the body politic

Hillary Clinton Is Finally Expressing Some Righteous Anger. Why Does That Make Everyone Else So Mad?

Hillary Clinton on her book tour. Photo: Nathan Congleton/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Back in May, Hillary Clinton addressed the graduating seniors at Wellesley College and advised them: “Don’t be afraid of your ambition, your dreams, or even your anger.”

Clinton, who at the time was working on her quick, raw, postelection memoir, What Happened, has been heeding that last bit of her own advice. What Happened is 100 percent more candid than anything she has previously expressed in 25 years in national politics. But what makes it unusual and unusually valuable — what sent its early critics into apoplexy even before its publication — is that in it, Hillary Clinton is expressing anger, something she was not free to do during the election, even as her opponents, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, were admired for their ability to channel the rage of their supporters.

The question of whether Clinton could or should have found her own mad voice during the campaign hangs over What Happened. Should she have turned on Donald Trump as he paced behind her at the second debate, she wonders. Could she have found a way to communicate the anger many Americans were feeling? “I couldn’t — and wouldn’t — compete to stoke people’s rage and resentment. I think that’s dangerous … Besides, it’s just not how I’m wired,” she writes, describing the mental diagnostics she was performing as she listened to Trump’s wrathful inauguration, wondering if “maybe that’s why Trump was now delivering the inaugural address.”

But if her failure to win the Electoral College hinged on Clinton’s inability to traffic in rhetorical fury, then the question she raises goes beyond her own wiring. Because she never could have turned around and screamed at Trump, never could have slashed her finger through the air and called for revolution in the style of Bernie Sanders, at least not if she had any hope of winning the presidency. Hillary Clinton is a woman, and there is almost nothing that Americans view as more repellent in women than anger.

Recall that every time Clinton spoke too loudly into a microphone while debating her screamy opponents, Americans seemed to rear back; consider that the one deprecatory remark she threw out — calling those who responded enthusiastically to Trump’s open racism “deplorables” — is still regarded by many pundits as her fatal error. Never mind that she said it while running against a candidate who called Mexicans rapists. Censorious anger from women is a liability; from men, it is often, simply, speech.

When California senator Kamala Harris and Jeff Sessions tussled during his Senate Intelligence hearings in the spring, Trump adviser Jason Miller described Sessions as full of “vinegar and fire in his belly,” while he deemed Harris “hysterical.” (Black women, with perhaps more to be mad about in America than anyone else, are often regarded as militant monsters when they so much as raise a disapproving eyebrow, or just as often, when someone imagines that they have. Recall the treatment of Michelle Obama in 2008.) After Senator Kirsten Gillibrand dressed down a commandant for failing to address sexual harassment in the military earlier this year, Tucker Carlson called her “positively unglued.” And in response to a righteous postelection rant from Senator Elizabeth Warren, Mika Brzezinski declared, “There’s an anger there that’s shrill … unmeasured and almost unhinged.” 

It is therefore exceedingly rare to watch a woman whose career has depended on her appeal to an American public commit her exasperation to paper — paper she hopes to sell for $30 a pop. That Hillary Clinton has finally done it tells us quite a bit about how finished her career as a candidate is, and about how desperate she must have felt, after a quarter century, to — as she rather demurely puts it — “get this off [her] chest!”

This being her fury at the media, especially the New York Times, with its damaging infatuation with the email story. But also: her antipathy toward Donald Trump; her loathing for Vladimir Putin; her rancor toward Jim Comey; her disgruntlement with Bernie Sanders. And then there is her vexation with sexist double standards. “I’ve tried to adjust,” she writes drily. “After hearing repeatedly that some people didn’t like my voice, I enlisted the help of a linguistic expert” who told her to focus on deep breathing and positivity. “That way,” she gently smolders, “when the crowd got energized and started shouting — as crowds at rallies tend to do — I could resist doing the normal thing, which is to shout back.” Okay, Clinton tells the expert, she’ll try. “But out of curiosity, can you give me an example of a woman in public life who has pulled this off successfully — who has met the energy of a crowd while keeping her voice soft and low? He could not.”

If this release of steam is coming late for Clinton — too late, by some measures — it could nevertheless serve as a useful model for other politicians, women who perhaps have some things they’d like to get off their chests. More crucially, it could be a step toward adjusting American ears to the sound of female anger — righteous and defensive, grand and petty — as a wholly normal emotional and rhetorical expression. Recently, pop culture has suggested that there is a hunger for real talk from those in whom it has long been discouraged: Key & Peele provided Barack Obama with a comedic “anger translator,” who clarified that when the former president suggested compromising with Republicans, what he was not saying was “You know these motherfuckers are gonna say no before I can even suggest some shit!” Clinton’s candidacy prompted a similarly profane parody, under an account called @shitHRCcantsay.

But that adjustment will take a long time, something Clinton knows all too well. While angry has often been the first adjective used to describe the book, a reader might be surprised to learn that much of Clinton’s writing on rage is actually about how hard she’s worked to suppress her passions over the years. She describes forcing herself to smile even when miserable; at one point it becomes so hard that the muscles in her face ache. “Maybe I have overlearned the lesson of staying calm — biting my tongue, digging my fingernails into a clenched fist, smiling all the while …” she writes elsewhere.

So internalized is women’s impulse to paper over their ire that Clinton writes about how, in the weeks after her loss, she prayed “to stay hopeful and openhearted rather than becoming cynical and bitter … so that the rest of my life wouldn’t be spent like Miss Havisham … rattling around my house obsessing over what might have been.” This is what women have been taught that rage might do to us: We are so sure that our resentments — especially any resentments toward men — are corrosive, and make us appear pathetic and vengeful, that we ask for divine help to simply stop feeling them.

And those who continue to insist on hearing Clinton’s reasoned rage as a means to deflect blame are missing perhaps the object of her most blistering ire: herself. “My mistakes burn me up inside,” she writes of having given the Goldman Sachs speeches. She calls her handling of the email server “boneheaded.” Recounting a painful childhood game with her famously difficult father, who promised he’d love her, but maybe not like her, even if she robbed a store or murdered someone, Clinton writes of how in November, “I thought to myself, ‘Well, Dad, what if I lose an election I should have won and let an unqualified bully become president of the United States? Would you still love me then?”

Hillary Clinton is obviously not alone in her condemnation of Hillary Clinton. One of her former fundraisers said to the Hill, “Honestly, I wish she’d just shut the fuck up and go away.” Such commentary — which, to be clear, is anger at her anger, is treated as analysis. But when Clinton vents her spleen, it’s heard as whining. These double standards don’t automatically make either side of the equation more right than the other; those who are furious at Clinton are free to yell back at her, to point out that poor press coverage did not force her to skip Wisconsin. But they would do well to remember that it’s not their rage that’s revelatory or new in this dynamic.

People have been reacting with atavistic censure to Hillary Clinton for decades, and she’s been expected to simply absorb it all without returning fire. There are shirts, as she writes in What Happened, that feature an image of Trump holding her bloody severed head aloft; others, which she doesn’t mention, read “Hillary Sucks, But Not Like Monica.”

You can disagree with Clinton; you can reasonably acknowledge that some of her pique  does sound defensive. But she’s not lying; she’s not inciting violence. She’s not freaking out about crowd size or claiming that antifa protesters are as bad as neo-Nazis or suggesting that protesters be taken away on stretchers. (Granting that no woman of any disposition — even Strawberry Shortcake’s — has so far figured out how to gain the Oval Office, it is simply inconceivable that a wild-haired, insult-generating female tyrant could have made it to January 28 without being taken down by the 25th Amendment.)

And perhaps the reason the press, and some of Clinton’s critics on both right and left, react to her legitimate, if arguable, critiques by furiously wishing for her silence is the same reason women’s public airing of fury has long been discouraged and cast as irrational: because if we allowed women’s resentments the same bearing we afford men’s grudges, America would be forced to reckon with the fact that all those angry women might just have a point.

*A version of this article appears in the September 18, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Why Does Hillary Clinton Expressing Anger Make Everyone Mad?