Hillary Clinton Is Trump’s Perpetual ScapegoatPhoto courtesy of Getty Politics Features Hillary Clinton
There is a ritual George Orwell’s 1984 called “Two Minutes Hate” in which citizens of Oceania are obliged to watch a film featuring enemies of the state and literally scream and shout at the screen to demonstrate their fury:
The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.
The interesting thing here is that it’s never fully established whether the primary enemy of Oceania, a man named Emmanuel Goldstein who supposedly runs an organization called “The Brotherhood,” is actually real. Wikipedia sums up the contrary case as follows:
One possible interpretation is that a political opposition to Big Brother — namely, Goldstein — was psychologically necessary in order to distract, unite and focus the anger of the people of Oceania. Ostensibly, Goldstein serves as a scapegoat for the dictatorial regime in Nineteen Eighty-Four and justifies its surveillance and elimination of civil liberties.
Hillary Clinton, of course, is a real person. She lost the 2016 election to Donald Trump, but in the intervening years, he’s asked Jeff Sessions and the Justice Department to investigate her on multiple occasions—at least as recently as 2018. When Attorney General Bill Barr was asked on Wednesday if Trump had made the same request of him, he wouldn’t answer. Even in public, Trump can’t stop talking about her, and smiles in complicity when his supporters revive the old chant “lock her up!”:
Trump goads the crowd into booing “the fake news,” then suggests he was just being sarcastic when he called for Russian hackers to go after Hillary Clinton’s emails during a 2016 news conference.
The crowd responds with “lock her up!” chants pic.twitter.com/kuCu61UgMr
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 2, 2019
This seems more than a little malicious at this point, and puzzling too—Hillary Clinton, because of her loss to Trump, has become a negligible figure in the Democratic party. She retains the love of her hardcore supporters, but has become broadly unpopular enough even on the left that there’s no question of her running for president again, and even her media appearances have become rare.
She made one of those rare appearances on Wednesday night with Rachel Maddow, where she spoke about the experience of living “rent-free inside of Donald Trump’s brain.” Per CBS News:
She said the lies and accusations told about her are part of a “a diversion attack,” and that it’s a tool the Trump camp uses to “fire up their hard-core base.”
“When in doubt, go after me,” Clinton said. She said the Trump administration knows better, “but this is part of their whole technique to divert attention from what the real story is.”
To Clinton, the “real story” is Russian interference, obstruction of justice, and the stories in the orbit of the Mueller report—all of which relate to her loss, of course. That’s close to the truth, but ultimately a little self-serving. The true “real story” is about Trump’s presidency itself, and how his policies have followed the broader Republican “serve the wealthy” agenda and left behind a significant portion of those who supported his rise to power—the ones who aren’t rich, but who believed in his populist message.
For those people, all that’s left rooting them to their support of Trump are enemies, whether those enemies are immigrants or Muslims or Hillary Clinton herself. To retain this base, Trump knows he needs to remind them of their hatred on a regular basis. Problems of immigration and racism are not going away, but to a large extent Clinton has. Trump can’t let it happen, and so we have attempts at forced investigations, and we have “Lock her up!” chants persisting years after her defeat. Two Minute Hate must continue, or that base will have to face an ugly truth that has nothing to do with Clinton: They’ve been left behind.
In one way, it’s a shame for Trump and his supporters that he lost. The conservative worldview is based to a large extent on grievance, and there’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance that arises when that grievance is coupled with victory. It’s almost tempting to wonder if Trump would be on more solid footing if he’d lost to Clinton. Then he could lead his supporters in hatred rituals against an enemy who actually held power, thus making the whole act less absurd.
But that would ignore the success the conservative machine has had in sustaining the grievance machine through outlets like Fox News even as they’ve seized control of national, state, and local politics throughout the country. Victory doesn’t mitigate the need for grievance performances, and it turns out that once a certain amount of hate has been released, the flow can’t be stoppered. Which means that racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, and the other hallmarks of the right don’t need a marginalized base in order to thrive—they work just fine from a position of power.
Trump supporters hate Hillary Clinton. They have always hated Hillary Clinton. And, in ways that are necessary for their group identity, they always will hate Hillary Clinton—even after she’s lost her relevance as anything but a symbol, anything but a distraction.