Hillary Clinton Doesn't Mince Words

She was dead right in 2016, and she’s dead right now about our democracy's existential crisis

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It’s uncanny how accurately Hillary Clinton grasped the truth of Donald Trump taking over our White House. Her comments in 2016 still strike like a just-sharpened dagger. Consider this one from June that year:

“Donald Trump’s ideas aren’t just different, they’re dangerously incoherent. They’re not even really ideas, just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds and outright lies. He is not just unprepared. He is temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility.”

Or this during the October 2016 debate when she called Trump Putin’s “puppet”:

“It’s pretty clear that you won’t admit that the Russians have engaged in cyberattacks against the United States of America—that you encouraged espionage against our people, and that you are willing to spout the Putin line, sign up for his wish list, break up NATO, do whatever he wants to do, and that you continue to seek help from him because he has a very clear favorite in this race…this is such an unprecedented situation.”

And especially this prescient comment after the October 2016 debate when Trump refused to say he would accept the election results:

“Make no mistake, by doing that, he is threatening our democracy. [If] I have lost an election, you don't feel very good the next day, do you? But we know in our country the difference between leadership and dictatorship, right?… the peaceful transition of power is one of the things that sets us apart. It is how we hold our country together no matter who's in charge.”

My sense is that, after the shock and pain of her loss in 2016, many people stopped paying attention to Hillary Clinton. Every time she spoke, no matter how accurate she was, people felt the need to protect themselves, to wall off from her and from their abject horror over the man who had taken the people’s house.

But her interview several days ago with Atlantic staff writer Jennifer Senior reminded me both how incisive her analysis was and is, and how necessary it is to pause and reflect on her observations about the state of our country while we still have a fighting chance to fix things. The range of topics: From her oft-derided comments in 1998 on the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” to January 6, demagoguery and big tech’s role, to the GOP’s “relentless pursuit of power,” to the need to end the filibuster, to our current constitutional crisis, the need to inject reality into the public discourse and the existential danger facing our democracy.

On paranoia and the rising right-wing conspiracy:

“I know there’s always been a kind of paranoid streak in American politics. It sort of goes with human nature…But it never was given such a voice, such a platform, or had so much money behind it until we saw the rise of the right-wing radio voices like Rush Limbaugh and we saw the rise of Fox News. And then, of course, the internet just put it on steroids because any crazy idea that anybody ever had could now be broadcast to the world. So when I said what I said in the late ’90s, I was thinking about the organized effort fueled by commercial financial interests, ideological and partisan interests, even religious interests, to try to inject doubt and to cause a loss of confidence in our system, to try to tilt both the financial and the political balance toward the right.”

On this paranoia and January 6:

“And then when we get to January 6, which, unfortunately, I see a line from what I saw and tried to describe in the ’90s through the beginning of this century, the first 20 years of it, and the role that Donald Trump and his enablers and others played in creating this absolute cauldron of conspiracy and hatred and anger and looking for explanations and scapegoats. I sadly think that the seeds were planted long ago, but they have been watered vigorously in recent years.”

On the power of demagoguery and the role of tech:

Why do demagogues capture people’s allegiance? I used to watch, when I was a student, newsreels of Hitler or Mussolini making speeches. And I would think, Who would follow that goofy-looking person? I mean, get a transcript of what they’re saying. What are they talking about? We’re looking at a phenomenon that is fueled not just by political calculation, partisan advantage, personal survival as a politician. We’re looking at a cultural phenomenon even more than a political phenomenon. The audience for anger, for fear or hatred, is so large in America right now, and as I said earlier, sadly, much of the responsibility has to lie with the tech companies who have been the channels for creating that kind of information system that we are now living with…I’ve talked to a lot of people who are thinking hard about how to rein them in, how to regulate them.

On the GOP’s “relentless pursuit of power”:

“I’m not sure that many people—and this includes obviously the public, but also the press—fully appreciate the determination, the relentless pursuit of power, the design of minority rule that we are currently watching happen…The Republicans—and now we have to say the Republican Party, not just the Trumpers and all of those who are part of this effort to undermine our democracy, but the Republican Party—were shocked that they lost [in 2020], because they never thought that they would lose by such narrow margins and, we know, accurately and legitimately in places like Georgia or Arizona…

“Now they’re not only going to try to suppress votes on steroids; they’re going to try to change the way elections are determined. They’re going to try to give legislatures the power to basically throw out elections if they don’t go their way, because now they want to be able to win, even if they lose the popular vote and they legitimately lose the Electoral College.”

On the need to end the filibuster amid a constitutional crisis:

“Keeping the filibuster now, when you’re dealing with a political party that does not respect the rule of law, does not even respect the process unless it works for them—witness what they did to Merrick Garland when President Obama had every right to appoint a Supreme Court justice. You see what they are trying to engineer by using the filibuster, but also equally important, what they’re doing in the states right now…

“We are in the middle of a constitutional crisis. It’s like the frog dropped into the water. It’s boiling. People are still arguing about stuff that is important, but not as fundamental as whether or not our democracy will be broken and then taken over. And minority rule will be what we live under, the norm.”

On vaccines, both-sides-ism, and the injection of reality:

"The injection of reality is one of the most important steps we can take right now. It can’t be this both-sides-ism—Well, you know, I think vaccines that are made by scientists and tested in clinical trials are right, but it’s okay, you can believe they’re not. No, no. We have to do a much better job. And I’m begging the press, please get rid of both-sides-ism. There is a reality, and then there is craziness and conspiracy and nuttiness. And you’ve got to stand up and say the facts, the facts, the facts, evidence, evidence, evidence. And guess what? There really is truth and reality.”

Finally, on democracy and what is most important:

“So we’re in a tough spot. And it is an existential crisis in lots of ways because there’s no doubt in my mind that the plan on the other side is to win the presidency again, whether or not they win the popular vote and the Electoral College. And the same will be true to take back the Senate, to take back the House. And anybody who thinks that’s not the most important issue facing our democracy is really not paying attention.”

It’s not hard to be wistful about what could have been or should have been if Hillary Clinton spent four years in the Oval Office. It’s easy to recount the flaws of her presidential campaign and the excessive focus on her emails by James Comey and the media. But especially as Joe Biden and the Democrats struggle to overcome the Republican Party’s pursuit of power by any means necessary, her painfully earned insights need to be sought and heard.

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