Hillary Clinton and the Heckler's Veto

by Neil H. Buchanan

The "heckler's veto" describes a situation in which a person's speech is effectively silenced by the reactions or anticipated reactions of people who disagree with the speaker's views.  The threat of hostile reactions, up to and including violence, causes people to choose (under duress) not to speak or authorities to tell them not to speak.

Has Hillary Clinton's very existence become an especially pointed version of the heckler's veto?  It has long been obvious that her every word will be distorted by her detractors and that she will be held to mutually contradictory standards.  And now, finally, it appears that she simply cannot make an argument without her words being completely misconstrued and her motives impugned, so much so that she would be better off saying nothing.  (Perversely, she would then be criticized for her silence, but that is par for this course.)

I offer these thoughts in the light of a recent mini-kerfuffle over comments that Clinton made in an appearance in India, comments in which she again tried to describe why she lost the 2016 presidential election.  Inevitably, her remarks were deliberately misunderstood by conservatives and liberals alike.  Her critics are so relentless that they have succeeded in making it wiser for her never to speak again.  No matter what one thinks of Clinton, that is a serious problem.

Before getting into the details of this latest round of Clinton-bashing, I should make clear that I am by no means a Clinton devotee.  Prior to the 2016 election, I was highly critical of her neoliberal views on economic policy and her neoconservative views on foreign policy, and I was as troubled as anyone by her apparent lack of candor.

In 2016, it was clear that she had learned from previous errors of judgment about policy matters, and she understood that the country and the world were different than they had been twenty years before, both politically and economically.  I was also impressed by her steely resilience in the face of relentless Republican attacks, with the standout moment being her 11-hour testimony before a gallery of baying congressional Republicans who were trying to exploit the Benghazi tragedy to undermine her campaign.

Even so, the supposedly liberal media continued to hate her, and they repeatedly made mountains out of molehills and fanned the flames of distrust about Clinton's supposed dodginess.  When she lost, she was then blamed for any number of errors, including not campaigning in the right places, playing too much to "identity issues," and a litany of other lessons that could only be gleaned with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight.

Clinton is imperfect, but she is also amazing.  No one could have endured what she has endured, day after day, year after year, decade after decade.  During the presidential debates, even as Donald Trump glowered, hovered, interrupted ("Wrong!  Wrong!!"), and paraded Bill Clinton's accusers into the lecture hall, I was astonished that she not only maintained her composure but demolished Trump in all three debates.  Her presidency would have been a tragedy, with Republicans' attacks on her so fierce that their obstruction of Barack Obama would have seemed like a day in the park, but that would not have been Clinton's fault.  And she would have handled it without batting an eye.

Having said all that, I should also say that Clinton's policy views -- even though they have evolved appropriately over time -- never made her my favorite kind of Democrat.  When it looked like she would become president, I anticipated betrayals and triangulations that would have infuriated even Clinton's strongest supporters.  That was partly because any presidency involves tradeoffs and disappointments, but also because Clinton shares with Obama and other centrist Democrats the belief that their policy druthers are less popular than they actually are.

Most importantly, I agree with Alyssa Rosenberg, an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post who wrote "Hillary Clinton and I Are Done" after we learned two months ago that Clinton had not fired her 2008 campaign's "faith advisor," who had sexually harassed a female staffer.  Clinton, even when advised by her national director of operations to fire the perpetrator, did not do so.  Again, I agree with Rosenberg that this is categorically different from Clinton's other supposed failings, and Clinton's choices in that situation permanently change my views about her.

Even so, the standard attacks on Clinton do not flow from her policy positions or her failure to live up to her feminist beliefs.  In the media and even among many Democrats, there is a visceral sense that Clinton is always to blame for something.  Every choice, even when both options seem plausible, is automatically deemed wrong, both before and after the fact.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Clinton's non-Republican detractors delighted in criticizing her every move, non-move, and utterance.  When she took time off, they mocked her.  When she came back, they told her to go away.  When she said that she made mistakes in the campaign, they said that she was insincere.  When she pointed out the external factors that had swung the election, they said that she had blamed everyone but herself, with one liberal pundit faulting her for having "found plenty of non-Hillary Clinton things to blame for her 2016 loss."

That pundit, in fact, is one Aaron Blake, a senior political reporter for The Washington Post who seems incapable of passing up an opportunity to make snarky remarks about Clinton.  Last August, I criticized a column Blake had written about liberal voters who (according to some polls) feel "uncomfortable" when they find out that a friend voted for Trump.  Blake was aghast, saying that this somehow proved why the American political system is broken.  Why, after all, should people who oppose bigotry worry when they learn that friends and acquaintances support an openly bigoted president?  To Blake, this was all about liberal tribalism.

Naturally, Blake used that column last summer as an opportunity to blame Hillary Clinton for her "deplorables" comment.  And that is where he went again this week, publishing a column under the headline "Hillary Clinton Takes Her 'Deplorables' Comment Out For Another Spin."  (Even if Blake did not write the headline, the column is certainly consistent with the headline's message: "Clinton offered some rather unvarnished remarks in India this weekend that sound a lot like her “deplorables” commentary from September 2016.")

This framing, in fact, is itself a perfect demonstration of the ridiculous extremes to which Clinton's detractors will go to criticize her.  When she coined the phrase "basket of deplorables" during the 2016 campaign, she was describing why Trump's awful views had not driven all voters out of his camp.  She said that there were two groups of people who still supported Trump, one group whose views were so vile that there was no reason to think that Trump's vileness would drive them away (think of Steven Bannon and his supporters, or the people who wore "Trump that Bitch" shirts to political rallies or believed that Clinton was running a child prostitution ring), and another group whose views were driven by concerns that her campaign genuinely should try to address in an effort to woo them.

We all know what happened next.  The media validated Republicans' attacks on Clinton for having called Trump supporters deplorable.  Clinton backtracked, but that only made it worse for her.  It did not matter that her description was absolutely correct (even the "half" phrasing that she clearly did not mean literally), nor did it matter that her message was about reaching out to the reachable Trump voters, not giving up on them.

(As an aside, I must note how amazing it is that people who wore T-shirts imprinted with the words "proud deplorable" and their fellow Trumpists found it somehow impossible to imagine that two FBI agents were similarly joking when they talked about an imaginary "secret society" of Trump haters.  Oh well.)

Months later, however, all one has to do is use the word "deplorable" as a short-hand for "something stupid Hillary Clinton said that shows her liberal contempt."  And this is the myth that Blake continues to reinforce.  What did Clinton say in India?  She essentially said that large numbers of Trump voters are what everyone who has studied the election results has said that they are: economically marginalized white people who responded to an appeal to a nostalgic past in which they were in charge.

But because Clinton said it, this was suddenly nefarious.  Blake: "She played up the states that supported her as more economically advanced than the states that voted for Trump, calling them 'dynamic' and 'moving forward.'"  That happens to be true, just as Clinton spoke the truth when she said that the states that she won "represent two-thirds of America's gross domestic product."

Even so, here is how Blake interprets Clinton's words: "It's difficult not to read Clinton's comments as an argument that her votes were more valuable — or at least more productive — than were Trump's. Why bring up gross domestic product?"

Actually, it is quite easy not to read her comments that way.  She was saying, as she had said in 2016, that she understood that people with grim economic prospects might turn to a demagogue like Trump who promised to blame everyone else (immigrants, women, elites, minorities) for their problems.  The gross domestic product comparison supports that point, because people from less economically productive states are hurt by that lack of dynamism and in surprising numbers turned to Trump.

Blake then claims darkly that "[s]ome have suggested Clinton was saying wealthy people's votes should have counted for more. Whether you see it that way or not, she does seem to suggest Trump subsisted on voters who were simply, well, less sophisticated or advanced."  No, Clinton never suggests that wealthy people's votes should count for more.  She was saying that people who are economically secure are less likely to be tempted by Trump's bigotry.

But this is where it becomes simply surreal, as Blake says that "she is again suggesting Trump's support was, at least in significant part, about racism, misogyny and hatred of immigrants. She seems to say Trump was providing an outlet for these people."  Yes, that is what she is saying.  And the evidence supports that claim.

Blake is right when he says that "[s]ome of Clinton's defenders will surely defend that picture, but this is not a mainstream argument in the Democratic Party — nor is it a productive one politically."  That, however, is the point.  Plenty of Democrats do not want to say this kind of thing out loud, in large part because of how people like Blake will tut-tut them for it, but in any case it is not productive politically.  But we might want to take notice that Clinton is now being attacked for being too unscripted and for actually saying what she thinks.

Am I merely making a big deal out of one Post reporter's obsession with attacking Hillary Clinton?  Unfortunately, no.  The next day, The Post published a column by a different reporter, "Democrats Distance Themselves From Hillary Clinton’s ‘Backward’ Claim," with the title cleverly implying that Clinton's comment that Trump's "whole campaign — ‘Make America Great Again’ — was looking backward" sound like an attack on "backward" people, not on Trump's message.

To be clear, if I were a Democratic candidate, I would be unhappy with Clinton right now.  She of all people ought to know that nothing she says will be interpreted fairly, and her candor might be refreshing for her but will surely cause delight among Republican spinners.  As one right-leaning (but non-Trumpist) columnist put it: "Just Stop, Hillary.  Please."

The hecklers have won.  Clinton truly should just stop.  Not because she has said anything false, and not because she is supposedly too focused on re-running the 2016 election in her mind.  She should stop because she, more than anyone in American history, is fated to be criticized and to have her words distorted for maximum negative effect, not just by the Republicans who despise her but by supposedly objective reporters and even one-time supporters.

At this point, it almost seems that Clinton could say that "the sun is bright today" and people like Blake would claim that she had insulted "unsophisticated" people by saying something that they could have noticed on their own.  "Oh, she thinks that people are so unobservant that she has to tell them about the weather?  What a condescending elitist!"  Even for those of us who have given up on Clinton, this is infuriating.