Hillary haters love to pounce on every slip, every wrinkle, every cough, and every visible sign that Mrs. Clinton has an actual human body. For the haters, Clinton’s signs of humanity trigger an ugly alarmism over gender, age, and power. The haters just can’t not see an old woman who is unfit to lead because she is too frail and too weak and way too close to the edge. She’s “slipping.” She’s off the rails. Maybe she has a lingering brain issue. She’ll never make it.
Alarm bells in right wing media town have been clanging all day long over this photograph of “Grandma” Hillary Clinton losing her step on a front porch in Charleston, S.C. (1, 2, 3) last February in South Carolina. Kyle Olson over at The American Mirror calls it a SHOCK PHOTO, and Matt Drudge ran the image this morning right above a nasty screamer headline that read “2016: HILLARY CONQUERS THE STAIRS.” (Do these guys even have mothers?)
Add to this tiresome but still volatile admixture of psycho-political projection this photograph of Clinton leaning ungainly on the arms of two men — a white guy on her right and a black guy on her left — and you get the complete hater version of Clinton’s political biography in one classically composed frame: her climb to power just wouldn’t be possible without the men surrounding her (Bill and Barack?), clearing the way for her, doing the muscle work, holding it all together.
So it is that the paranoid style in American politics rages on, and on, in 2016.
Look again, though, and so long as we’re reading the image symbolically we should not overlook the woman who is, as these things have tended to go for some time now, out in front of the pack, yet unnamed, unidentified, out of the spotlight, but doing the most to create a wake for Clinton’s ascent. This is how an image can jostle our collective memory and disrupt conventional narratives. Its visual elements can pull us over into historical recollection, in this case one that summons the grinding and unheralded work of first wave feminists. They lead the way; they opened unlikely doors before her. And true to form the men are too preoccupied to notice.
That, I think, is just part of the reason why this photo unleashes fear and loathing among Drudge and Brietbart types. Against all the tough guy chest-pumping for an authoritarian savior king demigod, this image displays Hillary Clinton as a human embodiment of limits to individual strength and endurance. She grinds it out. She takes more hits, fends off more bullshit, travels more miles, and helps more people than these bros can imagine. She does all of this but still, still has to contend with a billionaire blowhard with no résumé of public service who gets on TV and boasts about the bulge in his pants. Talk about weaknesses.
So it’s good that photographs can be read in multiple ways. To that end, what is especially brilliant, and by the same account especially lethal for Hillary haters, is the way this photograph dramatizes the first premise of Clinton’s winning campaign argument. In this country there may always be a more or less latent adolescent temptation to go for the big strongman, but for those who have actually been in the long game, they know that going it alone is a loser’s strategy. We need help sometimes, from our friends. That’s how we get by. I think the Clinton campaign even has a slogan for that.
(photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters. caption Hillary Clinton stumbles on a stair during a visit to South Carolina in late February 2016 for the State’s Democratic presidential primary.)