In 2016, Hillary Clinton made history when she won the Democratic presidential nomination. Where other women have tried, won small victories, or failed (Victoria Woodhull, Shirley Chisholm, and Elizabeth Dole, to name a few), Mrs. Clinton prevailed. That we are less than a month away from a woman potentially running the free world is monumental. Do we rejoice? Do American women, women everywhere, feel empowered? Not exactly.
If Hillary Clinton becomes the next United States president, what will she be most known for? The honest answer to that question is disappointing, to put it lightly. Future generations will read about this election, but not about its advancement of women’s rights; they will learn just how close Americans were to electing an unqualified, tyrannical, bigoted, ex-reality television host (who is most likely, and unsurprisingly, a sexual predator).
And how do present-day Americans feel about the upcoming election? Well, that all depends on who you ask.
I would like to focus on those who still look at Donald Trump’s ascent to the Republican presidential nomination as a dystopian nightmare. It seems like that, up until recently, many people still considered Trump’s candidacy as far-fetched. Perhaps the divisiveness of this year’s Democratic primary created a welcome diversion. Bernie Sanders shook up Hillary Clinton’s campaign, challenging to triumph over her in the primaries, like Barack Obama did back in 2008. Many voters are still reeling from his defeat, undecided as November 8th approaches.
And then reality starts to set in.
As people and organizations begin to publicly take sides, a noticeable and noteworthy theme is emerging, which begs the following question: how is the rhetoric of endorsements anti-Trump rather than pro-Clinton?
In October of 2016, ahead of publication of their November issue, The Atlantic picked a side. Choosing to title their endorsement article, “Against Donald Trump”, the magazine does not mince words. The message is clear: this election is no longer about Mrs. Clinton’s historical accomplishment; it’s all about Mr. Trump.
The Atlantic is not the first organization to denounce Trump; USA Today, a newspaper that has never chosen sides during an election, published an article to tell Americans to vote, so long as it’s not for Trump. Like USA Today’s editorial board, The Atlantic’s editors have remained neutral during most election seasons. Their recent endorsement marks only the third time in the magazine’s history that it has endorsed a presidential candidate.
The Atlantic’s first endorsement was for Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Slavery was the issue at hand, creating a dangerously divided nation and political party. The Democratic party had split into two factions, nominating a Southern Democratic nominee and a Northern Democratic nominee. And there was a newly formed Constitutional Union party in addition to Lincoln’s Republican party. Times were tense and The Atlantic strongly believed that the only reasonable candidate with an eye towards America’s future was Lincoln.
104 years later, in 1964, The Atlantic felt a similar urgency to announce their political stance. Their endorsement went to Lyndon B. Johnson but their focus was on the dangers of a Barry Goldwater presidency. In the thick of the Civil Rights Movement, Goldwater threatened peace both in America and beyond.
Described as “poisonous,” The Atlantic detailed their “distrust” in Goldwater’s judgement and character as a political leader. Mentions of his “anger” and “factionalism” revealed The Atlantic’s concern for Johnson’s opponent’s ability to reason and make sound political decisions.
Cut to 52 years in the future. The Atlantic endorses Hillary Clinton. Why? One only has to read the following statement, made in the 1964 endorsement article critiquing the then Republican candidate, and substitute Trump’s name for Goldwater’s:
“We think it unfortunate that Barry Goldwater takes criticism as a personal affront; we think it poisonous when his anger betrays him…”
Clearly, both Goldwater and Trump share a similar struggle to restrain themselves in the face of opposition. And yet, compare The Atlantic’s current description of Trump’s anger-management issues:
“He is easily goaded, a poor quality for someone seeking control of America’s nuclear arsenal.”
Is there anything unclear about The Atlantic’s concerns in that statement? The message is that this man, who cannot control his emotions on his Twitter feed, will have access to our nuclear weapons. This time around, in their choice to condemn a presidential candidate in favor of their opponent, The Atlantic‘s editorial board skips the formalities and decencies for a clear and direct objection.
Thus, the endorsement of Hillary Clinton is almost exclusively outlined in the context of her unorthodox opponent. It begins with its strongest point, that Trump is “the most ostentatiously unqualified major-party candidate” of all time. The Atlantic then makes its rather muted endorsement for Mrs. Clinton with a simple flip of the coin:
“She is among the most prepared candidates ever to seek the presidency.”
And then the article goes right back to its anti-Trump rhetoric.
Has any candidate in history ever been criticized with such vitriol? To name a few, he is described as an “infomercial huckster,” as “appallingly sexist,” and as “xenophobic” (a dangerous quality for a candidate seeking a position with foreign policy powers). The magazine concludes by likening him to a “demagogue.” That he lies and knows nothing about the role he is vying for is written with the alarm the editors hope to inspire in its readers.
There is no denying that this rhetoric is extreme; and yet, it is the very nature of Trump’s unconventional campaign that seems to inspire equal levels of bluntness from his opponents.
There is a real momentum to this rhetoric. It’s contagious. Everyone is getting in on the anti-Trump commentary. Carly Simon, who has never given permission for her song, “You’re So Vain“, to be used for political purposes, has made an exception for this exceptional presidential candidate:
This video is a good representation of the rhetoric surrounding the election and how it is responding to the undecided voter: what is credible to many voters is not the pro-Clinton argument, but the anti-Trump appeal. And in this appeal, there needs to be a certain amount of anti-Clinton rhetoric to reach that broader, more critical audience. For instance, for voters who view Hillary Clinton as someone who is as corrupt as Donald Trump, they will not be swayed by pro-Clinton rhetoric. Rather, it is with language that admits that she is herself a controversial and polarizing candidate that grabs these voters, before reminding them that she is (however unfortunately) the only option.
With all that said, the question that emerges is whether or not the conversation would be different if Mrs. Clinton were running against any other Republican candidate. Would the rhetoric still betray or even promote an anti-Clinton sentiment? And would the historic nature of her presidential campaign, and potential presidency, be a greater focal point of her candidacy? The fact of her gender is lost amidst the noise of her candidate’s ineptitude. Or is it because a woman is so close to the presidency that we have allowed someone like Trump to make it this far?