Emma Kent and Tom Rose assess Hillary Clinton’s appearance at the Cheltenham Literature Festival as she discusses her new book, What Happened

Last updated
Images by Gage Skidmore

Emma Kent

When it emerged that Hillary Clinton was writing a book entitled What Happened, many critics were quick to label it as an attempt by Clinton to blame others for her election loss. I must admit that I was also expecting some degree of blame-shifting in her talk at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. To my surprise, I found that Hillary was fairly upbeat and pragmatic about what happened in the 2016 election (if slightly bitter). She admitted that her mistakes had made it easier for her opponents to shift the dialogue away from her policies; although, in typical politician style, she did not go into too much detail about these errors.

I found that Hillary was fairly upbeat and pragmatic about what happened in the 2016 election

Crucially, she chose to focus her book on issues that emerged from the election and still need to be addressed. I found that her talk broadly tackled two main themes; the issue of Russian interference in democracies, and the continuing problem of sexism in politics. For Hillary, both of these issues need urgent attention and discussion. 

Hillary Clinton's new book

Russia and Fake News

Hillary seemed eager throughout the talk to highlight a new threat from what she termed the “weaponization of information”. In her view, Russian interference in western democracies has extended beyond merely trying to hack the election process; Russia is now deliberately creating division in western societies through the creation and distribution of ‘fake news’ on social media. Clinton argued that this is Putin’s new strategy to undermine democracies, and made the claim that “Russia’s weapons of choice may not be tanks or missiles, but let me be clear: this is a new kind of Cold War and it is just getting started.”

What really interested me about this statement was Hillary’s reference to the Cold War. This reveals two key points about her thinking. Firstly, she considers the danger posed by Russian fake news to be the most serious threat to western democracies in our time. She clearly wants this to be considered a key security issue by the West, which is perhaps why she framed the threat in such recognisable and alarming terms as a ‘Cold War’. Much of Hillary’s talk was dedicated to the Russian fake news problem, while she spent noticeably little time discussing other major threats, such as North Korea and terrorism. 

She considers the danger posed by Russian fake news to be the most serious threat to western democracies in our time

The second point I gleaned from the Cold War reference was that Hillary thinks the future of great power struggles will be fought primarily in ideas rather than on the battlefield. While Trump is busy increasing the funding for the military in the US, Hillary is essentially arguing for a shift in focus away from traditional military notions of security, instead advocating an investigation into who shapes the discourse in our societies and for what purposes: “In addition to hacking our elections, they are hacking our discourse and our unity.”  

The question is, therefore, how do we stop the spread of fake news? Hillary gave several suggestions in the talk. At government level, she suggested that cyber security needs to be a priority to prevent further hackings. This is a sensible proposal and a process that is already underway, with the US and UK security services currently engaging in cooperative efforts to strengthen our cyber defences. 

Her two other suggestions, however, seemed somewhat problematic to me. Hillary argued that states need to apply sanctions whenever evidence is found to suggest Russian interference in an election. Looking back to when Obama expelled diplomats following the US election hacking, sanctions seem to have done little to deter Russia from attempting to hack the elections of other democracies (such as in the recent French election). Considering that Russia still controls much of the gas supply to Europe, it seems unlikely that individual European heads of state will be willing to place sanctions on Russia for fear of retaliation.

The root of the problem is that many people lack critical thinking skills and will accept much of what they read as 'true' if it confirms their pre-existing bias

Hillary also proposed that we all have a responsibility to hold elected politicians and the media to account for inaccuracies. This is certainly a noble goal and one for which we should all strive, but I fail to see it as a total solution to the problem. Even if individuals start flagging up stories as inaccurate, the sheer amount of fake news online seems untameable. For me, the root of the problem is that many people lack critical thinking skills and will accept much of what they read as ‘true’ if it confirms their pre-existing bias. Social media is such a new phenomenon that most people have not been educated in how to distinguish between legitimate new stories and bullsh*t. Until the education system catches up, the problem of fake news is likely to stay. 

Sexism in Politics

In addition to hammering home her message about the Russian interference threat, Hillary gave equal time to talk about her experiences as a woman in politics, and where she felt progress could be achieved in the future. In Hillary’s view, most legal barriers for women are now gone, but sexist attitudes linger. Men, for instance, become more socially accepted with success, while women are resented when they want to be leaders. Hillary also highlighted problems such as the gender pay gap in business, and studies which suggested many Americans are still opposed to a female President.  

Despite all of these issues, Hillary’s message was not all doom and gloom. Far from it- she seemed optimistic for the future and committed to the idea that women’s voices should, and would, be heard more in politics. Her main suggestion was that women need to be given the confidence to make their voices heard, starting from a very young age. To rapturous applause from the audience, she proudly stated that “the only way to get sexism out of politics is to get more women into politics.”

In Hillary's view, most legal barriers for women are now gone, but sexist attitudes linger

It seems that Hillary wants to lead by example: since the 2016 election, Hillary has been involved in several schemes to get young women into politics and develop their potential to become leaders. This is perhaps one of the things that impressed me most about Clinton- despite a devastating defeat, she still seems determined to help women break down barriers in the political world. Her perseverance is truly something to be admired, whether you agree with her politics or not. 

When I emerged from Hillary’s talk, I experienced a strange mix of emotions. On one level, the talk was a sobering reminder of what could have been; an American President with vision, poise and deep knowledge of world affairs. It was also a stark wake up call to some serious problems in world politics that need addressing. 

But more than anything, as a woman, I felt empowered to be a leader and effect change in the world. Although Hillary missed out on the Presidency, she has shown it to be within reaching distance for other women in the future. For me, Hillary will always remain a powerful role model, showing that anyone can practise determination, resilience, and rock a pantsuit.  

Hillary Clinton fans
@Galerie17 with her Hillary print and a young Hillary fan with his light-up sign


Tom Rose

As one of the world’s most controversial political figures, Hillary Clinton’s talk at the Cheltenham Literature Festival had been heavily anticipated by the lucky few who managed to secure tickets to one of her only two UK appearances. An affluent yet noticeably liberal spa town, it is no surprise Clinton agreed to appear in Cheltenham because of the inevitable warm reception she would receive. Nonetheless, the biggest question on my mind was whether she would continue to present herself as the defender of liberal values or if she would simply come across as a sore loser. Before being grilled by the Norwegian-born journalist and broadcaster, Mariella Frostrup, Clinton gave a very direct address to the audience, emphasising four key lessons from the 2016 Presidential Election. Upon reflection, it seemed to me that analysing her rhetoric from these four lessons is perhaps the best way to come to a conclusion over whether or not she has graciously accepted the tragic loss of last November.

Lesson 1: the need to pick yourself up after being knocked down. As a woman who had worked her whole adult life to reach the Oval Office, it is astonishing how quickly Hillary Clinton has emotionally recovered after losing to a racist misogynist who ran for President simply because he thought it might be fun. She told the audience in Cheltenham, ‘you may not lose a Presidential Election on the world stage but everybody gets knocked down. And what matters obviously is whether you get yourself back up and keep going.’ Considering how recently this election took place, it does not seem like her defeat has had any long-term toll on her personally. She remained humorous throughout her address and interview, perfectly judging her wit to suit the British audience, most notably with her ‘what happens in a pub stays in a pub’ joke. She remarkably appeared very much at ease on the stage, managing to address the audience with conviction whilst skilfully ensuring her important message resonated with spectators. 

Considering how recently this election took place, it does not seem like her defeat has had any long-term toll on her personally

Lesson 2: the only way to rid sexism from politics is to ensure there are more women taking on political roles. This pivotal topic of feminism was met with a huge applause from the audience. Hillary was very quick to quote American research, although didn’t provide a source, which has supposedly shown that ‘for men, professional success and likability go hand in hand. In other words, the more successful a man becomes, the more people like him. Well, with women it’s the exact opposite. The more professionally successful [they] are, the less people like [them].’ Despite her lack of citation, the link between the success of a person’s professional life and their gender is self-evident – all you have to do is look at the disparity in pay and the disproportionate number senior roles that are occupied by men. 

Hillary went on to describe how ’women are also seen favourably when [they] advocate for others, but unfavourably when [they] advocate for [themselves].’ She quoted how people had actively supported her in her prior supporting roles of First Lady, Senator for New York and Secretary of State. However, she proceeded to say explicitly that the minute a woman steps up and tries to take advantage of a potential leadership role, it is at that moment when it begins to change. Now, it is evident that her gender is not the only reason she lost the election (far from it), however you would be insane to think that she didn’t need to overcome any setbacks bespoke to her gender during the election campaign.  Whilst this explanation may not convince everyone, it is without a doubt clear from her rhetoric that she will not rest until these burning injustices between the sexes are solved.

Lesson 3: ‘The forces at work in the 2016 Election are still with us.’ This frightening comment made by Secretary Clinton in Cheltenham was one that must have struck a chord with many of the attendees. She described in detail what she believed had occurred during the election with regards to Russian interference. This time, however, she provided concrete evidence to support her claims, such as new research from Columbia University which has found that ‘the content posted by Russian trolls and bots had been shared upwards of 340 million times.’ However, this initial discussion of what happened to her was a rather brief part of her speech as she went on to focus much more on what has to be done now in light of the Russian interferences in Germany, France and most recently, in Catalonia. Clinton’s most astonishing remark, however, was in relation to this new kind of warfare that we are experiencing. ‘Russia’s weapons of choice may not be tanks or missiles, but let me be clear, this is a new kind of cold war and it’s just getting started. We may have in the nineteenth century fought wars on land and sea and then moved to the air in the twentieth, but in the twenty-first, wars will be increasingly fought in cyber-space.’ This chilling analysis provided by Clinton must be seen as a wake-up call to the wider developed world, that without action, this new kind of warfare could undermine the very principle that defines our democracy.

...these are very powerful words that as a liberal society, we must take seriously, or instead of advancing our democracies, we will start to go backwards.

Lesson 4: the need to fight back against fake news. Perhaps this was the lesson most welcomed by the audience. This seemed to be the section in which she attacked the President most directly. ‘When leaders deny things we can see with our own eyes, like the size of a crowd at the inauguration or they refuse to accept settled science, like climate change, it isn’t just frustrating to everyone around the world who prides [themselves] on trying to live in the fact-based universe, it’s insidious and subversive to democracy.’ In the age of post-truth politics, this carries a very profound meaning. The fact that a certain film producer and the President of the United States deny allegations of sexual abuse despite admitting to it on recorded evidence acts as a definitive backdrop to this message Hillary Clinton was aiming to get across. Clinton seems to believe that ridding the world of fake news is linked to the destruction of discrimination in our society. ‘We have to insist on truth and accuracy. We have to implore the press to help us. We have to hold them and elected officials accountable when they fail to meet that standard. And we must refuse to be silent in the face of racism, sexism, bigotry or rhetoric intended to incite hate and violence, no matter where it’s coming from or who it is directed at. And to have the courage to stand up for human rights and the forces of democracy in this crucial global moment.’ All of these are very powerful words that as a liberal society, we must take seriously, or instead of advancing our democracies, we will start to go backwards.

Now to return to my original question of whether Clinton remains distasteful to the idea of having been defeated, it must be noted that she did appear bitter over the result at various points during the event. However, she made it clear that after losing the election, she was more worried as an American than on a personal level for fear of her own reputation. It is also interesting that when asked by Frostrup about what it was like when she made her concession phone call, that she offered to provide the new President with some support (although I doubt that offer was taken up). All these signs in conjunction with her powerful message point to a strong, confident and mature politician who from this event has perhaps shown herself as the best President the United States never had.