At times Hillary Clinton’s new book about her election loss, titled simply, What Happened, reads like a dizzying spy thriller. In its final chapters Clinton argues that a loose coalition of forces – some acting deliberately and in unison, others recklessly – worked to derail her campaign, fundamentally undermining American democracy and installing a dangerously unqualified man as president of the United States.
Clinton’s charge sheet includes the FBI director James Comey, Vladimir Putin, Rupert Murdoch and Julian Assange.
Though Clinton canvasses her own political missteps and failures, and her long, bruising primary with Bernie Sanders early in the book, the final chapters make it clear that Clinton believes that the 2016 election was stolen by a foreign power that exploited the frayed fabric of American public life.
By last year, she writes, the institutions that traded in objective information – government, academia and the media – had been thoroughly debased in the public eye, leaving America open to misinformation campaigns prosecuted by self-interested billionaires like Charles and David Koch who had been unleashed upon the political landscape by the scrapping of campaign finance laws.
“Think of a petri dish where science is denied, lies masquerade as truth and paranoia flourishes,” she writes.
This environment was exacerbated in 2016, writes Clinton, by a candidate in Donald Trump who was willing to trade in “dark conspiracy theories drawn from the pages of supermarket tabloids and the far reaches of the internet”.
“As a result, by the time Vladimir Putin came along, our democracy was already far sicker than we realised.”
She warns that now Russia has “infected” the US, it will keep attacking, and it will also target America’s friends and allies.
“Their ultimate goal is to undermine – perhaps even destroy – Western democracy itself.”
At one point she quotes the Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, as saying, “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.
“Rupert Murdoch and the late Roger Ailes probably did more than anyone else to make all this possible. For years Fox News has been the most powerful and prominent platform for the right-wing war on truth.”
Clinton traces Putin’s decision to attack her candidacy to her period as Secretary of State under then-president Barack Obama, when she advocated for the administration to take a harder line against Russia’s engagement in Syria and Ukraine. During the same period, she says, she also made an enemy of Julian Assange, who via WikiLeaks had published hundreds of thousands of sensitive US diplomatic cables.
By the time she ran she believes Putin – who at one point she describes as a manspreader – was aware she would make a far tougher adversary to Trump in office.
“All of this to, I had my eyes open, I knew Putin was a growing threat. I knew he had a personal vendetta against me and a deep resentment towards the United States.
“Yet I never imagined he would have the audacity to launch a massive covert attack against our own democracy, right under our noses – and that he would get away with it.”
Synthesising public assessments of American security agencies, she argues that Putin and Assange – by publishing stolen Democratic data – acted in concert to defeat her.
“Of course I had to face not just one America-bashing misogynist but three. Of course I’d have to get by Putin and Assange as well,” she writes in an effort to make some light of the situation.
Clinton lists the many public occasions on which Trump has supported Russia or Putin’s world view, and says that until his tax returns are made public the depth of their relationship will remain unclear, but she speculates he may be driven by a natural affinity for Putin’s unapologetically authoritarian politics or by his own deep business interests in Russia, now the subject of ongoing investigations.
She laments that Obama did not come to her defence at the time. “I do sometimes wonder about what would have happened if President Obama had made a televised address to the nation in the fall of 2016 warning that our democracy was under attack. Maybe some Americans would have woken up to the threat in time. We’ll never know.”
Clinton is particularly scathing of the former FBI director James Comey, who at key moments during the last weeks of the campaign made controversial public statements about the investigation in her use of a private email server. Comey’s investigation dominated election coverage for months, only to come to nothing days before the polling day.
“I can’t know what was in Comey’s head. I don’t know if he had anything against me personally, or if he thought I was going to win the election and was worried that if he didn’t speak out he’d later be attacked by Republicans or his own agents. What I do know, though, is that when you are the head of an agency as important as the FBI, you have to care a lot more about how things really are than how they look, and you have to be willing to take the heat that goes along with the big job.
“Whatever Comey was feeling or fearing, there is reason to be concerned about what was going on inside the FBI.”
Comey was subsequently sacked by Trump for refusing to shutdown the investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russian connections.
Early in the book Clinton writes of her shock that 62 million people could vote for a man who had been recorded threatening to sexually assault women and attack immigrants, Muslims, Mexican Americans and the disabled.
“How did I let that happen?” she observes in a telling moment. This sense of personal responsibility for what she clearly feels is a potentially cataclysmic outcome pervades the early pages of the book. The periods after the election were the worst, she says.
“Reading the news every morning was like ripping off a scab, each new revelation and outrage made it worse.”
She writes of her frustration at meeting women after the election who came to her to apologise for not voting. “These people were looking for absolution that I just couldn’t give,” she says.