Why Hillary Clinton’s Marriage Mattered to White Voters

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Gender takes center stage in Hillary Clinton’s new memoir, What Happened. The Election Day loss shocked her, and in the time since, she has repeatedly emphasized that gender and sexism cost her the Oval Office. That allows for the best bits in this book, when the curtain is pulled back for a look at her family, her thoughts on being a woman, and most interestingly, her marriage.

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Get the popcorn, please. The dramas of white heterosexuality rivet me, a gay man.

Bill makes regular cameos in What Happened. Clinton phones him on the campaign trail every night before falling asleep. She gushes about his “rating system” for the books gracing their Chappaqua nightstand. And she relies on him for everything from speech edits to big-picture campaign and life strategy. Their marriage is a “brand” far removed from Trump, who showcases his trophy wife while never opening up about any actual marriage.

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How is it that a man who married two foreign-born women continues to have more patriotic street cred among many whites than a woman with one Arkansas-, working-class-born husband? Conventional wisdom—and Clinton herself—says that the working-class white anxiety that lost her the election is about demographic change, brown immigrants, and Black Lives Matter. That’s true, and important. But working-class white anxiety is about marriage, too.

The cost of marriage and its trappings—the event itself, home ownership, child rearing, college—has become rather pricey. “Good marriage” is increasingly the preserve of the affluent and the educated, meaning there is decreased accessibility to the married, two-parent family ideal among poorer whites, and across Trump’s America.

The growing trend of assortative mating demands affluent women marry men like themselves, with equal education and earnings potential, and all the bells and whistles that come with class privilege. Assortative mating inputs wealth, social connections, and clannish expertise to gain its children entry to private schools, organized extracurriculars, and all sorts of socio-economic advantages. It also doubles a couple’s influential social networks. As the white “upper class” consolidates itself through intra-class marriage, it digresses sharply in outlook, behavior, and values from the white “lower class,” whose educational and job opportunities are narrowing. The two classes hardly recognize their common white heterosexuality, and certainly not their American kinship.

There is decreased accessibility to the married, two-parent family ideal among poorer whites, and across Trump’s America.

This gender manifesto aside, the sad truth is that Trump handily beat Clinton among white women, winning 53 percent of their vote. She trounced him among black and Latina women. What is more, Trump beat Clinton among white women without a college degree by a whopping 27 points. In Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, that gender margin helped put him into the White House.

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Clinton’s outspokenness has often damned her among voters and critics. She is “like everyone’s first wife standing outside a probate court, OK?” a Morning Joe commentator once decided, as his fellow guy-panelists laughed. Meanwhile, her rival took up a docile wife, one whose opinions are anyone’s guess. She fades into the background—except when she’s turning up to a hurricane in couture stilettos. Floating between Air Force One and her homes, she is always shielded behind spendy sunglasses and tinted SUV windows.

Why did she marry him? “Oh, it’s the small hands you like, not the money, right? The comb-over, the dashing good looks?” one of Melania’s friends once teased her. Melania reportedly replied, “Stop it, stop it. He’s a real man.”

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When I see Melania—that laminated poker face, that rich-lady drag—trailing her husband, it’s as though she’s winking at America, acknowledging her cunning bargain with a devil. I imagine the marriage’s appeal to Trump voters witnessing the politically incorrect fantasy of a poor, beautiful woman hell bent on marrying a wealthy man. This marriage reminds me of the national lottery. To watch all those bedraggled, anxious Americans queue for Powerball tickets at the corner store is to see what the lottery means to them—a fantasy Hail Mary to hedge against a tattering social safety net. But gold-digging and lotteries shouldn’t be sound alternatives to anxiety or bad public policy.

The Trump marriage doesn’t seem simply like a throwback to old-fashioned gender roles, 1950s style. Rather, it registers like a marriage broadcast for the Anxious Class, orchestrated by a reality show producer skilled in optics, who made a fortune selling that demographic a televised illusion.

As Sandy Pearson, a white 48-year-old Trump voter, told the press, “Trump’s not a perfect man, by any means. He kind of reminds me of my ex-husband.” Karen Kulp, a white Trump voter on a fixed income in Colorado, said, “I think America is lost to us.” “Even though Trump seemed arrogant and loud mouthed, when he said it, I believed it, and I think he’ll back everything he said,” said Doris Crandell, a white Ohio Trump voter.

I imagine the marriage’s appeal to Trump voters witnessing the politically incorrect fantasy of a poor, beautiful woman hell bent on marrying a wealthy man.

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Trump presented his marriage as a form of status mobility, business acumen, and every-guy fantasy. It’s part of his faux-populist brand—angry, but perversely aspirational. With the new First Lady, they embody the notions of intellectual incuriosity, ruthless ambition, intolerance, and acquiring power and money—and the voters took to it.

In a concluding chapter, “Love and Kindness,” a term that would become a staple value of her campaign, Clinton reveals she first encouraged her husband to run for president in 1992 to help heal America’s “spiritual vacuum” after the go-go 1980s. Fast forward twenty-five years, to Sandy Hook, the Charleston massacres, racial protests, and Tea Parties. She declared her candidacy in a time of deep division and smoldering anger, following her husband’s footsteps to reverse the “alienation, despair, and hopelessness I saw building just below the surface of American life.”

Despite her best branding efforts, it fell flat.

Advised by a circle of polished, brainy friends, Clinton and Bill remained in rarified air, one that kept them from understanding 2016 voter anxiety in real-time. Their marriage became emblematic of self-enhancement, intellectual partnership, political dynasty, vague international scandal—not “Love and Kindness,” but “Clinton fatigue.”

While Clinton points to sexism as the reason her campaign ultimately lost, at the very end, she confesses, “there was a fundamental mismatch between how I approach politics and what a lot of the country wanted to hear.” How devastating and ironic that in many ways, that mismatch is still there.



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