A Historian Obsessed With the Present
Political memoir changes the questions I ask of the past
If, at some point, a new diagnosis is announced that describes people who can’t stop purchasing and reading books about the 2016 presidential campaign, I could be one of the first to sign up for treatment. I imagine that while wellness professionals will recommend some combination of meditation and exercise, psychologists will have a behavior modification regime to recommend. “When James Comey next appears on television,” the therapist will say soothingly, “Instead of rushing to Amazon.com, imagine yourself in a beautiful bookstore with comfy chairs, standing in front of a shelf full of very long Victorian novels.”
Or maybe there will just be a pill. I’m sure, in fact, that there will be a pill.
But until there is, I’ll stuck with my obsession for political porn about 2016 and everything that has followed. I’ve read all of it. Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign (2017) was the first out of the gate. It was a book hastily rewritten after the plot change was announced in November that there wasn’t going to be a first woman president after all, and far from being annoyed with the many flaws that even a good copyeditor should have caught, its authenticity as a rough draft of history is truly compelling. Then there was Clinton’s own What Happened (2017), a book that clearly had similar production issues, but with more rewrite men, a few more months to respond to the change in plans, and a genius title to boot. Although the last third of the Clinton’s own book was a huge drag, emotionally and as a reader who prefers lively prose, my spirits were quickly lifted by Katy Tur’s Unbelievable (2017). Here, an MSNBC reporter accidentally assigned to a loser campaign, finds herself not only on a winning campaign, but targeted by the candidate. Unbelievable turns the campaign memoir on its head because it is about the press bus from a woman’s perspective, which is – I think – unprecedented. It also reveals interesting factoids: for example, reporters and candidates gain so much weight during a political campaign that by election night they are all, male and female, squeezed into Spanx like a bunch of political sausages.
Naturally, when Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury (2018) was released early, presumably to flood the market with books on the off chance that Donald Trump’s lawyers actually did succeed in getting a restraining order against the publisher, I was up at 12:01 A.M. refreshing my Kindle to see if it was there yet. James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty (2018) is currently somewhere on a UPS vehicle, glowing like Kryptonite and winging its way to my house, and of course, as I type these words, Amy Chozik’s Chasing Hillary (2018) is calling to me, two feet away. I’ve only just started, but I know even now that Chozik and I are sisters under the skin, since one of the early scenes involves her OBGYN explaining in 2013 that if she doesn’t have a baby almost immediately she might as well forget about it. Meanwhile, Chozik (who should be thinking about Clomid, egg freezing technology and so on) is thinking: “But what if Hillary runs again in 2016? I can’t have a baby!” You go, girl.
Because I am a historian, of course, and because I am writing a book about the evolution of political media from around World War II up through the 2016 campaign, pleasure is not only business, but it’s also tax deductible, as my mother always points out about nearly everything that is tax deductible. (My mother has a laser focus on what is important. This is also the woman who also once said to a grade school teacher lecturing parents about instilling regular reading time at home: “Claire will read anything, up to and including the back of a cereal box. I need to get her to stop and do other things.” My editor, if he is reading this post, may be having similar thoughts.)
But my intensive reading of these early takes on the Trump catastrophe also raises an important question about writing recent history: what does a high focus on the immediate past conceal about the process that produced Donald Trump? From what do the scandals of the past seventeen months divert our attention? What might a longer view — as opposed to the bird’s eye view that these books provide, reveal?
Perhaps the most important thing I am thinking about is what we historians call counterfactual history. What would have happened if Hillary Clinton had been elected? What is critical to counterfactual history, of course, is it has to have been something that — absent a rupture, event, or decision that might logically have gone another way — could have actually happened. For those who are unfamiliar with this exercise, what would have happened if slave holding states had not seceded from the Union in 1861 is a legitimate counterfactual, and what if Warren Harding had actually been the first black president of the United States is not.
But had fewer than 200,000 votes gone a different way, Hillary Clinton actually would have been president, and part of what makes all the books I am reading about the 2016 campaign and its aftermath so entertaining (as well as tax deductible) is that we know that all of the bread crumbs in each book will lead there when the characters in the book don’t. This is not unlike reading novels about World War II: the thrill is in experiencing all the new details, characters, and narrative twists and turns — and at the same time you know how it ends! The only book that is exceptional in this regard is Fire and Fury, the only political book I have ever read that actually just stops, as if he just kept writing until the day of his deadline and hit send. You’ve heard of books that begin in media res? Well this one ends in media res, and peculiarly, it is entirely appropriate to the historical moment.
So, let’s play it out: what if Hillary Clinton had become president? One of the things I truly believe (and believed as I was casting my vote and hoping she would win) is that as a nation, things would both be running better and they would be just as bad as they are now. The part that would be better would be that capable people would have flocked to Washington to fill the jobs that are now vacant, whether because of the Trump administrations sloth, its incompetence, the deliberate shrinkage of disliked agencies, widespread concern that a job with Trump now requires a full understanding of the phrase “plea bargain,” or a vetting process that is so ideological that almost no one can get through it. One Trump insider told me that a friend who was up for a post in the Department of Energy, after having made it through the interviews with the Trump and Jarvanka people, dropped out of the process after a close grilling by a group of Pence staffers about her views on fetal rights. “I mean, what the f*ck does abortion have to do with energy policy?” this young conservative fumed.
These things would not have happened in a Clinton administration. But what also would have happened is that, instead of just a Mueller investigation, I can bet you dollars to doughnuts that we would have had both a criminal investigation of the Trump campaign and we would also still be talking about e-mail, servers in Chappaqua, and the like. It wouldn’t be just talk, either: there would be testimony, discovery, subpoenas, and so on.
So, what would have been better in this alternate world of Hillary being president? Probably that government would have gone on as it always has since 2008: providing basic services more or less inefficiently, dropping Tomahawk missiles on unsuspecting wedding parties in Pakistan, expanding health services to transgender people, overlooking lead paint in public housing and drinking water, and talking to Kim Jong Un sternly through the proper channels filled with knowledgeable people. In this world, the president would not have said such unbelievably vile things that, even if the Special Counsel was occupied digging through her bank accounts, she would have been invited to Barbara Bush’s funeral. The nation would not be obsessed with deporting thousands of people of color, spending billions for a border wall because Israel has one, and returning women and children to their countries of origin to face gruesome conditions. Instead, our president would deal gracefully with events like the “caravan” of migrants from Central America currently trying to enter the United States from Mexico, would have appointed a Secretary of Homeland Security who would manage the optics of the situation to reinforce an image of the United States as a deeply compassionate country, while quietly deporting a lot of other undocumented people who nobody cares or knows about.
The only problem with this better world is that I am not sure that it is exactly better — it’s only different and far less embarrassing. Part of what concerns me about our political moment is that the Clinton presidency that we did not get has reinforced a myth about the Democratic party. This myth, born in the 1970s when the social justice movements of the 1960s flooded in to fill the gap left by Dixiecrats and Western conservatives who had fled to the GOP, sees the electoral politics as a route to a more just nation, and there is almost nothing that has occurred since 1972 that has actually made good on this promise.
Yet by 2008, because Obama and Clinton were duking it out for the Democratic nomination, Democrats were under the illusion that there had been a great sea change and that we were at the center of it. There hadn’t been: not in the Democratic party, not in the country at large. In fact, there had been another kind of change entirely, one that would intensify over the next eight years, and culminate, not just in Donald Trump, but in the rise of a white supremacist movement within the Republican party that is, frankly, terrifying.
So, I keep reading. And thinking. And asking questions, because that’s what political historians do. While the memoirs and recent histories of the last two years are, in a sense, a kind of intellectual comfort food for me, in between the stories about Spanx, memos jotted in cars, email servers and White House antics, there are clues to how historians might reopen the past decades, even the past century, to a new history of politics that accounts for the time in which we are living. Because history may take unexpected turns, as it did in 2016.
But history is never unprecedented, and is never, ever, an accident. I think we ended up in this place, with this president, for a reason. It’s up to us to figure out why — and what to do about it.
Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter.