‘What Happened’ and Why it Matters: Hillary Clinton comes to Cheltenham

 “We are entering a second cold war. One not fought with nuclear weapons but in cyberspace.” The former US Secretary of State and two-time Presidential Candidate, Hillary Clinton, is not the first person to make this argument, but hearing it from a woman who has been at the centre of global political events in recent years, lends a sense of palpability.

She was speaking in front of a packed audience at the Cheltenham Literature Festival as part of the book tour for her recent publication ‘What Happened’, a 492-page account of how she went fro presumptive favourite in the US elections, to losing to the most unpopular candidate in US electoral history, Donald Trump.

Using language resembling Cold War rhetoric, she warned of a world divided between two sides; a democratic and an authoritarian, led by Vladimir Putin. Alongside highlighting the dangers in allowing Russia an increasingly dominant role in world politics, she was keen to emphasize the impact of Russian interference in her electoral demise. She cited recent news stories of Russian agents who purchased Facebook Advertisements to spread divisive and ‘fake’ content, which was then shared by Russian ‘cyber-bots’, in some cases hundreds of millions of times. Not only did she view this as highly influential in the election outcome -considering it was just 79,316 votes that lost her the election- but an effective cyber invasion that infringed on US national sovereignty. Warning that what we are witnessing is just the beginning of this threat, she spoke ardently about the need to address this threat seriously and learn the lessons from the election.

What was most striking about her performance was her relaxed attitude. She has been frequently derided for being cold, uncomfortable and inauthentic. Perhaps with the pressure of running for office lifted off her shoulders, she came across as sincere and amusing. When asked about how she dealt with the election defeat, she retorted “with a large amount of Chardonnay.”

On the topic of her alleged inauthenticity and reserved approach, she responded firmly “I am authentically reserved”, noting that having known many past Presidents, it is this quality above all which is most essential for building a strong White House. She also pointed out that when male Presidents behave in this way they are thought of as cool and collected, measured and authoritative while when she does the same, she is portrayed as cold and inhuman.

Putting much of the focus for her defeat on Russian intervention, James Comey’s ‘unprecedented’ re-opening of the investigation into her emails, and gender bias in the media, she spoke little about her own role in her loss. She was right that polling suggested most people who saw economic issues as the dictating factor in their decision, voted for Clinton. She was, however reluctant to note that wider societal and cultural issues, which emanate from economic anxieties, largely formed the basis of Trump’s support, particularly among working class, middle-American, white voters. She was unable to shift the narrative away from Trump’s simplistic, nationalistic, and often xenophobic perception, and subsequently lost millions of votes because of it.

Whilst her critics, of which there are many, have told her to stop ‘whinging’, the book does raise several legitimate issues and offers unique insights. There has never been an election quite like this one, which she dubbed “the first reality TV election”. The book will not win over her most ferocious detractors in the same way she was able to win over this Cheltenham audience, receiving a standing ovation (a practice in Cheltenham usually reserved for four-legged creatures). Nonetheless, for those who followed the US election and asked: ‘Is this how democracy is supposed to work?, Clinton’s ‘What Happened’, offers some historical lessons that are well worth considering.

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