Hillary Clinton is entitled to be angry – but she needs to understand why voters were, too 

The former presidential candidate's new memoir, released today, is a much-anticipated blow-by-blow analysis of what really went wrong for Clinton. What can we learn from it, asks Gaby Hinsliff

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By Gaby Hinsliff on

Sorry not sorry.

If you don’t have time to read all of Hillary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, then those three words roughly summarise where she’s at. The female president America never quite had has recovered from the shock of losing to Donald Trump in the briskly practical way you’d expect (she says she vented her emotions by cleaning out her cupboards, taking long walks and polishing off “my fair share of Chardonnay”) and now she’s back with a detailed analysis of what went wrong.

But while Clinton insists that, as the candidate, she must take ultimate responsibility for defeat, so far her tone is less grovelling apology and more “defiantly naming the guilty men”.

She’s sorry, in other words, but not in the way some of her critics want her to be – not crushed, not humiliated, not driven into hiding or giving up politics altogether. And while she has already been criticised for getting retrospectively angry (with her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders and his supporters, or with the FBI for the way it handled an inquiry into her private emails), the most interesting question she asks is whether she should have got much angrier, much earlier.

Should she have ignored President Obama’s advice to refrain from attacking Sanders, given the way he was laying into her? Was it wise to try and stay calmly presidential while Trump was being anything but? If she’d snapped at him during the televised debates, when he physically invaded her space, to “back up, you creep”, would she have looked more human or would the double standards applied to male and female candidates mean she’d be seen as shrill and hysterical? All too often, women are damned if they don’t get angry and even more damned if they do.

Such questions do deserve answers. Sanders supporters who claimed Clinton was just as bad as Trump certainly have some explaining to do, now we know just how bad Trump can be. So does the FBI, now it's obvious that Russian attempts to influence the election were a bigger threat to national security than Hillary Clinton’s email server (she herself thinks she would be president now if its director James Comey hadn’t announced that he was reopening the email inquiry shortly before polling day).

All too often, women are damned if they don’t get angry and even more damned if they do

And she’s right that female anger can be hard for some people to take, judging by the vehemence with which her critics are arguing that she should just shut up and go away; that nobody needs to hear from her, even though practically every guy who so much as made the coffee on her campaign team has now given us his “inside version” of events.

But the one criticism that may well stick is that, almost a year on, Hillary Clinton still doesn’t quite get the magnitude of the earthquake she just experienced; that she’s still inclined to see it as a technical failure of campaign tactics – avoidable if only she’d closed down the attacks on her more efficiently, or handled Trump differently – rather than as a rejection of mainstream politics that she and millions of others never saw coming. (She wrote a victory speech in advance, but nothing, she admits, for a defeat, because she genuinely didn’t expect to lose.)

More awkwardly, what’s also clear in retrospect is that while the campaign revolved endlessly around gender – America’s first potential female president versus a macho, misogynistic former grabber of pussies – the election almost certainly didn’t.

If she’d won, Hillary planned to deliver that victory speech wearing white in honour of the suffragettes, on a stage beneath a vast glass ceiling, where she’d doubtless have spoken about how little girls could now see anything was possible.

But for millions of women who voted Republican, in some cases despite being shocked by the groping scandal, gender just wasn't the decisive factor. Something else mattered more. For many Americans, this election was as much about a class ceiling, not a glass one – about jobs and prospects and money and lives that may be tougher than their parents' lives were. For some little girls, it’s going to take more than the symbolic arrival of a woman in the White House to make everything look possible.

So, Hillary Clinton is perfectly entitled to be angry about what happened. Hopping mad, even.

But she also needs to show that she understands why many voters were angry, and have been for years; that if she’s sorry about anything, it’s that previous Democratic and Republican administrations couldn’t do more to change their lives. Only then will we be halfway to understanding what actually happened.


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Hillary Clinton
Gaby Hinsliff
women in politics

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