Did We Really Need a Hillary Clinton Novel? (The Answer Is No)

Hillary Clinton’s fiction debut fails for the same reason centrist Dems are struggling politically: their Trump obsession is boring.

Hillary Clinton promotes her new novel, coauthored with Louise Penny, on The View on October 11, 2021. (Lou Rocco/ABC via Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton, patron saint of overachievers, has a new sideline: writing thrillers. Her first effort, State of Terror, is coauthored with best-selling mystery writer Louise Penny. The novel is the kind of book you’d buy in the airport to read on a plane, except, while I haven’t been in that situation in a while, my recollection is that even airports sell better books than this.

It’s possible to write good thrillers with bad politics. During the Cold War, most novels in the genre had the kind of anti-communist conservative politics we at Jacobin would consider “bad,” but some of them were still fun beach reads. (Although the best thrillers to date are those in the Millennium series [The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo] by the late Stieg Larsson, a Swedish Trotskyite feminist journalist who once trained women guerrilla fighters in the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front.) Clinton and Penny’s novel is not of this ilk. The problem is, State of Terror is not thrilling, for the same reason that the Clintonite Democrats are not exciting the electorate right now: they’re too obsessed with Donald Trump and the Right.

There are some spoilers in the review that follows. This doesn’t matter because — and I can’t emphasize this enough — you don’t need to read this book.

State of Terror revolves around two main characters: Ellen Adams, US Secretary of State in a Democratic administration, whose inner life is rendered somewhat charmingly (during high-level global security meetings, she fantasizes about having a glass of chardonnay with her Canadian counterpart, also a woman), and Betsy Jameson, Ellen’s best friend, who is modeled on Hillary Clinton’s real-life best friend, Betsy Ebeling, who died in 2019. The plot revolves around a global crisis: amid multiple terrorist attacks, a Pakistani arms dealer and terrorist threatens America and the world with nuclear bombs. Eventually, it turns out he’s not working for Iran or al-Qaeda. Instead, he’s teamed up with forces within the American far right who have infiltrated the deep state and even the White House. The novel ends with disaster — a nuclear attack and right-wing domestic coup — narrowly averted.

The novel implies that the far right threatens civilization and democracy more than al-Qaeda does; that’s probably correct, and a sound message. But the novel’s plot is ridiculous. The real danger the far right poses isn’t through any relationship to shadowy terrorists, nor infiltration of the security state or the Democratic White House. The danger is in the Right’s skill at gaining power by undermining ordinary democratic processes — by eroding voting rights, for example — and by using our existing antidemocratic structures, like the Electoral College. What’s also dangerous about the far right is its global appeal to ordinary people (a problem that is, to the authors’ credit, mentioned once in the novel). On the other hand, at present, Joe Manchin, a Democrat, is more of an existential threat to world civilizations than Trump is, because Manchin is blocking action on climate change, an issue that, despite its centrality in current national-security discussions inside and outside government, is not mentioned in this novel. Pandemics aren’t discussed, either.

Of course, thriller writers are allowed to come up with absurd alternate histories and futures, and to stretch the boundaries of realism. But it’s clear that to these authors, State of Terror’s scenario is realistic. The acknowledgements, at the end of the book, spell this out:

Finally, this is a work of fiction but the story it tells is all too timely. It’s up to us to make sure its plot stays fictional.

That’s just the trouble: the idea of a Trump deep-state-coup nuclear attack is real to these people. This delusion — that everyone shares their obsession with Trump and is as riveted by this fixation as they are — is not just a literary flaw in State of Terror. It’s clear from this most recent election that it’s an egregious political misunderstanding on the part of Clinton’s political allies, too.

Centrist Democrats think that the word “Trump” is a worse-case scenario that can still scare people. But in Virginia, for example, voters just showed them this can’t work. Terry McAuliffe and the Democrats kept bringing up the specter of Trump, trying to tie Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin, a Koch-fueled private equity titan, to the unpopular ex-president. The effect was to bore and annoy many voters, depress Democratic turnout, and inflame right-wing voters. (While turnout issues were key, a CNN exit poll found that 5 percent of Youngkin’s voters had voted for Biden last year, a statistic that should cause centrist Democrats to rethink everything, though of course it will not.) In their fixation on Trump, Democrats’ real achievements (like the bipartisan infrastructure bill or the vaccination program) were lost, likewise the popular social and environmental provisions in the Build Back Better bill.

Also disturbingly, Democrats ignored parents’ legitimate distress over public-school closings, which (although necessary up to a point) have vastly complicated families’ lives, deprived parents and children of one of the few free public institutions the American system usually provides, and created a fertile environment for racist panic over school curriculum (transphobia too). Not to mention legitimate anger over elite Democrats’ arrogance: Obama, campaigning for McAuliffe, dismissed school controversies as “phony culture wars,” while political genius McAuliffe said he didn’t think parents should have any say in what their kids learn in school.

The electorate had moved on from Trump. Yet rather than give Virginia voters any positive reason to vote Democrat, the centrists waved the amulet of Trump and hoped fear of the far right would drive voters to the polls.

Democrats better give up on this, or 2022 is going to be much scarier than Hillary’s novel.