Hillary Decoder: The Guide to Anti-Clinton Memes


decoderThis is a follow up to my recent post, Pwning Hillary: Inside the Innerati’s Clinton Obsession

My intention here is simple: detail the various narratives and frames (“calculating,” “secretive,” “polarizing,” etc.) that paint Hillary Clinton’s actions in the most negative possible light. These are carefully crafted and patently false scripts, many of which were concocted years ago in GOP oppo shops to demean and dehumanize her. Distinct from legitimate policy critiques, these lazy shortcuts have seeped so deeply into traditional media coverage that it is virtually impossible to read anything about Hillary Clinton without encountering them.

Every public figure is subject to criticism. What is unique in Clinton’s case is that personal attacks which would normally be the province of political opponents and critics are promulgated by the mainstream news media.

To illustrate the convergence, I’ve put together two word mashups. The first is a list of adjectives describing Hillary Clinton drawn from two articles in the conservative publications Townhall and National Review. The second is a compilation of terms from just two weeks of Clinton coverage in supposedly non-partisan media outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, and NBC News. Both yield a grotesque caricature of the actual person, but it is hard to say which is more egregious.

National Review & Townhall: “Lovecraftian monster, the Cthulhu of American politics, short of clever, too old and out of touch, edifice to deceit, slithered out of Washington, Faustian, passion-quelling pantsuit.”

Mainstream media: “Machiavellian, musty-smelling, stale, secretive, calculating, imperious, paranoid, petulant, defiant, devious, scrambles in the dirt.”

Each journalist or media source will justify their particular choice of terms, but the net effect is that mainstream media coverage of Hillary Clinton is soaked in veiled (and sometimes explicit) sexism, politically-charged framing and character assassination. When a New York Times or Washington Post article is indistinguishable from a rightwing publication, you know something is amiss.

None of this is meant to place Hillary Clinton above reproach, simply to illustrate the complex process by which these memes are regurgitated, repeated and reinforced.

For example, a reporter may attribute a negative frame to a political opponent, then subtly echo the same attack line.

Example from the New York Times:

And for someone who has so long been lampooned, and demonized on the right, as overly calculating, playing up her gender as a strength would also allow her to demonstrate her nurturing, maternal — and newly grandmotherly — side to voters whom she may have left cold in the past.

The reader is first primed with the narrative that Hillary Clinton is “overly calculating” then told she is “playing up her gender,” which echoes the theme of calculation. [For a more detailed explanation of how this process works, read about Inoculation Theory.]

National Journal reverses the order, going with the attack first and the priming second:

The media and the American public are familiar with the stale Clinton tricks, which now only play into the GOP caricature that Hillary Clinton is calculating, paranoid, and wholly political.

Memes spread through repetition. In the examples above, the repeated word is “calculating.” Another favorite is “secretive.”

USA Today alludes to Hillary Clinton’s “reputation for secrecy.”

Mirrored by the Washington Post: “her penchant for secrecy.”

NBC News: “Folks, this is the Clinton Way. Secretive.”

TIME: “penchant for secrecy.”

The Hill: “a paranoid, secretive politician.”

New York Times: “[T]he imbroglio could grow into a problem if Mrs. Clinton comes to be seen as unduly secretive or imperious in the months ahead.”

Remember, these instances are from two weeks of coverage in major news outlets. The recursive effect is obvious: the more the word “secrecy” is associated with Hillary Clinton, the more reporters and critics will use it, the more it will be associated with her, the more… you get the point.

A common feature of these memes is that other people’s criticisms are ascribed to Clinton as a negative personal trait. The term “polarizing” is typically peddled by people who are attacking her, thus creating the very polarization they are lamenting. Case in point, from The Hill: Clinton fails to calm email storm. The entire article is about the fact that her opponents intend to keep attacking her. How is that Hillary Clinton’s failure?

Politico uses the same technique, opening an article by calling her “devious” then concluding it by asserting that “it’s hard to win if you’re constantly on the defensive.” See the trap? Attack her, then claim she’s on the defensive.

Similarly, the ‘inevitability’ frame is an artificial perch that others place her on and then try to knock her off. And when her behavior doesn’t conform to the media’s expectations, she is “defiant.”

From The Hill:

While Clinton kept a calm demeanor throughout the press conference, she appeared defiant on one point.

NBC News:

A Defiant Clinton Brushes Off Email Controversy

It goes on and on. Coverage of Hillary Clinton is littered with references to her hair, fashion, health and family – innuendo and insinuation that have no direct relevance to her policies. The terminology used to describe her would be unacceptable for any other respected public figure.

A Washington Post reporter appearing on MSNBC made reference to “Clinton, Inc.” (the implication is obvious). Politico uses the term “Machiavellian” to describe her team’s strategy. Not to be outdone, TIME waxes poetic, describing her response to an attack as a “scramble in the dirt on the crabbed limbs of legal compliance.” The Washington Post compares her to a “stale, musty” old car. The New Yorker prefers the blatantly sexist “petulant.”

Below are the top anti-Clinton memes. See if you can spot them the next time you read about her. Better yet, see if you can find any Hillary Clinton coverage that doesn’t use some version of the following:

  • POLARIZING
  • CALCULATING
  • SECRETIVE
  • DISINGENUOUS/INSINCERE
  • TOO AMBITIOUS
  • WILL DO ANYTHING TO WIN
  • REPRESENTS THE PAST
  • OUT OF TOUCH
  • INEVITABLE
  • ENTITLED/OVER-CONFIDENT
  • DEFIANT

Pwning Hillary: Inside the Innerati’s Clinton Obsession


hillary-clintonHillary Clinton is indomitable. Famous. Funny. Fearless. The Euclidean center of political gravity. Because of who she is and what she is, because she is a woman in a world where women aren’t supposed to be Hillary Clinton, because she is the yardstick against which the innerati measure their own accomplishments, the slightest whiff of vulnerability triggers a feeding frenzy.

The “innerati” are a motley group of high achievers scattered along the Acela corridor — reporters, pundits, bloggers, politicians, strategists, opinion makers, operatives and insiders who frame the national debate. By luck, effort or circumstance, they are in a position to determine what America thinks and talks about. And more than anything, they want to talk about Hillary Clinton.

Their obsession with her is not just about political rivalry, clickbait, or journalism. It is rooted in their need to belong.

The innerati speak about Hillary Clinton in tones that betray ambition, frustration, admiration, insecurity, envy, and competitiveness. Will she run or won’t she? Is she the frontrunner or isn’t she? How much money does she make? Does she use a private email account or doesn’t she? Who gets to be on the inside with her? Who’s out? Who has access? Who doesn’t?

The innerati want to be ‘in’ for existential validation. To them, Hillary Clinton is the embodiment of ‘in.’ They gravitate to her like moths to light, yearning to be part of her orbit. Falling short, they try to cut her down.

Schoolyard antics shaping our public discourse.

Forget her unparalleled record on women’s rights, the astonishing scope of global good done by the foundation that bears her family’s name, the example of self-discipline and achievement she sets for girls around the world.

No. For the innerati, it’s all about process. Not the what but the how. Not the substance of emails, but the servers. Not the facts but the optics.

For decades, the innerati have indulged in one Hillary Clinton feeding frenzy after another, methodically constructing mountains, only to see them crumble like molehills. With each episode, there’s the breathless hope that she’s finally been taken down, cut down to size, put in “her place.” A “woman’s place.”

But something funny keeps happening. Hillary Clinton only becomes stronger, more respected, more significant, and more popular.

The public sees beyond the negative frames. The chasm between the real Hillary Clinton and the caricature, between the person and the portrait, has become clear. The pervasive and predictable anti-Hillary themes have failed. “Too ambitious.” “Represents the past.” “Will do anything to win.” “Calculating.” “Secretive.” “Polarizing.” These tropes have served the innerati for so long that they instinctively return to them. They’re doing it now. To no avail.

I have a personal take on why Hillary Clinton’s reputation is so resilient. Early on a Sunday morning in the summer of 2006, a week after she had hired me as an advisor and after an outbreak of violence in the Middle East, my home phone rang. “Peter, it’s Hillary, I was just calling to make sure your friends and family in Lebanon are OK.” It immediately struck me: the reason Hillary Clinton has so many fiercely loyal friends and advisors, so many fans and supporters, is because of her character, her friendship, her loyalty.

It sounds tautological but she is who she is because of who she is. A singular human being, a unique combination of inner fortitude, intelligence and vision.

During a particularly vicious sexist attack in 2008, Hillary Clinton used the phrase “tip of the spear” to describe her role as a woman aiming at the ultimate glass ceiling.

That glass ceiling hasn’t been shattered in a quarter millennium for a reason. The innerati’s obsessive quest to dull the spear, to pwn Hillary Clinton, may not be gender-biased on an individual level, but the collective effect is to try to set up insurmountable obstacles, to block her path.

That’s what the institutional sexism that has kept that glass ceiling intact will look like if Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016. Not a direct attack on her gender, not cheap shots about her hair or clothes, not vaguely misogynistic insinuations, but a gleeful mob effect at the slightest suggestion of weakness.

If she runs, for the sake of my young daughter, I hope she powers through it. I hope the spear finally hits its mark.

America unhinged: Palin and Boehner equate Quran-burning with mosque-building



Illustrating the power of one individual to hijack the national spotlight, Pastor Terry Jones’ plan to burn the Quran has compelled Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama to weigh in:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me ask you about Pastor Terry Jones. He gave a press conference today. Says he’s going to go through with burning the Korans. Is there anything you can say to him to convince him not to?

OBAMA: If he’s listening, I just hope he understands that what he’s proposing to do is completely contrary to our values of Americans. That this country has been built on the notions of religious freedom and religious tolerance. And as a very practical matter, as commander of chief of the Armed Forces of the United States I just want him to understand that this stunt that he is talking about pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan. We’re already seeing protests against Americans just by the mere threat –

Republican leaders have also spoken out against the planned Quran-burning. President-in-exile Sarah Palin and Speaker-to-be John Boehner chose a different approach, equating the burning of a religious book with the construction of a mosque and cultural center.

Boehner:

“To Pastor Jones and those who want to build the [so-called Ground Zero] Mosque,” Boehner said (drawing an equivalence between Koran burning and the Cordoba House Project in lower Manhattan) “Just because you have a right to do something in America, does not mean it’s the right thing to do. We’re a nation of religious freedom — we’re also a nation of tolerance. I think in the name of tolerance, people ought to really think about the kind of actions they’re taking.”

Palin:

Book burning is antithetical to American ideals. People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation – much like building a mosque at Ground Zero.

Digby elucidates:

Boehner basically defines religious tolerance as not inflaming passions on both sides. What that means in practice is that Christians shouldn’t burn Korans and Muslims shouldn’t build mosques. Can we see what’s wrong with that picture?

It’s distressing, but the public discourse in the Obama era is even more unhinged than it was under Bush. Any hope for a return to sanity and rationality is out the window. The rightwing noise machine is at full throttle and Orwell would be proud of our strides backward:

  • George W. Bush is steadily and surely being rehabilitated and now the question is how much gratitude we owe him.
  • Sarah Palin can move the public discourse with a single tweet, promoting a worldview consisting of unreflective, nationalistic soundbites.
  • Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Fox are dominating the national conversation, feeding a steady stream of propaganda packaged as moral platitudes to tens of millions of true believers.
  • In the face of overwhelming evidence, climate deniers are choking the life out of the environmental movement and willfully condemning humanity to a calamitous future.
  • From ACORN to Van Jones, liberal scalps are being taken with impunity.
  • Feminism is being redefined and repossessed by anti-feminists.
  • Women are facing an all-out assault on choice.
  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is being co-opted by a radio jock.
  • Schoolbooks are being rewritten to reflect the radical right’s anti-science views.
  • The rich-poor divide grows by the minute and teachers and nurses struggle to get by while bankers get massive bonuses.
  • We mark the end of a war based on lies with congratulations to all, and we escalate another war with scarce resources that could save countless lives.
  • An oil spill that should have been a historic inflection point gets excised from public awareness by our own government and disappears down the memory hole (until the next disaster).
  • Guns abound and the far right’s interpretation of the second amendment (the only one that seems to matter) is now inviolate.
  • Bigotry and discrimination against immigrants, against Muslims, against gays and lesbians is mainstream and rampant.
  • The frightening unconstitutional excesses of the Bush administration have been enshrined and reinforced by a Democratic White House, ensuring that they will become precedent and practice.
  • Girls and women across the planet continue to get beaten, raped, ravaged, mutilated, and murdered while sports games induce a more passionate response.

You can add to the above list equating building a place of worship with burning a religious book.

Imam Rauf, the man behind Park 51, appeared on Larry King Live and spoke about his objectives and the controversy around the “Ground Zero mosque.”

Contrast Imam Rauf’s appearance with Pastor Jones’ CNN interview:

Palin and Boehner don’t see the difference?

America, a deeply religious nation, is becoming unhinged from reality. There are numerous indications: the success of climate deniers is a glaring example. An increasing percentage of the population is willing to risk the future of humanity for no good reason other than to spite environmentalists.

The Republican Party, marching in lock step with the radical right, embraces illogic, courts cognitive dissonance, defies common sense. Unfettered, they’d return America to the 19th century. Democrats, mortified of appearing weak, more often than not refuse to resist, refuse to seize the moral high ground, refuse to fight for rationality.

How else to explain this:

Among other policies, the Obama national security team has authorized the C.I.A. to try to kill a United States citizen suspected of terrorism ties, blocked efforts by detainees in Afghanistan to bring habeas corpus lawsuits challenging the basis for their imprisonment without trial, and continued the C.I.A.’s so-called extraordinary rendition program of prisoner transfers — though the administration has forbidden torture and says it seeks assurances from other countries that detainees will not be mistreated.

I shudder to think of where things are headed with this leadership void.

The fierce urgency of defending Obama — against the left


As a lifelong Democrat and progressive activist, I’ve spent years going after Republicans and conservatives. I worked for John Kerry and went head to head with my counterparts on the Bush team. I marched in countless anti-war protests and incurred the wrath of the 101st Fighting Keyboarders. I’ve canvassed door to door for environmental groups and had doors slammed in my treehugging face. I’ve engaged in flame wars in conservative forums. I’ve blogged since the beginning of blogs, attacking Hannity, Coulter, Limbaugh, Savage, O’Reilly.

But never have I seen a more fierce reaction than from fellow Democrats when I criticize President Obama. It is a visceral anger, deeply personal, and sadly, it is directed at progressives who set party aside and critique the White House on principle.

I’ve finally realized the crux of the problem: it’s that many of Obama’s defenders are ignoring the difference between campaign mode and governance mode. In campaign mode, my job as a Democrat is to cheer my candidate on, to work overtime to get them elected. That’s exactly what I did when my former employer, Hillary Clinton, dropped out of the race and endorsed Obama. I was in constant contact with my friends on Obama’s campaign, helping (informally) with blog outreach and strategy. I did everything I could to help elect him and when all was said and done, here’s what I wrote:

As a Democrat who left one career behind in 2001 and made politics my new one after Bush was elected, who vowed to fight every wrong-headed policy foisted on America by the Bush administration, I feel a profound debt of gratitude to Sen. Obama and his family, his campaign, his tireless and devoted staff, and his volunteers and supporters across the country. As well to Hillary Clinton – who was true to those who respect and love her, proving the detractors wrong and crisscrossing the country on behalf of the Obama-Biden ticket – and to her supporters, volunteers and staffers who joined hands with their primary opponents and worked around the clock to arrive at this amazing day.

…What I didn’t yet know was how centered, thoughtful and disciplined Sen. Obama would prove to be in the fierce storm of a presidential election, competing with two formidable opponents. As others have noted, it augurs well for his presidency (should tonight’s results turn out as anticipated). Most importantly, I couldn’t possibly know the stamina and dedication of his strategists, staff, volunteers, donors and supporters, who are poised to finally slay the dragons that defeated Gore and Kerry.

So today, as I vote for President Obama, with history at my fingertips, I want to say THANK YOU to everyone who worked so damn hard to elect him and Democrats across the nation.

On the day he took office, I switched from campaign cheering mode to fulfilling Obama’s request that we “hold him accountable.” I take those words and that duty seriously. It’s my job as a citizen. Since 2008, I’ve used the written word to tug at the administration from the left.

I truly respect and admire Obama. I’ve worked in past campaigns with a number of his staffers. I know they are good and decent people trying to improve their country and working tirelessly under extreme stress. There’s no denying that they’ve racked up an impressive list of accomplishments and they deserve credit for it. But that doesn’t mean I should set aside the things I’ve fought for my entire adult life. It doesn’t mean I should stay silent if I think the White House could do a better job promoting a progressive vision. And it doesn’t mean I should stand aside if I think mistakes are being made. Sure, I’m just one individual with an opinion, but why the fierce urgency of defending Obama whenever I express it?