There is no one who loves talking about the 2016 election more than Donald Trump, who brings it up in public more than once a week on average. There is no one so keen to linger over the outcome of Election Day, to pick at old grudges, and dress down old opponents than Trump. No one, some prominent Democrats would have you believe, other than Hillary Clinton.
“I love Hillary,” Sen. Al Franken recently told Yahoo News. “I think she has a right to analyze what happened. But we do have to move on.” On the Late Show, Sen. Bernie Sanders reminded Clinton that she “ran against the most unpopular candidate in the history of this country” and still couldn’t eke out a win. “She was upset about it and I understand that,” Sanders said. “But our job is not to go backward. … I think it’s a little bit silly to keep talking about 2016.”
Given that 2016 saw an unprecedented electoral upset that resulted in the least-qualified president in U.S. history, nine months seems an awfully short grace period for acceptable discourse on the outcome. And Clinton isn’t just talking about the worst setback of her professional life—she’s selling it. What Happened, her highly anticipated 494-page postmortem on her last campaign, hits bookstores on Tuesday, ensuring that the conversation some Democrats don’t want to have will continue for at least as long as Clinton’s book tour.
Early reviews take issue with the book’s right to exist as much as the quality of its contents. “Was this book necessary?” asks Doyle McManus in the lede of his Los Angeles Times review, suggesting that Clinton should have shoved her manuscript into a desk drawer rather than offer it up for public consumption. Doug Schoen, a former Clinton ally, told the failed candidate in a Hill piece that it is “time to exit the stage” and stop doing harm to her political party by simply showing up. “Friends don’t let friends read Hillary Clinton’s new book,” wrote a critic at the Week who refused to even crack it open before making her judgment. “Whatever you want to read this book for, chances are, there’s something else that does it better.”
Conservative media outlets show particular glee in their reporting that Clinton’s book will ravage the Democratic Party and her own future in politics. The world is “sick of hearing from her,” writes Katherine Timpf at the National Review, calling it a feat of “self-indulgent dead-horse-beating” and the product of a “selfish urge to present as many excuses as you can to absolve yourself of any blame for your embarrassing defeat.” In the Washington Times, Ben Wolfgang argues that “the American people simply don’t want to hear from [Clinton],” quoting a poli-sci professor who believes Clinton should have “not written a book and been quiet for another eight months.”
That Washington Times piece calls What Happened a “blame book”—and certainly, most assessments of the tome are preoccupied with the question of blame. The juiciest excerpts so far are those that find Clinton casting shade on Sanders (he emboldened Trump’s attacks and promised every American a free pony), James Comey (he “shivved” her and “badly overstepped his bounds”), the New York Times (it dragged her over her emails but glossed over Trump–Russia connections during the campaign). But the bigger question with which critics are grappling is whether or not Clinton claims enough blame for her own unexpected loss. “Despite seemingly suggesting the fault is hers alone, Clinton also clearly believes that a lot of other people are responsible, too,” writes Bess Levin in her Vanity Fair roundup of “People Clinton Blames for Her Election Loss.” Another Washington Times piece reported that What Happened is “yet another campaign to blame everybody she can for her crushing loss.” Schoen wrote that “the only person [Clinton] does not seem to blame is herself.” Even the Associated Press claimed in a straight news piece about the book that Clinton “has a reputation for avoiding blame for her failures.” It seems that these critics, unsatisfied with Clinton’s concession speech, are holding out for a full-blown apology.
But Clinton could hardly have been more explicit about where the buck stopped in her campaign. “I go back over my own shortcomings and the mistakes we made,” she writes in one oft-quoted excerpt. “I take responsibility for all of them. You can blame the data, blame the message, blame anything you want—but I was the candidate. It was my campaign. Those were my decisions.” There it is: Clinton blaming herself for her loss. If that’s where her critics would have rather she stopped, What Happened would have been a PR statement, not a book.
It’s true that the democracy-defying 2016 election merits more than a five-sentence mea culpa from the woman who lost. Clinton as a bad candidate is just one sliver of the rancid pie that caused America to vomit up President Trump. Even the election analyses most critical of Clinton don’t dare place all the blame on her Wall Street speeches, email-management missteps, or comments about putting coal companies out of business. The additional facts she offers as contributing factors to her loss—Sanders’ “attacks caused lasting damage”; sexism helped make her “a lightning rod for fury”—are measured and probably true. They’re nothing readers haven’t encountered before in the thousands of thinkpieces they devoured in the months after the election. Almost nobody thinks Hillary Clinton alone is responsible for the defeat that shocked the entire world.
When Clinton acknowledges that truth, as she does in What Happened, critics portray her as a petty shirker of accountability. Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman of California told Politico that Clinton is forcing the party to endure endless “media cycles about the blame game, and the excuses.” In a recent Morning Consult poll, 39 percent of 2,000 respondents said Hillary Clinton should cease all influence on the Democratic Party. Just 40 percent said it would be OK for her to write books. That the public was asked to weigh in on the seemliness of Clinton’s post-election plans is itself a marker of how personally the country takes her every move, as if she were not a politician but a despised national mascot.
What if, just like much of the rest of the electorate, she’s simply looking to make meaning out of an event that shattered her illusions about the country she calls home? The 2016 election was unlike any other: Nearly a year after the election, conversations with my friends and colleagues still occasionally end up in “what happened?” territory. Ordinary people are still piecing the 2016 narrative together. It’s no surprise that they might want to hear the loser’s perspective, even if members of her party don’t.