The media’s obsession with the white populist narrative serves two purposes: telling women who supported Hillary they don’t matter and exonerating itself from being culpable in her loss.
Last Friday, Hillary Clinton delivered the commencement speech at her alma mater, Wellesley, to a rapt audience of young women, just as Rebecca Traister’s New York magazine cover story went live online, vaulting the former presidential candidate back into the news. And with Clinton’s interview at Recode’s Code2017 yesterday where she addressed the myriad reasons for her loss, so came the return of trolls and the tiresome exegesis that demands a single “truth”: that Clinton lost because she and her campaign failed to connect with the white working class. Misogyny, James Comey, the Russians be damned.
As we know now, only 43 percent of white women voted for Hillary, which of course had a major impact in the end. However the narrative being pushed by the right and even from some on the left is that Trump voters were predominantly middle and working class and disenfranchised, and that she ignored them. According to The Atlantic Monthly’s Derek Thompson, that is a dangerous myth. “Hillary Clinton talked about the working class, middle-class jobs, and the dignity of work constantly. And she still lost,” Thompson writes. “She detailed plans to help coal miners and steel workers. She had decades of ideas to help parents, particularly working moms, and their children. She had plans to help young men who were getting out of prison and old men who were getting into new careers. She talked about the dignity of manufacturing jobs, the promise of clean-energy jobs … She offered the most comprehensively progressive economic platform of any presidential candidate in history—one specifically tailored to an economy powered by an educated workforce.”
Over the past many months, I have spoken with many middle and lower-middle class women, who shared stories with me about why they voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, including a 34-year veteran school teacher who is so news-obsessed, she has her friends text her news alerts while she’s on vacation, and a 24-year-old college student who “kind of liked” Bernie until she realized that the U.S. was one of the few civilized countries that had never had a woman leader. We’ve seen the millions of women who took to the streets the day after the inauguration. We’ve learned that it’s older women who make most of the calls to Congress, and we have heard that nearly 13,000 women want to run for office since Hillary lost the election. All this while the media has mostly ignored the 90 percent of Black women—many of them lower, working, and middle class—who voted for Hillary. And yet, six months later, the media continues to fixate on the white working-class voters who didn’t cast theirs for her in the autopsy of the 2016 election.
In her speech, just as in Traister’s profile, Hillary reveals a rare combination of calmness and rage. Now that she sort of can. But Hillary tells Traister that she is angry, of course, but that “as a woman in public life, you can’t be angry for yourself. You just can’t. You can be indignant, you can be annoyed, you can be frustrated, but you can’t be angry … I don’t think anger’s a strategy.” What it is, is a white man’s privilege. Recall that people fantasized about the anger of the notoriously calm Obama, too (Key and Peele’s “Angry Obama” sketch was a particularly brilliant fantasy). But Hillary’s voters, like Obama’s, are angry—and remain so. Injustice tends to make many of us furious. Still, we can’t express ours, either. When we do, we still, even now, get shut down by trolls online, fight with neighbors and friends and family, are sometimes even harassed by strangers. During the election, some of us were actually defending ourselves not only from trolls but Russian bots.
But the fact remains that the 3 million more people who voted for her over Trump and woke up aghast on November 9, immediately understood it was myriad slights, small and large, perpetrated by the (mostly) white male journo/political power base in the U.S. that had led to her defeat. We well understood the internecine the reasons she lost.
Yet the millions of women, black and white, who supported Hillary, gave her money, endorsed her enthusiastically for years, have—aside from the media coverage of the Women’s March—not been heard from since November 9. They weren’t fooled by Trump’s fascism disguised as “populism.” They recognize misogyny when they see it, having lived with it all their lives. Who talks to them? Who listens?
The innumerable reasons why people voted for Trump and whether they regret it as he takes away their health-care options and reduces essential services for the poor, elderly and disenfranchised, have been dissected ad nauseam in such respected news sites as The Washington Post, NPR, the BBC, and Salon. The New York Times has made a cottage industry out of trying to “understand” Trump voters, so much so that they were lambasted all over social media when they ran a column asking people to say something nice about Trump. But no one has asked the American people to say something “nice” about Hillary or follow up with her loyal and enthusiastic voters who are still reeling. Traister did: She writes that women cry when they see Hillary, the disappointment spilling out of them unbidden. I know how they feel—I share their grief.
So does L, a 54-year-old housekeeper who works six days a week, often cleaning two, sometimes three houses a day, for dozens of years. Her husband is permanently disabled from a work accident. For a while her oldest son who suffers from PTSD and other mental health issues and is a veteran, also lived with them in their trailer out in the woods. Three years ago, L had a terrible automobile accident after she fell asleep at the wheel at 6 a.m., traveling an hour to her first house. She had no insurance and was unable to work for months. Her recuperation was painful. Clients kept her afloat by paying her for cleaning she could not and would never do. When the ACA was put into place I helped her get health insurance for the first time in her life. L is the working poor. But she wasn’t tempted by Trump’s false promises. She was repelled by his racism and sexism. When she talks about Hillary’s loss it is still with incredulity.
K shares that sense of incredulity, as she juggles her business as an esthetician, with caring for her troubled daughter who’s in her 20s, and her mother who suffers from dementia and who, after living with her for seven years has just been put in a Medicaid-supported home. K is burning out. The disaster of Hurricane Matthew took all her financial resources. She has been living on the edge for years. But she remains outraged by Comey and the fact that Hillary’s “emails” swayed the vote to hand an election to a man who clearly doesn’t care about people like her and her family.
G lost her husband of more than 50 years a little less than two years ago, at 74. She discovered he had left her with almost nothing. She had to give up her apartment and move in for a year with her son and his girlfriend and his two children. Now G lives alone in a small two-bedroom apartment, dependent on financial help from family, and trying to get by mostly on Social Security: $1,500 a month. Her health is precarious and she cannot afford a hike in her supplemental insurance premiums. She remains furious at the raw deal Hillary got and the changes to our country that scare her to death.
In pretending that that upper-middle-class second-wave feminists were the only ones enthusiastic about Hillary, the media ignored the stories of these women, as well as 79-year-old B, who a year ago, after renting for decades, moved from Savannah to North Carolina and bought a house in a tiny mountain town in an amazing deal that demanded no money down and payments less than her rental. She, too, lives on her $1,500 a month Social Security and a tiny pension, and supplements her income by pet sitting, sewing, and various other jobs she can perform at home. A self-described country girl, she is blissful in her new location. But she remains astonished that Hillary is not our president.
Trump has unleashed a possible disaster in so many areas women feel passionate about: access to affordable healthcare, bodily autonomy, gender equity, the environment, education, and workplace parity. They are wearying of burying their children for interminable wars. Those were the issues that drew her supporters together. That and the desire to finally see a woman break through the all-boys-club of the presidency. We’re told to sit down, keep quiet, we lost, get over it. Which is why Hillary’s speech at Wellesley was such an important reminder. She said, “Don’t let anyone tell you your voice doesn’t matter. In the years to come, there will be trolls galore online and in person. Eager to tell you that you don’t have anything worthwhile to say or anything meaningful to contribute. They may even call you a nasty woman. Some may take a slightly more sophisticated approach and say your elite education means you are out of teach with real people. In other words, sit down and shut up. Now, in my experience, that’s the last thing you should ever tell a Wellesley graduate.”
It’s the last thing anyone should tell any woman.
Meanwhile, the expectations put upon Hillary Clinton were enormous—the media expected her to be warm but strong, smart but not wonky, attractive but not preening. They wanted a queen, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a teacher, a friend and a superhero. Her voters, on the other hand, landed their support where it mattered: she was the most experienced person who had ever run for office.
But, as Traister points out, “Though you might not know it from the media coverage, there were many, many women who not only voted for Clinton but were excited about it. ‘Look at all of the deep dives into who exactly Trump voters were, what motivated them, where they had been let down, what they believed,’ says Jess McIntosh, Director of Communications Outreach for the Hillary campaign … adding: ‘Look at the coverage of Bernie Sanders’s supporters: Who’s filling the stadium, what gender and age and race were they? Those stories did not exist about enthusiastic Hillary voters even though there were more enthusiastic Hillary voters than for the other candidates. That lack of validation made it easier for the brutal response women experienced when they said they liked her.’”
The brutal response McIntosh is referring to was the way in which expressions of unreserved support for Clinton were often met with accusations of featherbrained fangirl-dom, or vagina-voting. This dynamic led plenty of supporters to shut up about their enthusiasms or to take them underground, to their secret Hillary-supporter Facebook groups. There was “no reason for people to believe that there were actually millions of people who genuinely adored her,” says McIntosh. Another story that never really landed: “The majority of our donors were women,” says Mini Timmaraju, Clinton’s former director of the women’s vote. “That’s never happened before in a presidential campaign.”
Hillbilly Elegy, a white man’s account of his rise from poverty to success, and an explication of why others didn’t make it out of such poverty and ignorance, was everywhere this past year. But where is the elegy for women, many of who are poor and not particularly well-educated or sophisticated, but who got behind Hillary’s candidacy with a fierce pride and a huge hope? We were force-fed the narrative that economic insecurity was the driving force behind Trump momentum, but a recent article in The Atlantic cited cultural anxiety, rather than economic anxiety.
We knew this all along. And a lot of this anxiety comes from men (and even some women) who are terrified of a woman holding the highest office in the country. More than 60 years after the feminist movement became mainstream, men on the right and the left are still intimidated by powerful women.
Why aren’t women—and men—being asked about that anxiety? Why are Hillary voters being drowned out by a chorus of shut-ups, sit-downs, wait-your-turns, even from the Democrats? When is our turn? Hillary reached, indeed mesmerized millions of voters, especially women, who heard her message, a message that resonated with them. She may have been more intellectually sophisticated than some of the women I know, but that was cause for admiration, not spite. Hillary voters weren’t looking for a friend or a peer, but for an experienced leader who could get things done, and who could speak for them. They knew who cared for them. And Trump’s agenda since taking office has proved Hillary right on everything (not least of all his being Putin’s puppet).
Loyal Trump supporters, some of who are just starting to understand how badly they’re about to be betrayed by the president with his policies on health care, the environment, and education, are interviewed regularly. But white, brown, and black voters, who understood full well the ramifications of a Trump presidency, are rarely if ever revisited.
I’m a rare sort: a Jewish woman raised in a small Appalachian town by second-generation Jewish-American parents who moved to the South to work. The people I grew up with seem to split pretty much down the political middle. Some old classmates stunned me with their staunch Republicanism, while others, black and white, some of whom grew up lower middle class, were vocal, ardent and yes, enthusiastic supporters of Hillary. They still are. They are the kind of people who have never once shown up on the news.
I know a working firewoman who voted for Hillary, and a massage therapist who works out of her home and recently had to travel to find a surgeon who would take her insurance policy and repair her knee so she could continue working. I know a man who has been a Republican for more than 50 years who voted for Hillary. I also know two Republican sisters, who brought themselves up from Kentucky poverty but who could not bring themselves to vote for Trump. One has just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The ACA changes worry them both.
There are hundreds, thousands, of others out there who would, easily, happily, tell you that their vote counted, was important, would be made the same way again. Many of these women suffer the kind of “economic anxiety” the media thinks is responsible for Trump’s victory but don’t assign blame to immigrants or people of color, because their families are immigrants and many are African-Americans. But economic anxiety doesn’t necessarily lead to vitriol and aggression, to assault and hate crimes, which have spiked considerably since Trump was elected.
And those who assert that misogyny held no sway, that Clinton’s candidacy was a requiem for a failed feminism haven’t been paying attention. Women are angry, determined, involved, ready to fight for the rights they won 50 years ago that are perilously close to being taken away by the current administration. The young women are realizing how quickly the hard-fought advantages they enjoy can be lost. They are sympathetic to the ceaseless trashing of the woman they hoped would be president. Their support has not waned.
In her speech to the Wellesley graduating class Hillary exhorted women to: “Keep going. Don’t be afraid of your ambition, of your dreams, or even your anger. Those are powerful forces. But harness them to make a difference in the world. Stand up for truth and reason. Do it in private, in conversations with your family, your friends, your workplace, your neighborhoods, and do it in public. In media posts, on social media, or grab a sign and head to a protest. Make defending truth and a free society a core value of your life every single day.”
At a recent hair appointment, my stylist N and I talked sotto voce about politics. She said, “I am surrounded by Trump supporters.” At one point, I mentioned that I thought Obama must feel bad about seeing his legacies destroyed by Trump. N leaned in and whispered in my ear: “Yes, but the person I feel saddest for is Hillary.” I couldn’t, of course, disagree.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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