One of the central plotlines in Denis Johnson’s latest novel, The Laughing Monsters, is of a couple of rogue NATO-aligned troublemakers attempting to sell stray uranium to some misfits pretending to be Mossad. The book portrays Westerners as cynics seeking to exploit the post-9/11 global security scramble for profit. I thought the plot was basically silly, but it has seemed less so with every new story about the Clintons. With the latest revelation about the Clintons profiting from the sale of uranium to shady characters, needless to say, The Laughing Monsters seems not silly at all but almost restrained and minimalist compared to what Bill and Hillary Clinton have actually been up to.
This raises a question: As much as Americans like their dark and cynical political fantasy, are they really ready to elect the Clintons and make it a reality?
One comparison to which the Clintons are often subjected is the Underwoods of the American adaptation of House of Cards. But I find this one unconvincing, not least because the Clintons don’t (despite some imaginative conspiracy theories) go around killing those who pose an obstacle to their accumulation of power. When it comes to House of Cards, truth really isn’t stranger than fiction.
But House of Cards does provide at least a useful discussion point because it seems to represent the dark fantasy of American politics. President Obama himself likes to joke that he wishes real life were more like the dead-souled politics of House of Cards. As Time reported in 2013: “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,” Obama told tech industry leaders. “It’s true. It’s like Kevin Spacey, man this guy’s getting a lot of stuff done.”
It’s Obama’s version of Tomfriedmanism: every so often, a bit of ruthless authoritarianism is worth the further decay of freedom and democracy.
Of course, in real life, Washington D.C. far more closely resembles HBO’s Veep, in which those in power are awkward and bumbling and, well, human. There is perhaps something reassuring in the House of Cards model in the belief that things are a certain way because powerful people want them to be that way. But there is, in fact, not really such a thing as presidential stability, and often the more stable it looks from the outside the more it truly resembles a Jenga tower. (A good example is FDR, the closest thing since Washington that America has had to an indispensable man. Only in death did it become fully clear the democratic rot over which FDR presided.)
But the House of Cards frame is useful for another reason: while the Clintons are obviously not cold-blooded killers, they are unlike any other family in American politics. And as Hillary runs for president, she will be asking the country to vote its dark fantasies into reality. Do Americans like House of Cards for the escapism, or do they secretly wish life was really like that?
There is reason to think they’re beginning to get uneasy with this. As our John Podhoretz noted earlier today, according to Quinnipiac a majority of voters don’t think Hillary is honest and trustworthy, including 61 percent of independents. Here’s Chris Cillizza on those numbers:
That’s a remarkable set of findings — and speaks to the divided mind the public has about the Clintons broadly and Hillary Clinton specifically. There’s a widespread belief in her capability to do the job she is running for. There’s also widespread distrust in her personally. People admire her but don’t know if she’s honest.
And that is the central problem for Clinton with this series of stories today. It affirms for people that there is always some piece — or pieces — of baggage that come with electing the Clintons to anything. It’s part of the deal. You don’t get one without the other.
Make no mistake: Forcing people to decide whether Clinton’s readiness for the job outweighs the fact that it’s always something with these people is not the choice the Clinton team wants on the ballot in November 2016.
If it’s not the choice the Clintons want people to make, then they’re really not so confident that America’s ready for Claire Underwood. But there’s an argument to be made that such questions are fully irrelevant to the actual election.
For example, Democrats are mostly going to support Hillary, and Republicans will generally be happy to stay on their side of the dividing line. And Democrats are not going to vote Republican just because Hillary is dishonest and untrustworthy. In that Quinnipiac poll, she beats each major Republican candidate. The point is not that those numbers can’t or won’t change but that the same voters who say she’s untrustworthy and dishonest would still pick her over the other guy.
And without a serious Democratic primary challenger, Hillary can continue to rally support based on the premise that it’s either her or the Republicans. The GOP might hope for voter apathy come Election Day, but how many Democrats will stay home when they have another chance to make history?
Clintonian corruption is not a disqualifying factor to a great many voters–at least not yet. But on the other hand, the Quinnipiac poll was taken before the latest revelations that the Clintons were personally enriched by steering American strategic resources into the hands of the Russians (and thus the Iranians) when Hillary was secretary of state. There might be a limit, in other words, to how much voters are willing to stomach. And Hillary’s already making them queasy.