Was Clinton On-Target about the “Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy”?

The news of Russia’s campaign to install Trump in the White House was unlikely to have been a surprise to Mitch McConnell. He was among a bipartisan group of 12 legislators to whom both Obama and Comey (and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson) had appealed, in mid-September, to make a joint statement “of solidarity and bipartisan unity” against Russian interference in the (then-upcoming) election, and to urge state and local officials to take federal help in protecting voting machines in November. As reported by :

The Democratic leaders in the room unanimously agreed on the need to take the threat seriously. Republicans, however, were divided, with at least two GOP lawmakers reluctant to accede to the White House requests.

Mitch McConnell was among those opposed. He “raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.”…

In the January 17 issue of Michael Tomasky asks the reader to imagine the situation reversed: if the CIA had “said it had powerful evidence that Russia (of all countries!) had intervened to help elect Clinton,” and if Clinton had responded as Trump has, calling the claim “ridiculous”? “McConnell and other Republicans, Tomasky writes, “would certainly have demanded that the members of the electoral college reject Clinton. And they would also have argued that Clinton had so poisoned her relationship with the CIA and other secret agencies that she had all but rendered herself unfit for office.”

“But the Democrats don’t play that rough,” Tomasky writes. No, they don’t, and although it may win them points in heaven, it has put them at a severe disadvantage during this election, trying to go “high” (as Michelle Obama put it) when Trump (and his supporters, media-buddies, and Hillary-haters in the GOP) were constantly going “low.”

Hillary called it, way back in January of 1998. She was scheduled to appear on the show, and with the Monica Lewinsky affair just breaking in the papers, she “would rather have had a root canal,” but she kept the commitment. “Bill had been accused of everything from drug-running to fathering a child with a Little Rock prostitute, and I had been called a thief and a murderer. I expected that, ultimately, the intern story would be a footnote in tabloid history,” she recalls in . She was wrong about the footnote, but not about what she told Matt Lauer when he asked her whether she agreed with James Carville that the situation was a war between Bill Clinton and Kenneth Starr:

“Well, I don’t know if I’ve been that dramatic…But I do believe that this is a battle. I mean, look at the very people who are involved in this. They have popped up in other settings. This is — a great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for President. A few journalists have kind of caught on to it and explained it. But it has not yet been fully revealed to the American public.”

When Hillary spoke of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” she was denounced as being paranoid. If she had been an academic, she might have gone on to explain that conspiracies don’t always consist of a band of schemers, sitting around a table, plotting. Sometimes, conspiracies take that form — as, for example, when in 1994, The magazine launched the “Arkansas Project,” assigning its reporters stories designed specifically to take Bill Clinton down, or when Mitch McConnell met with a group of leading Republicans the night of Obama’s inauguration. Robert Draper, in describes how during the dinner discussion, they “plotted out ways to not just win back political power, but to also put the brakes on Obama’s legislative platform.” The plan was to “challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign,” applying “unyielding opposition to the president’s economic policies” and also employing attacks on “vulnerable Democrats on the airwaves.“

McConnell’s scheme is something we can recognize as a “conspiracy.” But, as French philosopher Michel Foucault taught us, you don’t need a worked-out blueprint or a central board of directors to systematically empower or disempower parties, programs, or individuals. With enough localized like-mindedness spread out over enough territory, with the most productive opportunities seized, and with an effective deployment of ideas and images, witch-hunts can be conducted without any secret meetings or agreements. This, according to David Brock (who ought to know, as a reformed right-wing hit-man), was how the “culture war” against the Clintons was initially waged, by a GOP used to holding the reins of power and who used every means available — especially the right-wing press — to turn the usurper Clintons into “metaphors for all of the social changes of the past thirty years that the right-wing base in the country hated.”: gay and women’s liberation, draft-dodging, sexual promiscuity, communism, and “diversity, multiculturalism, and political correctness.”

Ultimately, the informally waged culture war was able to become a more tightly orchestrated affair, when Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich and other Republicans began calling for the appointment of an independent counsel to conduct a special investigation into “Whitewater” (one of the many over-bloated “scandals” — this one involving a real estate deal, as well as the suicide of Vince Foster — that ultimately showed no wrongdoing on the part of the Clintons.) Setting up this kind of appointment, as Hillary worried (and as we now know she was right to be) could create a dangerous precedent. If a special prosecutor could be appointed even when no specific crimes were being investigated (as was the case with Whitewater; it was basically a “fishing expedition”), the Office of Independent Counsel would have enormous berth to probe any and all charges, unsubstantiated or not, “indiscriminately and indefinitely” — so long as they sprung out of the initial investigation. Or could be made to appear so, no matter how tenuously.

The first appointee as OIC, Robert Fiske, issued no indictments, which displeased the Republican Right. This led to the engineering of Fiske’s replacement by Kenneth Starr, a rabid conservative with (as we were to find out) a taste for dirty details, who was determined to keep the investigation going as long as possible, but who by the 4thyear, to his consternation, had turned up nothing. At this point, something more like an actual “conspiracy” appears to have been hatched, as Starr now requested…to expand his investigation beyond Whitewater to “look into possible criminal charges against the President.” The possible criminal activity involved Bill Clinton’s word-parsing testimony before a civil case that was totally unrelated to Whitewater (Paula Jones’ charges of harassment) but the investigation that followed unleashed all of Starr’s pent-up fury at Clinton. Whitewater, “Travelgate,” “Filegate” had all produced nothing. This new one — officially an investigation into Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice but in practice a sordid, sleazy excuse to probe and publicize his extramarital relationship with Monica Lewinsky — paid off big-time.

If you think Hillary was off the hook while the right was going after her husband, you’d be wrong. During the early years when Whitewater, “Travelgate,” and “filegate” were the scandals du jour, she was compared to Leona Helmsley, Ma Barker, and Eva Braun. Newt Gingrich (his mother reported) called her a “bitch.” G. Gordon Liddy was “amazed” that she was “not yet under indictment.” editor Wesley Pruden sympathized with the women Bill Clinton was alleged to have had sex with: “He did Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones, all right, but the devil in Miss Hillary made him do that…Maybe Hillary’s long-suffering husband deserves not censure but a night out.” She was accused of having an affair with Vince Foster, and then of having him murdered. One of the first in the emerging genre of Hillary-hate books, Peggy Noonan’s 2000 described her as “a person who never ponders what is right,” “a squat and grasping woman,” and a “pathological narcissist.”

In I detail how the conservative media comments, the right-wing scheming, the industry in Hillary-hate publications gathered into a storm of criminal and moral accusations once Hillary had the hubris to run for President. But another central argument of my book is that the potency of all this was greatly enhanced by the (seemingly non-partisan) mainstream media, who served as a conveyor-belt and mass disseminator of everything that got thrown onto the radar screen, no matter how ill-founded. Giving “bad optics” the prominence of established fact, lazily fitting every news story into the “narrative” of “untrustworthy Hillary,” paying more attention to the content of every leaked email than the much more significance story of the Russian origin of the leaks, continually declaring “momentum” for Sanders and Trump and “lack of enthusiasm” for Hillary (who did, after all, overwhelmingly win the popular vote!), and giving enormous free air-time to the big rallies and big crowds rather than Clinton’s more low-key campaigning — these are just some of the ways in which the mainstream media, both networks and cable news, contributed — quite significantly, I would argue — to the disastrous outcome of the 2016 election.

Thus far, however, the mainstream media resists owning any of it. In fact, their tendency is to blame Hillary instead. Karen Tumulty, for example, writing in concedes that even if there has been a “vast Right-wing” conspiracy, Hillary herself has “helped create” it (yes, those are exactly her words) through her “aversion to transparency.” This very nicely lets the media off the hook. But the fact is that only a handful of journalists have covered the story of how the right has conspired against the Clintons, even as the tentacles of the monster have so clearly extended to ensnare Hillary herself. Instead, the very folks who ought to be diagnosing, exposing and explaining it to us have helped it to flourish. Jonathan Allen, who changed his tune when he went on to write even astutely suggested there are special “Clinton rules” for covering Hillary, rules that promote suspicion about her rather than question the accuracy of attacks:

My book is full of examples of how “Clinton rules” have (often unwittingly) colluded both with unexamined sexism and right-wing scheming to create a “Hillary Clinton” so unscrupulous, untrustworthy and unappealing that all that was needed to topple her, as in the case of Anne Boleyn, was a couple of well-timed, suggestive “leaks” and investigations. The leaks were clearly nefariously plotted, while Comey’s interference may have been the result of incompetence, or a misplaced sense of responsibility, or political pressure. It wasn’t all planned; it didn’t need to be. The forces working against Clinton were multiple and over-determined — and as it turned out, as effective as any true conspiracy in creating a critical mass of voters to de-rail her campaign.

Who belonged to that mass of voters? Of course, there were the “natural” Trump-lovers, the racists and xenophobes who were with him from the beginning. There were the faithful Republicans, who wouldn’t vote for a democrat under any circumstances. And there were those who wouldn’t vote for a woman — any woman — no matter how qualified or experienced she was. Trump would have gotten all those in any case.

The voters I have in mind are different. They belong, mostly, to the almost 5 million Obama voters who either didn’t vote at all, voted third party, or may even have voted for Trump: The white, middle-class, suburban women who wanted to distance themselves from the unscrupulous, cold, “elitist” politician who was definitely not their kind of woman. The rust-belt men who believed she was the “corporate whore” who had proposed putting coal miners out of business (rather than — as was actually the case — describing a reality that had to be confronted with mindfulness of the people who would lose their jobs.) The Sanders fans who came to see Hillary as barely better than Trump, and who just couldn’t rouse themselves to campaign for her (or for too many, to vote for her.) The 46% of black voters under the age of 30 who did not vote. The many hard-working, stressed, perfectly decent folks with little spare time to research the facts, who put their trust in the media to tell them what was important, what was true, what to believe….

Those people cast their votes against someone with her name, but it wasn’t Hillary Clinton.

  • ****************************************

Susan Bordo’s just-published collection of essays: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1478772468/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i1

Cultural historian, media critic, feminist scholar. Website: bordocrossings.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store