In an excerpt released from her upcoming book, “What Happened,” Hillary Clinton ponders if she should have told Donald Trump to “back off, you creep” as he attempted to physically intimidate her on the debate stage. Instead of clapping back – the act of stepping up or snapping back at someone who comes at you inappropriately, especially online trolls (or, in this case, a presidential candidate with a child’s temperament who coincidentally excels at online trolling) – Hillary chose to “keep her cool.” Yet again, she felt compelled to be the grown-up, the more responsible one, on the stage that night.
There is no denying that an overwhelming majority of Americans desperately wish that instead of choosing to keep calm and carry on, Hillary Clinton had forcibly acknowledged and responded to Donald Trump’s bullying. “Acknowledge” and “respond” is exactly what research says female candidates should do when confronted with blatant sexism.
Noted Democratic pollster Celinda Lake studied the best strategies for women to respond to sexism on the campaign trail. In “Name It. Change It.” – a research and advocacy campaign I helped design for the Women’s Media Center – we demonstrated why it’s important to clap back. The greatest gains with voters come from when the candidate herself tells the creep to back off, but it also gives a chorus of validating voices ammunition to amplify the equalizing message.
In addition to being refreshing, the made-for-TV rebuke would have helped Clinton pivot from the weak attacks being made on the Clinton Foundation (that we now know had been deliberately and unjustifiably credentialed by the Washington Post and New York Times) and, as the research shows, given her a much-needed bump.
If Hillary Clinton had called up some of the clap back moxie on display by Taylor Swift during her groping trial or by New York Times bestselling “Hunger” author Roxane Gay on any given day on Twitter, our country could very well be healing instead of hurtling towards the next Trump-incited crisis.
When we get to read about more of the moments from the campaign that Hillary Clinton wishes she “could go back and do over,” I am confident that Hillary’s hindsight will provide more 20/20 vision – more importantly, more 2020 vision (only 1,167 days away!) – for women candidates going forward.
Why then was Taylor Swift -- a young pop star -- so comfortable doing on the stand what Hillary Clinton - arguably one of the most powerful women in the world -- couldn’t do on that stage?
The state of conflict Hillary Clinton found herself in during that debate is all too familiar to half the population; so many, if not all, of us have found ourselves in a situation where a man close to us is behaving badly - in our homes, at our workplaces and even in our friendships.
Driven by pragmatism, sadly too many of us have also chosen “option A” - avoiding confrontation - as our default setting. Society provides cover for it, few men are held accountable and those closest to us - our fathers, husbands, brothers, boyfriends, friends and bosses - are taught this behavior is okay by the acceptance of it. The “boys will be boys” attitude is aided and abetted by women well-heeled in prioritizing harmony over confrontation. Even the women who voted for Trump - many who are now kicking themselves for it - know this to be true. It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to understand that a woman’s ability to dismiss Trump’s abhorrent behavior towards other women is directly tied to a lifetime of similar dismissals regarding the most important men in your life.
The saying “Well-behaved women seldom make history” is not just a quote, it’s a fact. In that moment during the debate when Hillary Clinton wanted to “press pause,” that was her turn to “misbehave” responsibly. What Taylor and Roxane capitalize on that Hillary didn’t in that moment is that the responsible move is to confront. It was exactly at that point - with more than just history on the line - that we needed her to take the risk and use her voice to shut him down. With millions of people – most especially millions of women and girls -- watching closely and learning how to behave when confronted by vile behavior, silence is the irresponsible option.
Yes, Hillary should have told Donald Trump to “back off.” From “what do you expect me to do, go home and make cookies?” to “delete your account” to the rumored slapping of Robbie Mook on election night, she certainly had it in her, as we all do. Like any muscle, if we don’t use it, it will waste away.
Paul Waldman was right to ask, “Has Hillary Clinton abased herself sufficiently to satisfy her critics?” Given the cemented double standard in the media’s coverage of her, there will be those who will never be satisfied.
However, “What Happened” can be both a tutorial and a catalyst. With just days until we get to read about more of the moments from the campaign that Hillary Clinton wishes she “could go back and do over,” I am confident that Hillary’s hindsight will provide more 20/20 vision – more importantly, more 2020 vision (only 1,167 days away!) – for women candidates going forward.
In fact, she already has. Whether described as Hillary’s loss or Trump’s victory, the 2016 presidential election results have spurred an unprecedented number of women stepping up to fix the mess we find ourselves in by running for office.
While conducting recent candidate trainings in Chicago and Columbus for VoteRunLead, the training powerhouse for women ready to run for office in the next two election cycles, I saw firsthand the power of this collective clap back at Trump, his behavior, his policies and his aggression.
Democrats, Republican, and unaffiliated women are signing up in record numbers to exercise their political voice by running for office, leading campaigns and organizing in the streets.
There’s one invaluable lesson from what I expect will be a slew of them coming from “What Happened.”
When you’re a woman running for office and your male opponent attempts to intimidate you, clap back, call it out, confront him. Then, when you get elected, we can count on and look forward to your greater capacity for consensus building, competence and compassion to save the day.
And finally, to those still wondering about Taylor Swift and other amazing women who are using their platforms for justice, they can all thank Hillary for the opportunity to do so.