Disclaimer #1: I’ve neither read Hillary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, nor probably ever will. I’ve never been a big fan of of-the-moment political memoirs, mainly, because you can hear the same thing on TV, read it in the newspaper, or digest it online all day, every day. In other words, what’s the point in reading something you’ve already read?
Disclaimer #2: Rich Benjamin is an intelligent guy. He’s got a bachelors from Wesleyan in English and poli sci and a PhD in “Modern Thought and Literature” from Stanford University (not sure what the latter means, but it sounds important); and has seen his work published in the New York Times, New Yorker and a number of other journalistically sound, highly reputable publications. He should be proud of his accomplishments.
We differ in a number of ways, too: He’s gay, African American, and as far as I can tell, uncoupled. (I’m straight, white, and married.) He’s spent more money on higher ed than I have. And maybe the real kicker: He’s a web star, having gone viral for a 2015 TED talk, “My road through the whitest towns in America”—based on his 2009 book, Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America—for which he’s garnered millions of online admirers (see above; it’s tongue-in-cheek-y to the max, and an enjoyable watch).
But his latest published work for Esquire is not Benjamin at his best.
Two paragraphs into his new column, entitled “The Disheartening Politics of Marriage,” Benjamin explains that “[Clinton] has repeatedly emphasized that gender and sexism cost her the Oval Office,” honing in on one aspect of that conclusion: Clinton’s marriage to former Philanderer in Chief, Bill, as one of the reasons she lost the 2016 election to Donald Trump.
Benjamin also admits in the second ‘graph that “The dramas of white heterosexuality rivet me, a gay man.” If only he could see my yard in upstate New York, dog racing around in circles, and wife barbecuing vegetables. He’d be beyond riveted.
He then goes on to argue that part of the “white anxiety” that cost Clinton the election was due to working-class white people’s anxiousness about marriage, dropping a number of opinions into the mix with very little by way of data to back them up. The column is the definition of specious.
The proof, he seems to be saying, is in white voters’ ennui in the Hillary-Bill-dysfunctional-political-power-couple storyline and great excitement in the Donald-Melania model, in which the president’s wife is “a docile wife, one whose opinions are anyone’s guess.” Benjamin continues: “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.” In short, Melania is a Betty Draper type—a woman who may have strength somewhere deep inside, but who’s real purpose is to show another side of marriage—a tamer, less marriage-y one. The perfect foil to the Hillary-Bill unit.
Yes, Melania is actually all of this—sans all the flowery language—but in fact, none of it; Benjamin doesn’t know her, as far as I can tell has never interviewed her, and clearly, has no idea what she’s like or what her and the president’s marriage is like. In short, he only has as much perspective as we all do: What we see on TV, read online, and crack in the papers. She’s definitely two things he’s not: (1) a woman and (b) first lady of the United States of America. Those alone checkmate Benjamin.
That Trump’s marriage somehow tapped into some primeval, deep-seated, working-class white anxiety, and that magically transformed into a reason why Clinton lost, is just plain wrong. Because it hinges on no truth. It’s not fake news, but it sure as hell stinks of it.
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