Would Hillary Clinton’s critics love her if she was a man?
The gameplan of Democrats and liberal pundits this campaign season has been disrupted – mostly to their benefit – by Donald Trump; win or lose, Trump is the dominant storyline of the 2016 election. But as we head into the fall stretch run, the preferred narrative of Hillary Clinton’s partisans for 2016 and beyond is re-emerging: that she is Women and any opposition to her is opposition to Women.
The latest entrant in this narrative – though by no means the first – comes from Peter Beinart at The Atlantic, in an article unsubtly entitled “Fear of a Female President,” as sort of a bookend to Andrew Sullivan’s notorious 2007 Atlantic piece on how Obama was going to transcend the Baby Boom era’s culture wars (good thing we have none of that after eight years of him!). Beinart writes:
Except for her gender, Hillary Clinton is a highly conventional presidential candidate. She’s been in public life for decades. Her rhetoric is carefully calibrated. She tailors her views to reflect the mainstream within her party.
The reaction to her candidacy, however, has been unconventional.
He then goes on to cite polls showing how deeply unpopular Secretary Clinton is, and segue into a lengthy diatribe about sexism and misogyny. Yet, much of the same could have been written about Richard Nixon in 1968: he was hated by his critics far out of proportion to his mostly centrist policies, his long record of public service, and the generally stolid rhetoric that characterized his “law and order”/”Silent Majority” campaign. Nixon was hated for two reasons, one of them good (that he was a devious, often dishonest man driven by personal demons who would lead the nation into a massive scandal) and the other understandable (Nixon had made a lot of instant enemies with his hard-edged arrival on the national stage and had remained as a bête noire of the opposing party for two political generations). Beinart spends nearly no time discussing Mrs. Clinton herself, or offering an argument as to why conservatives didn’t hate her husband while he was President (hint: this is sarcasm).
Nor does Beinart even attempt to examine whether Hillary’s critics would have a similarly negative reaction to a female conservative. What if we had an American Margaret Thatcher? Would Beinart support her, and conservatives oppose her? Sadly, we have no Thatcher. The last major female figure on the Right to rise to this level of national prominence was Sarah Palin – and while Palin’s star has fallen a lot since then, she received an ecstatic welcome from the grassroots Right when she first hit the scene. But not from Peter Beinart, who dismissed her in 2008 as the last gasp of culture wars on the American stage (I explained why this was ridiculous at the time, as indeed it seems in retrospect), broiled her as an extremist in 2010 and wrote derisively just this summer that Palin was selling “victimhood.” He didn’t see sexism then, only a politician he disliked. And his cherry-picked examples of sexism abroad, after a to-be-sure dismissal of Thatcher, Angela Merkel and Indira Gandhi (Golda Meir being conspicuously unnamed) are the self-destructing ousted leaders of Australia and Brazil, Julia Gilliard and Dilma Rousseff, neither of whose sins Beinart was likely to have forgiven in a President Palin.
As a friend notes, all of this is an obviously pre-planned effort, as we saw on race with Obama, to delegitimize criticism of Mrs. Clinton as an individual:
Get ready: just as all opposition to Barack Obama was moored in some sort of racism, so will our betters declare all opposition to Hillary Clinton to be rooted in sexism…This is a deliberate and considered tactic, of course: the intent is to tag all opposition to the leader morally illegitimate by reason of that opposition, and therefore bring social pressure to bear to crush it at its inception. It is a totalitarian instinct and logically preposterous, but this is where our politics are now — and not coincidentally, it is where the mainstream American left, nearly exhausted with the inconveniences of democratic pluralism, is now.
This is not a new tactic; back in 2000, when the almost-comically unthreatening Rick Lazio walked across the stage to demand that Mrs. Clinton sign a pledge not to take soft-money donations, he was battered by criticism that this was a sexist intrusion on her personal space. We saw the same thing deployed in the primaries against Barack Obama in 2008 and Bernie Sanders this year. Trump may make it easy in the debates, but don’t fool yourself to think this will go away after November 8. And it is corrosive of public debate. Beinart, of course, sees tribalism only in the other tribe:
Over the past few years, political scientists have suggested that, counterintuitively, Barack Obama’s election may have led to greater acceptance by whites of racist rhetoric. Something similar is now happening with gender. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is sparking the kind of sexist backlash that decades of research would predict. If she becomes president, that backlash could convulse American politics for years to come.
What he might consider is that telling people over and over that they have no legitimate right to criticize the leader is an excellent way to empower blind rage rather than reasoned discourse. The impulse to question authority does not go away; if it is cast as a wolf, the temptation to seek the company of wolves will only grow.