In another world, she could have been in the White House on Friday 3 June, heading into the final third of a two-term presidency. Instead she was in Colmans, a chippy in South Shields on Ocean’s Road, a weathered North Sea boulevard half an hour east of Newcastle.
Hillary Clinton – the first female senator for New York, and a former first lady, US secretary of state, and Democratic presidential nominee – is now a private citizen, but she keeps a retinue fit for the powerful: four bodyguards perched nearby as I approached her, seated for supper and surrounded by local dignitaries. She was in north-east England to give the South Shields Lecture at the invitation of former Labour foreign secretary David Miliband – a close friend of hers – who has run the event annually since 2001.
“He’s too charming not to be dangerous,” she said of me, charmingly, as I took up Miliband’s seat for a moment to talk with her. Up close, Clinton is slight but formidable, with a practice of nodding her head slightly and slowly as you speak, offering encouragement without agreement. I had met Miliband recently in London, and he had described the US, where he now lives, as “not just polarised but Balkanised: it’s not that different groups hate each other, it’s that they think the other group is actually a threat to the country”.
If anyone understands that sentiment, it is Clinton, whom tens of millions of Americans have been engineered to hate over three decades of targeted character assassination by the US right.
I had a question for her. On stage that evening she had argued that America needs politicians who project hope, as both her husband, Bill, and Barack Obama did to win power. “It’s hard enough making a living if you’re not encouraged to get up every day and try to find common ground with other people,” she said. Democracies need “leaders who endeavour to bring out the best in us, not the worst, who don’t play to our fears, but help us address them”.
But the press and politicians of the right – from Fox News to Donald Trump – have succeeded by leveraging those fears. Trump’s army of supporters are motivated to get up in the morning not because their world is hopeful, but because they have been told it is – like Ukraine – under attack. They wake to defend it. Isn’t the problem for democracies that fear, not hope, is the great motivator?
“It is,” Clinton conceded when I put this to her, “it’s a much easier motivator than hope.” But she also pushed back, “They’re not defending their homeland. They’re defending their partisanship, their membership in the cult of Trump. It has nothing to do, in many cases, with America. It is a very Balkanised view of what America is, to use David’s phrase, and it’s a narrow, unfortunately intolerant, and exclusive view of what America is.” Clinton may find it so, but that is what many in the US have been encouraged to think. “They’ve been persuaded of that. The demagogues have played their roles,” she told me.
How, then, can Democrats such as Clinton, or President Joe Biden, reach such voters now? “I don’t think the media is doing its job to be honest. I think you’ve got a right-wing media machine led by Fox and others, and a very potent right-wing presence on social media, and the so-called mainstream media hasn’t yet caught up to the reality we live in. They are much too reluctant to stand up for the truth in the face of massive lying – to call a lie a lie – to be on record as saying that we are in a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, and it can’t just be business as usual.”
But the roots of America’s divisions, as Clinton knows, run deeper than the missteps of the establishment press, which many on the American right have long stopped reading or watching. Millions of voters are now unreachable for the Democrats. And after the collapse in President Biden’s approval ratings over the past year, the party is set to lose both houses of Congress in November’s midterm elections.
Republicans have, since 2020, exploited widespread voter dislike of the far left of the Democrats, although Clinton thinks that “those voters have been misled. The right-wing media plays up the people on the far left as a way of dividing the Democratic Party.” The left’s power, she believes, is “way overstated”. She did not want to discuss the conflict on the left over how women’s rights have come to be defined.
At 74, Clinton is as sharp as ever; she has the extended youth of many of America’s politicians. She was also at ease inside the restaurant among many star-struck guests, or knew how to appear to be. But this may not be a time for ease. The Democrats are heading for defeat, and America may be heading into a great crisis. It is unclear how many of the Republicans due to take power in Congress next year will act to protect democracy in future. Few spoke out in January 2021, when Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol in a bid to overturn his defeat to Biden. I asked Clinton whether she fears a similar attempt to seize power in the 2024 election. “We’re going to see a lot of the same,” she said.
“It’s not the first time in our history we’ve had these kinds of divides,” Clinton emphasised – four US presidents have been assassinated in office – but politics in America is, she thinks, “moving in a more threatening direction, in part because of what leaders [ie Trump] are doing”, fuelled by the distorting power of social media. “In many states,” Clinton had explained earlier that evening, “under tremendous pressure from Trump supporters and enablers, laws are being rewritten to make it harder to vote if you don’t vote Republican.” In 2020, Clinton suggested, Trump “didn’t think he could lose because Republicans controlled several of the states that he knew he needed to win”. His defeat was a shock to him because “he counted on those states to deliver the electoral votes”. Now Republicans are trying to load the dice in states they control ahead of 2024. Clinton has founded a group funding legal challenges to these laws.
This is not how Clinton expected her life to turn out: defending the principles of the republic in the sunset of her career, as the woman who has come closest to being America’s president. “I never had some grand plan,” she told the audience that night. “I never thought I’d marry somebody from Arkansas and end up there and he’d become governor and then become president. That one day I’d hear someone saying in the student lounge [at Yale law school], ‘and not only that, we grow the biggest watermelons in the world’. And I will say, ‘Who is that?’ and my friend will say, ‘That’s Bill Clinton, he’s from Arkansas, and that’s all he ever talks about.’ I had no idea what awaited me.”
Clinton’s path to the top of American politics was always improbable. Her story was as remarkable as Obama’s, a fact she subdued to her disadvantage. On stage she explained how her mother had been abandoned by “her young and feckless parents”, and sent to live with her grandparents “who really did not want her”. She left home at 13, eventually meeting Clinton’s father, the first in his family to go to university, on a football scholarship. His grandfather had been a miner; his father worked in a lace mill. He became a small businessman.
By the time she ran for president in 2008 and 2016, Clinton had the alienating sheen of inevitability: she was too powerful, too rich – the consummate corporate insider. But she had risen out of nothing. I have spent 15 years following her, and did not realise how unlikely her path to power had been until the night I met her. Hillary Clinton had a story to tell, but she never quite managed to tell it.
This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.
[See also: How Kamala Harris became a liability]
This article appears in the 15 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Big Slow Down