They don’t have to love her. They just have to vote for her”, explains Matt Bennett to the Financial Times in an optimistic yet cynical tone.
It remains to be seen if this maxim has been truly adopted by Hillary Clinton staffers and volunteers, who, for all their optimism, are hopelessly reliant on her new ‘presumptive nominee’ status to drive them forward. True, there have been quick flashes of triumph in the closing primary stage; but they are inevitably ground down by new revelations about Clinton’s character, which have been so widely reported that they trip off the reader’s tongue: emails, Benghazi, Wall Street and so on.
Yet all are immaterial compared to what bedevils her most: an unrelenting force of pure, emotional populism, which, by virtue of being led by the dual figureheads of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, represent an entire spectrum of grievances against one ‘establishment’. It could be manageable if its source came from just prejudice; or just anti-neoliberal sentiment, which in strategic terms can be isolated and contained. But now in such a crucial stage of the presidential race, Clinton’s policy platform is coming under attack from all quarters.
all are immaterial compared to what bedevils Hillary most: an unrelenting force of pure, emotional populism
If one Trump or now desperate Sanders supporter is made to abandon their cause, usually by being made to see their own irrationality, another steps into their place. A seemingly unstoppable ‘Hydra’ is born.
Alas, populism never used to have such, well, popular appeal – originally serving as a political vehicle for late 19th century, bucktoothed farmers complaining about land prices in the mid-west. In 2016, however, most voters have an axe to grind against the ‘established way of doing things’ – whether this concerns immigration, foreign or economic policy. Not that this wasn’t present in previous elections, but the opportunity for dramatic change presented itself in two men pledging to deliver a promised land flowing with milk and honey.
In one penultimate act before the failure of his campaign, Bernie Sanders brought his soap-box to Santa Cruz, declaring in the bright Californian sun, “let me welcome Santa Cruz to the political revolution… [we are] taking on the entire Democratic establishment, taking on the financial establishment at Wall Street, taking on the corporate establishment…we’ve got a lot of fighters here who are not afraid”. And they have fought, and perhaps will be filled with deluded aspirations for a contested convention, thereby continuing to be a thorn in the side of Clinton’s campaign. Alongside making the issues of poverty, workers rights and student debt more salient; Sanders’ activists all share the desire to snatch away the presidency from, in their mind, an elite figure who acts with absolute impunity, and deserves to come under vitriolic attacks.
They still bay for blood, and the ferocity is clear on display in the New York Times, detailing the Federal investigation over classified information being shared by Clinton’s private email server. From calls that she should “be removed” to open considerations to vote for Trump instead – citing that they would trust him above Hillary to ‘break up the banks’. Students of irony will note the famous words from Bernie in the first of many primary debates, “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails”, yet his populist army is obsessed by them.
The now desperate plea for indictment will never come, and so this particular Hydra’s head has been decapitated. But as those well versed in Hercules’ Second Labour know, another has sprouted up from the freshly cut stump – rearing its ugly, orange self to the world. I am talking of course talking about Trump. His populist narrative may be more nationalistic in its framing, but no less dangerous to Clinton herself, nor are the instantly retracted personal attacks.
Pledges to build a giant wall, and isolate the U.S. as a trading power are interspersed with the odd sexist comment, “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America”. Such is the tone of the Trump brand. Months ago these attacks would be rightfully dismissed, but Clinton now pivots towards a general election in the midst of a dead heat (new aggregate polling data putting the former Secretary of State at 43.2 to Donald Trump’s 43.4 points), so this is no time for complacency.
The failure of originality on Clinton’s part is her Achilles heel – not to mix Greek mythological metaphors – and both Trump and Sanders’ ability to use distinct messaging to wrestle the narrative from one another is unparalleled. Muslim refugees and big banks; border walls and Wall Street have all dominated this cycle.
the battle-lines have been drawn between the most politically divided generation in decades
And here in lies two crucial questions. One, will she let Trump continue to swallow up the framing just as with Sanders? And two, if this does occur, will Clinton have to adopt positions reflective of it? Taking a tough line on undocumented migrants to woo republican-leaning voters would alienate crucial support from independents who support Sanders; and vice-versa. This is a narrow line to tread, and yet is still more preferable than a continued recital of her progressive shopping list, which have done little to address the full weight of the problems the nation faces.
At this point we see that the battle-lines have been drawn between the most politically divided generation in decades, and weeks away from the Democratic convention in Philadelphia; one can already picture rabid crowds witnessing another glass-ceiling being shattered, in jubilation wearing their common livery: a t-shirt emblazoned with the bold arrow running through an “H”. Clinton will bask in a celebration of diversity and cosmopolitanism, before preparing to earn her kleos.
Not that the other poorer, whiter, male half of the nation will be watching. Instead eager fingers will switch over to the reality TV event of the year. An extravaganza with wall-to-wall comedy and drama, with Donald Trump being the Executive Producer, Director, Lead Writer, and lest we forget – the presidential nominee for the Republican party.
Whatever the outcome of this titanic struggle, it is certain that the Hydra of populism will loom over the next commander-in-chief. Clinton herself may scrape by through a combination of traditional support and begrudging votes, but as Todd S. Purdum has so aptly put, “Hillary Clinton could win the presidency – and lose the country”.