October 21, 2021

After her brutal loss to Donald Trump, and several years of keeping a comparatively low profile (including a period of weeks during which she lurked in the forests outside Chappaqua, New York, racking up rumored sightings like a sort of modern-day Bigfoot), Hillary Clinton is back: as a political thriller author.

State of Terror, co-written by Clinton with veteran thriller writer Louise Penny, represents a familiar sort of pivot for a politician who’s traded public service (and in this case, pantsuits) for the world of publishing. The story meanders through well-trodden territory — a sordid tale of corrupt bureaucrats, conniving conspiracists and an international terrorist plot to detonate dirty bombs on US soil — and features, as all books of this type do, a plucky heroine who is clearly a fantasy avatar for the author herself.

Blonde, Spanx-wearing, never afraid to get her nicely manicured hands dirty, Clinton’s Ellen Adams is a fiercely competent woman in a world of condescending (if not outright hostile) men; the book’s opening scene finds her arriving late and covered in mud to the President’s State of the Union address, where she sprints shoeless through the halls of the Capitol while her male Chief of Staff politely negs her appearance. (“With all due respect, Madam Secretary, you look like a hobo.”)

Apart from their entertainment factor — and State of Terror, while it won’t win any literary prizes, is a perfectly enjoyable entry into the genre of novels by former politicians — books like this tend to generate interest as a perceived window into the psyche of their authors. Given the opportunity to reimagine themselves in fiction, who do these political icons become? (Bill Clinton has taken his own turn at this in a pair of novels co-authored with James Patterson: his hero, Matthew Keating, is an ex-president and ex-soldier who is still so virile in his post-POTUS life that his hobby is challenging his secret service agents to shirtless canoe races — which, of course, he always wins.)

Clinton does show some restraint here: her protagonist is the Secretary of State to a former political rival, despite what was surely a tempting opportunity to fulfil the author’s thwarted presidential aspirations by putting her fictional avatar in the oval office. But she also doesn’t miss an opportunity to use her heroine as a mouthpiece for dire, hectoring rhetoric about the threat to the nation posed by a certain former president and his supporters. The terrorist plot at the centre of the book is basically a feverish progressive fantasy in which American citizens, including high-ranking military and government officials, are so backwards, so racist and so super mad about gay marriage and immigration that they’ve decided to stage a coup, kill millions of people, and annihilate three American cities with nuclear bombs.

In a press release accompanying the book, Louise Penny describes how she and Clinton came up with its storyline: “Before we started,” she says, “we talked about her time as Secretary of State. What was her worst nightmare? State of Terror is the answer.” This may be partially true — the possibility of nuclear weapons in terrorist hands surely terrifies anyone whose job is to keep the international peace — but it also elides the fact that State of Terror was clearly written with much more current concerns in mind. It was, after all, during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State that the Benghazi attack by Islamic militants killed four American citizens — and yet we’re supposed to believe that what kept her up at night was fear of an attempted government coup by proto-MAGA chuds?

But this is the real form of wish fulfilment that Hillary Clinton’s pivot to fiction offers. Not an opportunity to recreate herself as a hero on the page, but a chance to occupy a particular role within American culture: that of the erudite elder statesman whose wisdom and experience transcends politics, who has earned a graceful retirement into book-writing or painting or winery-owning or whatever, but who may still have valuable things to say from time to time when it comes to matters of state.

What’s interesting is that this is a role usually reserved for people who’ve held our country’s highest office — and not, crucially, for those who wanted the job but didn’t get it.

And yet, awarding such status to Hillary Clinton is entirely in keeping with her broader role in the aftermath of the 2016 election, when the prevailing opinion in the media was that she’d been cruelly, maybe even illegitimately, robbed of the presidency. #NotMyPresident trended on Twitter. New York magazine reported that a group of “prominent computer scientists and election lawyers” were urging Clinton to challenge the election results, having found “persuasive evidence that results in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania may have been manipulated or hacked.” Millennial icon Lena Dunham described sobbing with denial after Clinton’s loss: “It’s her job.” Even nine months after Donald Trump was sworn into office, many members of the media — and even Clinton herself — were still openly suggesting that he might have colluded with Russia to steal the election.

Amid all this, something peculiar happened: in rejecting Donald Trump as our leader, Americans bestowed the status and dignity of the office on his opponent. Hillary Clinton wasn’t, and never will be, our president… but look, she tried. Isn’t that good enough?

And with the publication of this book, it’s almost as if the last four years never happened, or at least happened differently. It’s not hard to imagine an alternate timeline in which Trump never won the election, in which Clinton’s political trajectory continued as intended, and in which her successful tenure as President was followed by a graceful transition into a new life as a writer of political thrillers. For those who wanted to see Clinton succeed on her chosen path, it’s enough to make the past four years seem like nothing more than a bad dream.

What is hard to imagine is that this would happen for anyone but Hillary Clinton. It’s particularly hard to imagine that a man would be granted a similar position of status and influence as a sort of consolation prize for losing an election. In a world where political power has always been held and aspired to largely by men, only women get credit for, nevertheless, persisting.

Hopefully, it won’t always be thus. But for now, in the absence of any actual woman presidents to occupy this role, all we can do is make an icon of the one who almost got there. Five years later, we’re #StillWithHer: the would-be shatterer of glass ceilings, the might-have-been Madam President. And while Hillary Clinton never did manage to succeed her husband in the country’s highest office, in the aftermath of her phantom presidency, she does in fact exceed him: her book, unlike his, is actually pretty good.