One thing people say about both Hillary Clinton and Trump is that they’ve been in the public eye too long. They’re no longer susceptible to any kind of rebranding; we already know (too well!) who they are.
That’s probably true. But people keep trying to rebrand them anyway.
A little while ago we had David Brooks’s widely mocked column calling for Clinton to tell us more about her hobbies. Noah Millman recently picked up the theme in a three-part series for The Week, offering to mainsplain (his word) to Clinton how she might recapture the hearts of America by making much of her personal loyalty. Now Rebecca Traister rounds out the profile, limning an image of Clinton as a mystery-novel-reading, flagpole-straightening, toddler-amusing “nana” whose highest calling in life is to clean up other people’s messes.
It’s clear, anyway, what people want Clinton to be: our first granny president.
This is Clinton’s notorious likability problem. She’s too hardworking. Too awkward. Too groomed. If only she had more of her husband’s drawling charm.
It’s easy to forget, reading the endless thinkpieces about Hilary Clinton’s grating personal style, that Bill Clinton was widely criticized for being too charming–“slick,” as people called him–and that Obama was derided as a vacuous hypnotist who had lured his supporters into a cult of personality.
Likability. What’s it good for? If you’re too likable, the voters get suspicious. If you’re not likable enough, the voters get suspicious. Maybe the problem isn’t likability at all.
Politicians aren’t the only ones who find that this notion, likability, leads to a Catch-22. Here’s how Traister responds to Brooks’s piece:
In a recent column, David Brooks posited that Clinton is disliked because she is a workaholic who “presents herself as a résumé and policy brief” and about whose interior life and extracurricular hobbies we know next to nothing. There’s more than a little sexism at work in Brooks’s diagnosis: The ambitious woman who works hard has long been disparaged as insufficiently human.
So calling for Clinton to be more likable is “sexist.” If Brooks had made the opposite argument, though, wouldn’t that also be sexist? Suppose he had said that Clinton was too warm, too personable, too prone to oversharing? Would any Clinton supporter see that as a sexism-free assessment?
If there’s sexism here, as Traister argues at the end of her piece, it’s in the question itself. Why are people so obsessed with Clinton’s likability? Is Bernie Sanders likable? Is Trump likable?
Is Ted The-Mere-Sight-of-His-Face-Makes-Me-Shudder Cruz likable?
Heck, none of the 2016 candidates have been likable. Likability is a rare trait.
And it should be. Like the word “relatability” in arts criticism, likability is not a measure of merit in the beheld, but of vanity in the beholder. We like candidates who make us feel good about ourselves, who don’t bore us with tiresome policy details, who don’t depress us by talking about difficult tradeoffs. Above all, we like candidates who don’t, y’know, act all superior.
But candidates have to act superior. They’re running for president, after all.
The likable candidate is one who presents himself (sexist pronoun intended) as a man of the people, even while presuming to be a master of the people. Measuring likability is a way of describing our capacity for deluding ourselves.
None of this deters Traister from trying to paint a likable portrait of Hilary Clinton. In her account, Clinton comes across as a shy but caring woman, solicitous toward her fuddy-duddy husband, good with kids, out of touch with pop culture–chances are, a bit like your grandmother. Like your grandmother, Clinton gets sore feet sometimes, but that doesn’t stop her from bustling here and there, fussing over the needs of others. Like your grandmother, Clinton’s no good with TiVo. Like your grandmother, Clinton keeps things tidy.
If Clinton can be a bit reserved and reclusive, that’s only because, like your grandmother, she remembers the feminist battles of yore, when truckling to chauvinism and weathering abuse was the way for a woman to get ahead.
Clinton enjoys, like grandmothers throughout America, a friendly chat about Mother’s Day. And when it comes to policy, Clinton’s priority is a grandmotherly one: a no-nonsense plan for supporting kids and families.
Sure Clinton can come across as a bit of a drudge. What grandmother doesn’t? They’ve born so many burdens, for so very long.
Isn’t that the point? They’ve worked hard for us, our grandmothers. They’ve mopped up our scandals, they’ve borne us through difficult news cycles, they’ve made time to sit down and craft legislation. Through it all, they even gave a commencement speech here or there. And they did it all without a surly word.
It’s a brilliant profile. It’s so good, it may even help. By the time it’s over, you’ve almost forgotten that this particular grandmother bombed the hell out of Libya.
So be it. When I vote for Clinton in November, I hope it won’t be because the cockles of my heart have been warmed by a subconscious image of her sitting in a rocking chair, setting down a crossword puzzle to get up and bake some cookies. We know what Clinton will do in office. She’s been doing it for thirty years.
Still, there’s a certain appeal to the image of a granny president, however silly it may be. I relish the prospect of a Clinton-Warren ticket trouncing Trump on Election Day. And how tempting to picture that defeat in sexist terms: with Clinton and Warren as two redoubtable grannies, hanging quilts in the Oval office and memorializing their winning margin in needlepoint–while Donald, pouting man-child, throws an epic tantrum. Sure would be fine to see the ultimate incarnation of priapic idiocy spanked by a couple of sweet old ladies.
“There, there, Donny. Don’t sulk. You just go back to building your little towers. And maybe, if you’re a very good boy, you’ll get to murder the Muslims some other day.”
Ridiculous, sure. But that’s what we talk about, when we talk about likability–the guilty pleasure of a gratifying fantasy.
Postscript: Granny brings it. Dayum. Poor Donald. Maybe fantasies do come true.