She’s Not With You
Come give a hug to grandma, or else.
In a healthier America, a twice-loser never-president would crawl away from the public eye into dignified obscurity, like an aging family dog hit by a truck. But as Hillary Rodham Clinton reminds us in the Atlantic, America is quite sick. We are a village without our matriarch, but she is here to tell us everything is going to be okay—or to scold us, if we had the temerity not to vote for her. An epidemic of loneliness? Come give a hug to grandma, or else.
After years in which everything about anything has been actually about Donald Trump, it is refreshing, for once, to read something about Donald Trump that is actually about someone else, even if it is Hillary Clinton. The woman he robbed the White House from has been understandably “preoccupied” these last seven years, as she admits in her opening sentence, with how he won. She is kept up at night worrying “whether we have done enough to rebuild our defenses or whether our democracy is still highly vulnerable” to a Trump election. There will be more fortifications to come.
Our former Goldwater girl is right. “An epidemic of loneliness” is an important part of the story of how she became so unpopular as to be beaten by a first-time candidate. And her Atlantic essay—one wonders whom she hired to write this one—is a virtuosic evasion of responsibility, a ballet of blame. For Clinton is not just the face of a political machine but of a whole class whose successes she happily claims for herself and whose failures must be explained in pseudo-medical therapeutic terms—the product of some miasma—or blamed on populist “right-wing” wreckers. Notice that “the pandemic turbocharged our isolation”—not bureaucratically enforced lockdowns, school closures, and social distancing.
There is something charming, if also darkly entertaining and sobering, in how familiar it all is: the combination of commendable conservative desires and an adamant will to double down on self-destruction that characterizes the former secretary of State. She cites Robert Putnam and Alexis de Tocqueville, bemoaning the collapse of robust social networks and institutions. “The prescriptions in It Takes a Village—putting families first, investing in community infrastructure, protecting kids from out-of-control technology, and recommitting to the core American values of mutual responsibility and empathy—have only grown more urgent and necessary,” she writes. She worries about deaths of despair.
Never mind that her husband signed NAFTA. The whole thing should be a warning, especially to factions of the GOP unwilling to consider new responses to changing material and social conditions. Without adaptation they too will go, with the Dodo bird, the way of Hillary Clinton.
As my colleague Jude Russo wrote last week, when it comes to the terms of our national political debate, Donald Trump won both in 2016 and 2020, and not only because he still dominates our discourse. The Biden administration has adopted a greenwashed DEI version of the framing that animated 2015’s MAGA campaign; Clinton is forced to acknowledge that “there is an important debate to be had about how much economic conditions contribute to loneliness and alienation” in this country. She writes:
The historic legislation enacted by Biden and the Democrats in Congress will modernize infrastructure, bring supply chains home, and boost manufacturing in key industries such as semiconductors and electric vehicles. These investments may help stem the outflow of workers and young people forced to leave their communities to seek opportunity far from home, leaving behind friends, families, and emotional and spiritual support systems. Too often, when Americans face boarded-up storefronts, empty pews, and crumbling schools, it’s despair, loneliness, and resentment that fill the void. Bringing opportunity back to these hard-hit places and enabling more Americans to stay and raise families where their roots are won’t reverse the toxic impacts of social media, disrupt the right-wing media machine, or end our political polarization, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Despite a willingness to point at material causes and symptoms of the decay of community life, despite an inescapable resume of decades in the public square as a part of our governing class, when it comes to explaining how it came to be that she is writing in the Atlantic rather than finishing a second term in the Oval Office, Clinton can still only play the blame game. It cannot be that she and those like her sold the country’s future for the pottage of GDP growth and the global spread of democracy. Nor that the internet is a technological revolution on the order of the printing press, if not writing itself, for the mastery of which liberal managerialism is totally inadequate.
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No, it is Steve Bannon’s fault. The problem is Alex Jones, and Newt Gingrich, and, most of all, you stupid, stupid rubes. There are “ultra-right-wing billionaires, propagandists, and provocateurs” out to deceive you morons with misinformation. In “far-right echo chambers” they’ll turn “socially isolated gamers into the shock troops of the alt-right.” Right-wing media is making “MAGA election deniers and QAnon enthusiasts.”
It remains the abuela versus the deplorables, then. Clinton’s answer to a divided country is not, as David Brooks did in a recent viral New York Times column, to ask on behalf of her class, “Are we the baddies?” No. Rather than acknowledging elite failure and elite greed, and the taking and giving of responsibility in an extended republic as we rule and are ruled in turn, she gives only the false and stifling equality of “the American village.”
When loneliness is a disease to be cured by the state, when there can be no “others” but only an all-consuming “we,” then to break from the crowd, to ignore the consensus, to resist the march of progress—then that becomes a crime.