Earlier in the holiday season I asked Kairoticast listeners what they would like to hear from us during this seasonal time and one listener recommended a uchronia or a counterfactual. I’m not prepared to do any Middle-Earth style world building, but I thought in light of the upcoming electoral college events, and future inauguration I would defer to my listeners and take a minute to think about what the world would be like if certain events had gone differently. What would our world look like? So let’s make every historian we know mad and think creatively for a few minutes.
So let’s go back to 2016. We all know that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the electoral college vote. She lost both Florida and Pennsylvania by less than 2%. If that 2% in those states had flipped then the electoral college would have flipped, and she would have had 276 electoral votes as opposed to 227 and come away with the presidential victory.
That’s it. That’s all it would have taken to change the outcome of the 2016 election. There are other ways it could have changed, but that is just indicative of how close it was (and how much we depend on those swing states – and how the electoral college is bunk).
So there are many who believe things would have been infinitely better had Clinton been elected. And there are those who think she is just another corporate hawk and not that much different than a Republican candidate. But let’s think about the state of the nation and what went on before Clinton and what has gone on in the nation in the last four years.
Let’s go back to the first half of the 20th century (and even before that, really). Let’s think about Jim Crow. A Clinton presidency would not have erased the terrible legacy of Jim Crow and segregation. Those facts of life are woven into the fabric of our nation and we have tried and tried to get rid of them, but they are persistent and insidious. A Clinton presidency would not have erased generations of oppression of Black people and people of color. She would not have had the power to right those old wrongs.
Then let’s go to Nixon. A Clinton election would not have addressed the racialized politics that the Nixon years set into motion. A Clinton presidency would not have been able to right years of attacks on Black families and culture that began with calls to “law and order” and continued with the “war on drugs” and various economic policies put into play by both parties in the coming decades. A Clinton presidency would not have righted the dog whistle politics and rhetoric that define GOP politics, and often color Democratic politics, as well. A Clinton presidency could not have fixed a political machine built on a system of racial strife.
Then let’s think about the Reagan years. A Clinton presidency wouldn’t have been able to undo the economic damage that the Reagan years did. The economic policies of the so-called Reagan revolution widened the gap between the wealthy and the poor, made sure that corporations would always be able to squash the rights of their workers, did irreparable damage to the environment, and created a tax code that was supposed to infuse the economy with wealth but in reality, just made the wealthy wealthier and made sure that the working class stagnated at the bottom. A Clinton presidency would not have fixed this. That damage had been done, and as much as Democrats claim to be the party of the middle-class or working American, Republicans have made sure for decades that nothing will be done to reverse the policies of the Reagan era. Clinton would not have had the power to strong arm the entire Republican power to suddenly champion the cause of the poor and the working class, nor do we have a lot of reason to think she would have tried. A different result in 2016 would not have reversed the damage we took in the 80s.
A Clinton presidency also would probably not have done much about voter suppression or security. Gerrymandering, strict voter ID laws, closure of polling places, refusal to accepts certain forms of ID, no early voting, and all manner of other ways of making voting more challenging (usually done at the state level), would still be a problem. The courts had made it possible for the states, usually led by the parties (and most often the GOP), to make voting more and more challenging. A Clinton presidency would not have stopped the opposing party from trying to make voting hard. In fact, it might had made the situation worse. A Clinton presidency wouldn’t have stopped voter suppression.
Consider the problem of climate change. A Clinton presidency would have probably been better than a Trump presidency when it comes to environmental impact – but a Clinton presidency would not have undone the generations of damage we have done to our planet. A Clinton presidency would not have fixed the climate crisis or forced corporate polluters to clean up their act. We all know it is corporations that are doing the most damage to the environment, not individuals, and a Clinton presidency would not have addressed those corporate entities. The climate crisis would have continued to worsen under a Clinton presidency, just perhaps at a slightly slower rate, if there were any difference at all.
The differences would have been in aesthetics and norms. A Clinton presidency would not have attacked institutions the way Trump did. A Clinton presidency would not have eroded norms the way Trump did. A Clinton presidency might not have left the United States notably more fragile and weaker behind her as Trump did. And most like Clinton would not have been embroiled in controversy and setting the news cycle in a frenzy every 48 hours the way Trump did. And that is not something to be taken likely. Trump has left the country weaker than it was before him, of that there is no doubt. And sadly, he does not seem to be done. He’s still working to lay waste to the foundations of our democratic republic even on his way out. Clinton most likely would not have done this.
One thing that could have potentially been different that we can point to with some specificity would be the Supreme Court. Trump has had more effect on the Supreme Court than any President in recent history. Had Clinton been in office the Supreme Court might look very different now – but that comes with a big if – that’s assuming the Senate would have let her make any progress. Would the Senate have let her make any movement on filling Supreme Court positions as she saw fit? This would have been maybe the biggest particular different Clinton could have made. While she couldn’t address systemic problems, she could have shaped the Court in ways that would impact America for years in the way that Trump did. Of course, what we have seen from decisions in the last year or two, is that Trump’s picks don’t always decide the way Trump would have them decide. So even trying to soothsay about the Court in terms of Democratic or Republican picks is fraught.
But now let’s turn our attention to the last four years and look at what Clinton would have faced – what kind of president would she have been?
Hillary Clinton would have had to deal with the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others. Black Lives Matter would have been a movement regardless of who was President.
Now, there is no denying that Trump handled race relations abysmally. That’s largely because he is a racist. Trump’s response to the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police (or sometimes vigilantes) was to double down on his support of the cops. Instead of Black Lives Matter Trump was a Blue Lives Matter kind of guy. The question is, what would Clinton have done?
Clinton is a polished politician and ultimately a left-leaning moderate. She may have embraced the phrase “Black Lives Matter” more quickly than Trump ever would, but whether she embraced the tenets of the movement is a whole other matter. Some ideas are less radical, and she might say she supports, like increased community control over police departments, though it would be unlikely she would do much to put that into action, but other pillars such as decarceration and reparations would be seen as far left and out of touch with mainstream America. Clinton would never, for example, have publicly supported a movement to “defund the police” as was popular in 2019. Clinton may have a better relationship with the Black community than Trump, but we must ask ourselves whether she would have been ready for the unrest of the last four years. It’s hard to say because some of that unrest was because of Trump’s and his ilk’s exacerbation. But I don’t think Clinton would have been able to smooth anything over, either, and that’s because racism is not just a Trump problem, it is an American problem. And Clinton is not the salve that would have healed these wounds. In fact, based on her history, I think she most likely would have been more like the “white moderate” that MLK wrote about from the Birmingham Jail than a real ally, because a moderate makes white voters feel more comfortable. But that moderate leaves the Black community wounded and wanting. So would Clinton have handled the last four years better than Trump. Certainly so. Would she have handled them well? Of that I am not so sure.
Of course the elephant in the room is COVID-19. There is absolutely no doubt about the fact that Trump bungled his handling of the coronavirus and countless people are dead because of it. He honestly could not have done much of a worse job if he tried. Some of his mistakes were a matter of policy and some were rhetorical. Personally, the thing I will never forgive him for is spending weeks, or even months, telling the American people this was no big deal, and calling it a hoax, and basically being a coronavirus “truther” when people were getting sick and dying and the disease was taking hold all over the U.S. His irresponsible rhetoric led to the politicization of masks and public health in general and I hold him personally responsible for the number of deaths in the U.S. today.
The question is, would Clinton have been better? And the answer is yes. Because anybody would have been better. My ten-year-old would have been better. But, and here is where I make a caveat, I don’t know that the first month would have been much better policy wise regardless of who was in charge. It’s in the following months that things would have been different. In the very beginning Trump didn’t do much, but then just put in a travel ban on China (when really, he needed to put in a travel ban on Europe). I don’t know that anyone could or would have done any better in the first month because it was all so new, and we knew so little. January to mid-February, when we were first learning about this disease, would have been full of pitfalls for anyone. And it’s easy to look back and say, oh, that was a mistake, but I think we’d be doing that for any leader.
But I think it is the following months that make a difference. Starting in February and March and honestly up to today Trump has made mistake after mistake. And many of them could have been avoided. Where Trump and Clinton would have differed would have been in their willingness to listen to expert opinion (and by expert, I mean actual scientists). Different leadership might have supported a mask mandate. Different leadership might have used the Defense Production Act to make PPE for our medical workers. A different administration might have fought harder for monetary support for workers who were not working because of stay-at-home orders. A different administration most definitely would have taken it seriously and not spent all of their time telling the public that what mattered was the stock market and not to worry about anything because this was all magically going to go away.
Clinton absolutely would have handled the pandemic better. And she would have worked with state governors better. But I am not convinced she would have made the public happier.
Leaders are judged by how they handle crises. And I’m not convinced any leader would have been able to make our polarized public happy. Any amount of failure in the face of this crisis would be seen as ultimate failure by a large portion of our population, and in a crisis this complex there are bound to be mistakes.
COVID has laid bare some of America’s most glaring weaknesses that should have been addressed years ago, but administration after administration have failed to mobilize. Our health system is a disaster. Every developed nation in the world is ahead of us when it comes to taking care of their citizens health, but America insists on maintaining an expensive, inefficient, stratified behemoth of a system that serves nobody well except the owners of the insurance companies. This disease has also shown us that our supply chains are so fragile that even the slightest problem can cause the entire system to break down. We have seen shortages in everything from medical supplies to meat, even though we were producing both, because our supply chains are so abysmal.
The disease has shown us just how ridiculous our wage system is. The people we depend on the most to keep the economy moving are paid the least. This has been perhaps the biggest repudiation of trickle-down economics. Wealth isn’t produced at the top. Our economy is driven by those who work at the bottom. We can’t consume without those we now call “essential workers.” Grocery story clerks, gas station attendants, pizza delivery folks – these are the people who we were dependent on to move our economy while the privileged among us worked from home. And these were the folks who were paid the lease and treated as most expendable. It’s all nonsense.
People were going to die in this plague. The question is, how many? For Trump supporters, 350,000 deaths are acceptable losses. For others, this is absolutely unacceptable. I would posit that if Clinton were leading those some people who find this number untroubling would find a much lower number absolutely unacceptable. Because these numbers are not about the lives lost, but they are about justifying support for your politics.
And if Clinton’s support slipped during the pandemic, we would be looking at a Republican victory in the 2020 election who would seek to undo any of the progress or changes she had made in her short four years.
I know this is a different tone from last week’s optimistic podcast, but basically, what I’m saying is, I don’t know that it would have made TOO much of a difference if Clinton had won.
I’m NOT saying she’s just as bad as Trump. I’m not into false equivalencies. I don’t think she’s as bad as Trump and I think people who make those kinds of arguments are engaged in disingenuous or even fallacious arguments.
But I do think Clinton would have been a small character in a large story. America’s downward spiral had been going on for decades. Our problems are bigger than one administration. They are systemic and pervasive. One woman could not have righted this ship.
Even if she could have made major changes, I don’t think she had the opportunity to make LASTING change. I think it is distinctly possible that the person elected in 2016 would be a one-term president regardless of who they were. And that whatever party was elected in 2016, the opposing party would be elected in 2020 because people would not be happy with leadership regardless of what they did or how they did it over the last four years. So the possibility that any kind of policy changes to address these systemic issues might be made in that short amount of time is slight, at best.
Trump was an unmitigated disaster. Let’s be clear about that. The damage he has done to our institutions and our public discourse is immeasurable. But I think Trump was just speeding along a process that was set in motion decades ago. Trump was not the start of, but the culmination of racialized, identity politics, bad economic policy, hyper-individualism, toxic masculinity, paranoia, polarization, and nationalism. He is the manifestation of the disease, not the germ. We’ve been headed down this road for a long time. Trump was just saying the quiet part out loud. Given that, a Clinton presidency wouldn’t have saved us. It would have delayed things a bit, perhaps. It might have given us a false sense of quietude. But this descent wouldn’t have been stopped by one election. Clinton couldn’t have saved us from ourselves.
But we know what really happened. Clinton lost the electoral college vote and we’ve had four years of Trump. And, quite frankly, alternative histories can sometimes make you feel more depressed than anything else because those looming “what ifs” are at once tempting and distressing.
What we have is a one-term Trump presidency followed by a Biden presidency. And the issue with a Biden presidency is that Biden promises to be as moderate a president as we have had in a generation. So all of those issues that faced us in 2016 – they still face us now. And those would require massive change and mobilization. It seems a big ask to expect that from somebody who ran on moderation.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.