“HUMANIZING HILLARY“? Authenticity, Humanity and Paradoxical Demands in the U.S. Presidential Campaign
I returned to Boston at the beginning of July, and without a doubt I’ve watched too much television in the last two weeks: first the Republican and then the Democratic Conventions (RNC and DNC), in both cases Monday through Thursday evenings from eight till shortly before midnight. Why? It was exciting theater, or better, a Great Spectacle. And of course I’m “with her” and wanted not only to watch her make history, but also to find out how she would be attacked.
The question that continues to preoccupy me: how is it possible that the contest between Hillary and the Donald – actually a “no-brainer” as they say here, a decision that should be easy even without a brain – is still so close. The most qualified candidate ever to campaign for the office of President is running against the least qualified, and 100 days before the election and after both conventions they are basically neck and neck! People are writing and puzzling over this paradox here and the world over. From my European, woman’s and feminist points of view I too have been giving it some thought, and I’d like to share what I’ve come up with.
Here are some explanations that have been offered thus far:
• It’s a matter of sexism, plain and simple. Among white men only those with unusual insight and some who are better off have evolved enough to see that there is no shame in being governed by a highly qualified woman. This view has been argued by Michael Arnovitz in a brilliant and widely read article.
• Hillary represents the status quo, and the electorate doesn’t want continuity but (once again): CHANGE! Moreover, it can’t stand dynasties. That’s why Jeb Bush, number three in the Bush Dynasty, had to disappear so early from the ranks of the candidates. The people want the Completely Different. And that is offered by the outsider and political newcomer Trump.
• Hillary and Trump are both more unpopular than any other modern candidate for president. That’s why the polls are so close. Trump is rejected by 70 percent of women, by Blacks, Hispanics, the LGBTQ community and other “minorities.” Hillary is overwhelmingly disliked by white men without college degrees. Unfortunately a large group.
• Even many who plan to vote for Hillary complain that she is not “authentic” and can therefore not be trusted. “Hillary is untrustworthy” and therefore has a “likability problem.”
• I myself have the impression that the media have a keen interest in keeping the “drama” of the campaign seething up to the very end. That’s why the flames of competition between Hillary and Bernie were continuously fanned for as long as possible. And it’s the same with the remaining contest. We must all be kept in suspense till election day, compulsively consuming every bit of news, analysis and commentary that the media spew out around the clock. For that will increase TV ratings, internet page visits and print media sales figures – and concurrently, profit. If the race were already decided it would mean a huge loss for the media. And so they do whatever they can to keep things up in the air for as long as possible. The permanent defamation of Hillary as cold, duplicitous and untrustworthy serves this purpose of keeping the conflict simmering. If the only candidate worth considering is constantly maligned, the battle can continue indefinitely.
In this column I would like to concentrate on the question of why Hillary has been condemned by so many as “unauthentic” and even “crooked,” for which reason many claim they can’t warm up to her and are reluctant to vote for her – even though there is no reasonable alternative. For a European, “likability,” the question of how personally appealing the available candidates may be, is definitely much less important than in the U.S. When Angela Merkel became the first female chancellor of Germany in 2005 it was far less a matter of her popularity with the voters than of party politics. Although a woman, Merkel was “the best horse in the CDU stable” at the time. The CDU/CSU sister parties became the strongest block in the Bundestag (German parliament) and therefore they decided on the chancellor. The voters had elected the CDU/CSU, not a candidate Merkel.
The UK’s Theresa May, considered to be a “cool pragmatist,” was not selected to be prime minister by the people, but by the Tories, who happen to be in power and hence name the PM.
The U.S. does things completely differently: the candidates for president are submitted directly to the voting public. Hence it can happen that in the Congress (House of Representatives and Senate) the opposing party has a majority – as has in fact been the case for the last six years, making it virtually impossible for Obama to get any of his legislation passed. While the Germans limit their national election campaign to six weeks, moreover, the presidential campaign in the U.S. lasts for at least a year and a half and is just now entering its most intense phase, the 100 days between the conventions and the election itself.
It is hard to understand why the American populace would want a head of state who has been thoroughly worn out by an 18-month long campaign. But in fact the hellish trek through all 50 states serves the purpose of introducing the candidate and his/her plans to the voters in person, so they can gain an adequate basis for deciding. “It’s not enough to have a plan; you have to sell it to the country, over and over again." (Traister)
During the Democratic National Convention Hillary’s high-powered allies, from Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden and VEEP candidate Tim Kaine to Barack Obama himself, all endeavored – based on personal experience – to “humanize” Hillary, to show her softer and emotionally appealing sides. At least that was what the media concluded; one certainly did not hear the Obamas, for example, say anything like, “OK, let’s go out and humanize Hillary!”
“Humanizing Hillary” has become a standard phrase in this campaign. It is a phrase that is itself above all else: Inhuman. It implies that Hillary is herself not a human being. One can hardly defame her more cruelly, and yet it happens off-handidly, as though no one had meant any harm by saying it.
After her major Acceptance Speech, which impressed me greatly, the commentators again agreed: the content of the speech was ok, but it had not solved Hillary’s Likability Problem; she had unfortunately passed up the greatest opportunity of her campaign and seemed just as reserved and inauthentic as ever.
I could not believe my ears. What was wrong with these commentators? Had we experienced the same speech? On the first evening of the convention Michelle Obama had been featured. Her speech made a huge impression and is still considered one of the highpoints of the Democratic Convention. She had spoken of her friend Hillary with warmth, passion and great power of conviction. Of course, she had not actually written her speech; that had been done by her speech writer Sarah Hurwitz. Most commentators probably knew that, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. The admirable authenticity was thus not least an admirable acting performance of a text written by another, in such a way that it seemed to be her own.
Hillary can hardly win the authenticity competition. In order to do that she would have to be less authentic. What do I mean by that? Authenticity, opennness, genuineness, spontaneity, naturalness, being at ease – these are functions of the conversational situation in which we find ourselves. All of these wonderful qualities are possible in conversations in a smaller, more intimate circle. They are not possible in a situation in which the candidate is under critical scrutiny, not only by the thousands at campaign events, but by the millions in front of their screens. In such situations most people find themselves subject to the law of self-consciousness. In other words: self-consciousness and constraint are authentic in a situation of being under scrutiny. One could also formulate it this way: to be authentic under public scrutiny means demonstrating caution, self-consciousness, diffidence. Since this is only acceptable in the case of inexperienced speakers (as one could frequently observe at the DNC), all the others must try to conceal their natural anxiety and tension in this situation. Some are strikingly successful, others less so.
It’s inevitable that self-consciousness will prevent spontaneity and naturalness. Above all, spontaneity can not be produced at will; that has been well-known since Bateson, Laing and Watzlawick. “Be spontaneous!” has for decades been the prime example of paradoxical demands and the double bind.
Anyone who knows her personally describes Hillary as having all the attributes that are denied her by those who don’t know her personally. All of her colleagues from the State Department give glowing reviews of her loyalty, integrity, naturalness, ease and warmth. In situations in which a person can be authentic, Hillary has been proven to be as authentic as anyone can be.
In other situations, under the scrutinizing eye of the public, she is highly professional, behaves matter-of-factly and pragmatically – in fact just like a good politician. Similar to Angela Merkel and Theresa May. The fundamentally unrestrained Trump, on the other hand, always seems “authentic,” because he doesn’t make an effort – and is probably unable – to adapt his behavior to the given situation. Many love exactly that about him.Hillary “showed emotion” during the 2008 primary in an incident that is still talked about. In one interview in New Hampshire she was so exhausted that her voice broke as she held back tears. The media seized on the moment, mostly with sneering undertone: “Now she’s even crying in order to get votes, the phoney!” All the polls predicted a victory for Obama, but that New Hampshire primary was won by Hillary.
As I explained above, authenticity in the sense of “relaxed ease, naturalness” is not possible in the grueling process of the American political campaign, a situation of permament, intense public scrutiny. If a candidate is nevertheless perceived to be authentic, he or she is either a literally unrestrainable person like Trump or a good actor, as illustrated especially by Michelle and Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Most successful of all, however, would be a real actor like Ronald Reagan – even if he had been a mediocre actor earlier in llfe. For Reagan the experience of his film career was his most valuable political capital, and he knew how to take advantage of it. “After all, the presidency is a public, performative job“ (Traister). Al Gore was not a good actor and had a hard time “reaching” his audience during his campaign for president. George W. Bush on the other hand became famous as someone that people would like to have a beer with. In other words, he had the effect of seeming average and thus familiar and trustworthy to the average voter. Rebecca Traister, author of a widely respected book about Hillary’s first presidential campaign in 2008, poses the question whether the notion of “charisma” does not perhaps carry a purely masculine connotation. I believe this is so – Max Weber spoke of “the charismatic leader” (in German a masculine noun), and I can not recall any female leaders discussed by him. Her countrymen thus literally expect the impossible of Hillary when they criticize her for not being charismatic enough. And in fact it is mostly men who reproach her in this manner. The majority of women apparently like Hillary the way she is.
I began this text on July 30th. Since then, the uncontrollably authentic Trump has been steadily working his way down the popularity ladder. Today, on August 7, the chances of his winning no longer stand at fifty-fifty. Hillary leads with 83 to 17 per cent.
(Trans. Joey Horsley)