for weed:
“The men and women she met with, apparently unaware she has access to their emails, were amazed that a woman who had been traveling the country in pursuit of the presidency had such a detailed grasp of the machinations at the campaign’s command center in the Washington suburbs”
And after HRC and WJC chew out the staff, we get this: “The one person with whom she didn’t seem particularly upset: herself. No one who drew a salary from the campaign would tell her that. It was a self-signed death warrant to raise a question about Hillary’s competence—to her or anyone else—in loyalty-obsessed Clintonworld.” There’s the book, in three sentences.
Despite its dreary normie flesh grafted onto the Chris Matthews tone, the book is great for another reason: if anything, it rehashes that Sanders was basically one step up from being a Vermont socialist in van with some pals. His campaign strategy was him muttering “Oh, yeah, that sounds like a promising idea.” That was it. No Bernie Bro conspiracy, no third-house-buying plot. No twelfth-dimensional chess. Just a guy who ran a campaign that gave the people what they wanted. Aside from having a vision and a political platform, Bernie’s big secret turns out to be avoiding personality disorders, and the people who play host to them. And, oh yeah, not spending his life taking money from the ruling class.
Returning to our special theme. Like Revelations, I want to tell you a story. About a Goldwater Girl, who became a woman, who wanted a place in history, a place that she would get: she would be the first female candidate to lose a Presidential election.
You ask if I had more sympathy for Hillary after this book. Yes. I do.
Despite the anger-induced glass-punching that is now a staple of my waking days—bulbs and mirrors, beware—I do. Hillary’s sins are obvious—arrogance, delusion, cluelessness—but she operated in a system which shaped her, just as she shaped it. She had a team of sycophants and mercenaries who pumped up her own tendencies to be bamboozled by the world, and it showed. Christ, in this light, even HRC’s 9/11 collapse seems preordained, an omen and portent straight from the Book of Daniel.
For those of us who grew up liberal in the Nineties, if we’re honest, hating on the Clintons is like hating on our favorite aunt and uncle. It’s that way for me: I’ve been through so much with them, how can I speak ill of them? But it’s been a long time coming. It was easier when they fought the Republicans back in the Nineties. Back then, I bought into the same narrative as the Boomers: everything had moved right since Reagan. Left politics was over. The Clintons were the only realists left in the game. Since full-throated liberalism was now impossible, they were the best we could get. The right hated Bill for being cool, and they hated Hillary for being a woman. It was our job to push back. It became more difficult to do this when I learned about welfare, deregulation, and the crime bill. About how the Democrats used to be. As I grew, they shrank in stature. When Obama came along, and the Clintons fought him, a lot of the premises we’d granted them were disproven.
Hillary is not the Machiavellian monster of right-wing imagination. Nor is she the Khaleesi of suburban Pantsuit Nation posts. She’s Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, if Debbie was smarter. She’s the Yearbook Editor. If Hillary was the person that she’s supposed to be, she would never have seriously considered the fabulously idiotic phrase “Because It’s Her Turn.” Bowels of Macklemore, there is no bottom to this bucket. Down and down it goes, a summer camp of terrible crafts which never ends. One clueless rich people guessing game after another.
The most mortifying, eyes-emerging-from-head moment in the entire volume comes when Clinton is preparing for a debate and a member of her team makes the mistake of criticizing her. It’s genuinely a page from the Big Book of Mad King Shenanigans:
And now, Jake Sullivan, her de facto chief strategist, was giving her lip about the last answer she’d delivered in the prep session.
“That’s not very good,” Sullivan corrected.
“Really?” Hillary snapped back.
The room fell silent.
“Why don’t you do it?”
The comment was pointed and sarcastic, but she meant it. So for the next 30 minutes, there he was, pretending to be Hillary while she critiqued his performance.
Every time the Yale lawyer and former high school debate champ opened his mouth, Hillary cut him off. “That isn’t very good,” she’d say. “You can do better.” Then she’d hammer him with a Bernie line.
God, I hope she used the Bernie voice when she did it. Please, let that be true. Oh please. Incidentally, how great were the insane details about the Clinton campaign’s Philippe Reines pretending to be Trump?
The real ire I save for each of the people who claimed, without evidence, year in and year out, that Hillary was the second coming of Reality Politics. Child, please. Why are the drug cartels selling escape from reality? The Clinton campaign was as square as the Crucifixion done in macramé, and yet it managed to get farther from reality than twenty hits of acid. Apparently, you can get there without hallucinogens.
Last fall, I told my friend Blake that no one person could bring down the Clintons—that’s not the way they work. The Clintons would be brought down by their own devices. They were like an eagle shot by an arrow fletched with its own feathers. Their calamity would be huge, Greek, tragic.
They deserve all the shit they’ve gotten, but I think by this point, Hillary is like Kaiser Wilhelm or the Tsar Nicholas. I imagine she’s so swaddled in layers of privilege and wealth that she can’t molt out. Frankly, it’s shocking that Rasputin wasn’t on her speed-dial. Now, that doesn’t excuse her for running the campaign like a buffoon, but “Shattered” makes very clear that HRC is not Lady Macbeth, never could have been. I mean, she wouldn’t have urged Macbeth to kill Duncan: she would have gotten together with a crowd of wealthy Scottish lairds and crowd-tested phrases first. In World War I, we save our scorn for the general staffs who presided over such slaughter: we should save some of our ire for the unspeakable Robby Mook, Huma Abedin, and the rest of the feckless crew who urged on the November Rain. When assigning blame for the Democratic Presidential Campaign 2016, it took a village to raise this unspeakable child.
Bill and Hillary are shameless arriviste hustlers who used the neoliberal world, but they did not create it; they were swallowed by it. Clintonworld is a clusterfuck of astounding dimensions, but it does not operate in a void. By her own character and her surroundings, HRC was naturally inclined to assemble a collection of infighting hustlers, liberal-arts Richelieus, and liver-spotted cardsharps.
Her team represented an almost perfect demographic selection of the Democratic Party Leadership. And this book is their Waterloo. To use Sam Kriss’ phrase, they lost the world. They didn’t do it nobly. They weren’t stabbed in the back by Russians, Fake News, or whatever snake oil they’re peddling this week. The crime was theirs. They lost because they were arrogant, and full of it, and poisoned with a thousand toxins: of ambition, careerism, of numbers masquerading as fact. They were more deceived than the least-read Trump voter. None of them should ever work in politics again.
I don’t want to strip Hillary of agency or take any of the blame which is so rightfully hers. This is on her, a hundred times over. Clinton is part of the ecosystem which extended through her campaign, but she is not the true origin of it, nor the end. The lanyard worldview seeps into the very writers who wrote this book: they focus on the wrong things, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons.
And so, despite this, despite all the tongue-lashings of her staff, it’s hard to see her as monstrous. She is not the compelling swamp vampire of popular imagination; just limited, in the same way tragic heroes are limited. She can’t learn how to change, and even if she could, I don’t know if she would. While I was reading this book, the image that kept returning to my mind was of the Palace of Versailles, right before the lit crowd of Paris women arrived at the gates, baying for the Queen’s head. Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Ms. Jones?
Even when the book reveals that Team Clinton graded their enemies on a 1-7 revenge scale, it’s sort of pathetic and pitiable, not rage-inducing. Maybe I should be upset at them, but it read like a good account of Nixon’s last months in the White House, as he drains the Executive liquor cabinets. Oh, you poor, ancient, deluded people. The craven moment at the end, where Clinton staffers are plotting to sell the story that the Russians Did It All, is like watching the House of Hapsburg declare themselves as Totally Ready to Come Back and Rule Austria. Just … pitiable. “She believed her campaign had failed her – not the other way around,” the authors write. Chicken and the egg, man. Hillary failed because she’s the person she is, but the person she is part of an elite culture who reinforced her all the way. The only way to be better—to be Obama in 2008, or to be Bernie—was to not come from that culture. Not to be an elite. That proposition never seems to enter the heads of the Clintons, or their orbiters, or even the authors.
Our writing brethren didn’t do a bad job. It’s a quick read. Can you think of how bad this could have been? The fact that even they, critical onlookers, are entranced by the irrelevant inside-baseball theology, suggests that the rot extends much farther than Hillary.
Still, imagine being such a creature of the conventional wisdom that you write about these fucking media gotcha moments like they were handing down of the Tablets at Sinai. I can picture our humble authors, after recollecting Hillary’s zingers at the Bernie debates, looking up on their white-plaster walls to a framed photo of The Secretary, tears in their eyes, mouthing “Yas Queen, Yas.” And then, as if in benediction, half-whispered: “Yas.”
The world will look up and shout “You are the reason Trump is in office.” And Clintonworld will look down at them and whisper, “Slayyyy.”
I have very little to add, except to agree—I felt some faint traces of sympathy based on her total incompetence. There was a moment when the authors cited some Republican operative, who basically admitted that their goal with the email drama was just to heap loads of shit on the campaign, and count on them to make it worse somehow. That’s the crazy thing about all the witch hunts—there was nothing there, and when the GOP finally managed to force a public confrontation, it either fizzled out or made Hillary look good. It was everything in between that killed her—the secretive strategy, the long periods of silence, the obvious trickle-truth dishonesty that ended up looking monumentally stupid when the full story emerged. Can you imagine if the campaign just insisted on an immediate hearing with Congress with the Benghazi shit, or if Hillary had held a press conference the day after the email story emerged telling the whole truth? But nope! They have somehow spent their entire political lives in the spotlight without learning the most basic tactical defense moves. If Trump had called Hillary a “space alien” in a debate, it would have taken her team two weeks to formulate a response, and it would have been something like, “Donald Trump’s attack on space aliens is just the latest indication that he is unfit to lead this country, and I strongly condemn his accusation against me.” And the headlines would say “HILLARY WON’T DENY SHE IS SPACE ALIEN!,” and they wouldn’t understand why.
So what’s the essential flaw? I’m with you—a total failure of accountability. How the hell do you run a presidential campaign where even the most trusted allies can’t criticize the candidate? Humility and self-analysis are the building blocks of growth, and in their complete absence, you end up with a hyper-sensitive embarrassment like Hillary Clinton, who simply cannot the hide the fact that beneath all the transparent bullshit, there’s nothing but greed and self-interest. That debate scene you described was absolutely excruciating, and if it weren’t for the monster currently ensconced in the oval office, it would be reason no. 698 why I’m glad she didn’t win.
Don’t let the authors fool you—she had a reason to run for president. It’s just that if she ever said it out loud, America would be rightly disgusted. And the tragedy of Hillary is that her unique combination of myopia, insecurity and ambition constitute both the reason she could pursue the presidency with such Ahabian fervor, and the reason she could never win it.
Shane Ryan is a staff writer at Paste and author of Slaying the Tiger: A Year Inside the Ropes on the New PGA Tour. Jason Rhode is a staff writer at Paste. They are on Twitter at @ShaneRyanHere and @iamthemaster.