Hillary Clinton’s chilling pragmatism gives populism a free pass
Ever since Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump in 2016, she has been subject to a very particular intolerance of her insistence to stay in the public eye. Some on the right have turned her into a symbol of everything they hate, to be demonised at their rallies. Others, on the left, abhor her refusal to cede space to a newer generation, hanging in the air like a bad smell, a constant memory of the moment it all went wrong. But Hillary Clinton will not go away, and that is a very good thing. Not because she should remain on the scene, fighting the good fight against the forces of reaction, but because with every interview and public appearance she is revealing in the most helpful way the pointlessness of her politics.
In an interview with the Guardian as part of its series the new populism, the former presidential candidate illustrated how a certain brand of centrist politician has no rebuke or response to populists other than to mimic their tactics. On the issue of immigration in Europe, she called on the continent’s leaders to erect the barricades.
“I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame,” she said. “I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message – ‘we are not going to be able to continue provide refuge and support’ – because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.”
Even those on the left can contort themselves into an anti-immigration position in defence of white working-class populations
It also doesn’t work. It is one of the enduring perplexities of centrist politics, one whose adherents attack the left for being unrealistic and unconcerned with electoral victory, that on immigration it has stuck to pandering to xenophobia despite the benefit of that never materialising at the ballot box. It did not work for Ed Miliband and his “Controls on immigration” mug, and it certainly has not worked for the immigration hawks in his party such as Yvette Cooper who have yet to reap the electoral spoils of propping up the hostile environment. You cannot outflank the right by adopting its promises, that way you only end up as its handmaiden.
This chilling pragmatism exposes at best a lack of core beliefs: political expediency is all that matters and immigration is not the hill to die on. At worst it is a full-throated agreement with populists. The tenor of Clinton’s comments, the harshness and impatience with tactics that are not working, is a familiar sickener. Compassion is weakness, defeat means only that the methods did not work, rather than that the values were broken. There is no self-reflection.
I get it. Defeat is hard. Immigration is low hanging fruit, an easy win. Even those on the left can contort themselves into an anti-immigration position in defence of white working-class populations. But as a response to the right it is a proven failed strategy, a race to the bottom where populists will only benefit from the endorsement. “Why we lost and how to fight back” was the title of the interview with Clinton and other centrist politicians – and she unintentionally revealed the real reason. This is why she lost, and this is why she will not be able to fight back. I sincerely hope the rumours she will run again in 2020 are true and that Clinton does not go away until this stale, weather-vane politics is exposed, and buried, for good.
• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist