Last week, New York Magazine published an intimate profile of Hillary Clinton that proved what anyone who has kept up with her life since the election already knows: now that she is no longer vying to become president, the former candidate can finally be herself. As the author of the piece, Rebecca Traister, wrote:
“Wearing no makeup and giant Coke-bottle glasses, dressed in a gray mock-turtleneck and black zip sweatshirt, Hillary looks less Clinton and more Rodham than I have ever seen her outside of college photographs…With no more races to run and no more voters to woo with fancy hair, Clinton appears now as she might have if she’d aged in nature and not in the crucible of American politics.”
The change in Clinton’s persona was immediate after her staggering loss on November 8. Suddenly, she was all about taking selfies with fans during casual strolls in the woods, even though as a political candidate she had admonished selfie culture for distracting from the issues that really matter.
Suddenly, this new Hillary, who had been so careful to assume responsibility for the email debacle that she knew preoccupied her critics, was blatantly blaming Russian hackers and former FBI Director James Comey for her surprising upset. And just last Wednesday, Hillary, who had always been praised for being so poised and politically correct and “presidential,” threw the holy mother of all shade on Donald Trump after he went after her for the upteenth time on Twitter.
This is the kind of tweet that the old Hillary, the one that seemed to have been carefully curated by a committee of well-paid campaign advisors, would have never written. But this is not the old Hillary. The new Hillary doesn’t wear makeup. She gives zero fucks. She is not here for you. She says, “You do you girl,” as she walks out of the house in oversized glasses and raises a big middle finger to the world. She is shade. She is snark. She is everything our increasingly individualistic society prizes.
Sadly, she’s also too little too late.
When I was interviewing people in the fall about an article on why Russian-Americans hate Hillary Clinton, I found that these conservative immigrants gave me the same answer over and over again. The problem wasn’t just that she was a woman, as they idolize Margaret Thatcher. The problem was that they found her “too stiff,” “fake,” and “too political.” Everything about her, from the way she looked to the things she said, seemed very carefully crafted. There was nothing about her that seemed totally unique, or any moment where she broke the politically correct mold and showed us “the real Hillary.”
Trump, on the other hand, was brash and blunt and seemed to say whatever came into his head without any concern for what it sounded like or how it came across. Yes, he contradicted himself. But he was 110%, unapologetically Donald Trump. He walked into a room in a way that said, “I’m here, motherf*ckers, I’m gonna do me, and if you don’t like it, you can f*ck off.”
It might sound strange, but in today’s culture, that’s the kind of attitude people respect and admire. More important for a potential leader, that’s the kind of attitude people trust—especially people who have lived through decades of crestfallen campaign promises.
“At least with Trump, you know exactly what you’re getting,” my father said to me, just before the election, to explain in part why he was voting for him. “With Hillary, you just don’t know.”
The issue of Hillary’s “likability” has been a charged one, as her fans argue that men don’t have to worry about being “likable.” I’m not going to act like that argument doesn’t have merit, or that sexism didn’t play a major role in Hillary’s loss, because it absolutely did. But in this particular case, that’s not the whole story because the importance of having a president that looks like someone you can “grab a beer with” has endless precedent. Think of the famous story of how those who listened to Nixon in the first televised presidential debate thought that he won, whereas those that saw him all sweaty and nervous next to a handsome, grinning Kennedy on TV thought that he lost. The veracity of that story has been questioned, but the fact that people believe it still indicates that being the kind of person an average voter wants to “grab a beer with” has always been important.
Hillary was always well-prepared, well-spoken, and well-versed—especially in comparison to Trump. She has been preparing for the presidency for every moment of her entire life, and she annihilated Trump in the debates. But she wasn’t cool, which would have been fine if she had just embraced her real persona instead of adopting a million different curated ones (Loving Grandmother, Loyal Wife, Tough But Nice Boss-Lady). Because nowadays being cool means being—or at least being really good at appearing to b—aggressively yourself.
And what’s fascinating about how her image has changed in the public eye, at least according to the Internet, is that since losing the election she has suddenly become cool. She is the subject of as many badass memes as Joe Biden, purely on the basis of the fact that she seems to not GAF about what people think of her anymore.
Should being “cool” and “likable” and not caring what anyone thinks be more significant than a presidential candidate’s history of public service and policies? Of course not. But the reality is that it kind of is. The way that we approach politicians is very different today than in the elections of yesteryear. We’ve turned celebrities into politicians and politicians into celebrities (which, for the record, I think is a terrible idea), to the point where a group of journalists and I were recently joking that the next election will be between Kanye West and Oprah (which, for the record, is not that funny or far-fetched).
“Oh my god, Donald Trump is the new Kim Kardashian,” a colleague of mine said, when looking at the astronomical traffic hits that any article on him accrued. Trump, throughout the election, turned himself into an even bigger, bolder celebrity, whereas Clinton came across as a typical politician.
She played it all by the old rules, but this is a totally new game.