Why Hillary Clinton Fears the GOP’s Next Moves

The former secretary of state worries that the conspiracies of the ’90s have brought us to the brink.

Hillary Clinton
Andreas Rentz / Getty; The Atlantic

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our coverage of The Atlantic Festival. Learn more and watch festival sessions here.

Hillary Clinton can draw a straight line from her duels with conservative media and Republican politicians in the 1990s to the January 6 insurrection—and she fears worse is coming. “There’s always been a kind of paranoid streak in American politics,” the former secretary of state told Atlantic staff writer Jennifer Senior. “But it never was given such voice, such a platform, or had so much money behind it until we saw the rise of the right-wing radio voices like Rush Limbaugh and we saw the rise of Fox News. And then, of course, the internet just put it on steroids.”

She blames the tech giants for facilitating the rise of conspiracism and Republicans for exploiting fear and suspicion in a quest to permanently seize political power, whether as an obstructionist party in Congress or by undermining and overturning elections. Referencing moves by state legislatures to change election laws and congressional Republicans who objected to the election results earlier this year, Clinton said not enough Americans are taking the danger of a constitutional crisis seriously: “It’s like the frog dropped into the water. It’s boiling. People are still arguing about stuff that is important, but not as fundamental as whether or not our democracy will be broken and then taken over and minority rule will be what we live under.”

Clinton spoke with Senior during The Atlantic Festival today. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Jennifer Senior: This year marks the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001, which was a uniquely challenging time and tragic time for those of us who lived through it here in New York. It was the subject of my first cover story for The Atlantic, this month. I am now joined by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was at the time one of the United States senators from New York, so that we can talk about the grueling demands of that moment and also how our politics and foreign policy have evolved since. Welcome, Secretary Clinton, thank you for being here.

Hillary Clinton: Thank you so much, Jennifer. I’m delighted to talk with you. And congratulations on that wonderful cover story that you wrote.

Senior: Thank you. It’s top of mind for me, and it affected me personally—because I had been a cub reporter on Capitol Hill, I knew in some back, echoing cavern of my mind that people in Congress, some of them, didn’t care for New York very much. I knew then, but it wasn’t until September 11 that I really learned how true that was. The story that sticks with me was Senator Don Nickles, who was then the No. 2 guy in the Senate, from Oklahoma, and Phil Gramm, another powerful Texas senator—[both] Republican—trying to block the appropriation that you and Chuck [Schumer] had worked very hard to get for us: $20 billion in emergency funding. And all I can think to ask you now is, did you know that the antipathy was that bad? I didn’t.

Clinton: Well, I knew there was antipathy. That’s part of the fabric of how people sometimes define themselves politically: Are they for or against New York? But I didn’t think it would be a factor after a horrific attack. And just to back up a minute, Jennifer: You know Chuck Schumer and I went to New York on September 12 and we literally were the only government plane in the air besides military planes. And when we landed at LaGuardia, we took a helicopter to the West Side, where we met then-Governor [George] Pataki and then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani and went as close as we could get to Ground Zero, to talk to people about what was happening, saw the firefighters breaking through that horrible curtain of black and gray soot and smoke and swirling terrible stuff in the air, and then ended up at a very large meeting of local, state, and federal officials. And literally around 8:30, 9, both Chuck and I were handed notes from our staff who were traveling, and all of a sudden we were told that the White House had sent up an emergency appropriation for $20 billion without a penny for New York. And this was September 12. And it was so shocking, and Chuck, of course, had family in the city—he needed to see them. His daughter had been at Stuyvesant, which for people who don’t know, is near downtown, near Ground Zero.

Senior: It’s a 10-minute walk.

Clinton: That’s right. So I got the last train out of Grand Central back to Washington, and I was at the Capitol at literally 5 in the morning waiting for then-Senator Robert Byrd, who was chairing the Appropriations Committee. And when he came in, because he was a notoriously early arrival at the Capitol, I told him what I’d seen. I told him what we needed. He asked me how much did we need? And I said, well, $20 billion. If we’re going to get $20 billion for the rest of the country, then we need $20 billion for New York. I just had to come up with something. He called in a couple of his staff and a few other senators, and it was at that moment that I began to realize this might not be as clear as I thought it would be in making the case. That day—we’re now on Thursday—Chuck and I went to the White House to meet with President George W. Bush, along with the two then-senators from Virginia because, of course, the Pentagon had been attacked. We’re in the meeting and I was telling President Bush what I had seen and he said, “So what do you need?” And I looked at Chuck—because obviously I had talked with him after I told Senator Byrd we needed $20 billion; I’d said, “Here’s where we are, Chuck”—and I said, Chuck said, $20 billion. And President Bush looked at me and he said, “You got it.” Now, that’s important to this story, okay?

Senior: Right. Because [then–Office of Management and Budget Director] Mitch Daniels apparently had other thoughts.

Clinton: Everybody around them did. And then we were going into the Cabinet Room for a larger meeting with the members of Congress from New York and Virginia. And as I was getting up, ready to go into the Cabinet Room, then-Senator John Warner, one of my all-time favorite senators, Republican from Virginia but an absolute gentleman, a man of his word, he took me aside and he said, “Hillary, when we’re in the larger meeting in front of not just other members of Congress, but more of the president’s staff, get the president to repeat his commitment to you.” So we’re in the meeting, the president’s talking about what we’re going to do and so when it’s my turn to say something, I said, “You know, Mr. President, I just want to thank you for your commitment of $20 billion for New York and to help us rebuild, help us deal with human and physical tragedy on a scope that’s hard to imagine.” And he looked at me and he said, “Absolutely.”

Watch: Atlantic staff writer Jennifer Senior in conversation with Hillary Clinton

By the time we got back, Chuck and I got back to the Senate, [Bush’s] staff, Republican members were trying to undo the president’s commitment, and you know, maybe it’s one of the reasons why I have always felt, frankly, grateful, to President Bush, because he did not waver. Whenever Mitch Daniels or Senator Nickles or Senator [Phil] Gramm or somebody tried to cut us out, tried to nickel and dime what we needed, I could call the White House and I could say, “You know, I was in the Oval Office. I was in the Cabinet Room. President Bush made a commitment,” and the message would come back and he stuck with it. Sometimes in politics people don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes and the importance of that relationship, and having been, frankly, a first lady and a senator by that point, I could look at George W. Bush and just see the absolute pain and anger and everything else rushing through his head, because of the way he was talking, the way he was looking at us. And I knew if I could get him to make a commitment, which he did—no equivocation, no “Okay, we’ll get back to you on that, Hillary,” or “I’ll have my staff follow up.” It was, “You got it.” And he stuck with it.

Senior: Well, let’s put a pin in that, because I want to talk about where those bipartisan impulses have gone. There was, in my story, the father of the boy who died, Bobby McIlvaine. He embraced what I unambiguously think of as a conspiracy theory, what he would call 9/11 truth. This was one of the first conspiracy theories to be born on the internet-to-be, and to really gain a big life on the internet. You, in I want to say 1998, described a vast right-wing conspiracy. You were mocked for it; you were then vindicated—it turned out there was an incipient right-wing ecosystem of whack-a-doodle news out there. You’ve been the subject of some very cockamamie conspiracies yourself. Does this give you any insight into what happened on January 6? Or just more generally, the paranoid style of American politics?

Clinton: Well, it’s something, as you rightly point out, I have thought a lot about and followed for a number of years, because going into the White House with my husband back in ’93 and watching the rise of right-wing radio, watching the beginning and the rise of Fox News, knowing that I studied political science, I know there’s always been a kind of paranoid streak in American politics. It sort of goes with human nature. And there have been other kinds of conspiracies. I mean, gosh, Joe McCarthy was the king of conspiracies back in the day. So this has always been a part of our politics. But it never was given such a voice, such a platform, or had so much money behind it until we saw the rise of the right-wing radio voices like Rush Limbaugh and we saw the rise of Fox News. And then, of course, the internet just put it on steroids because any crazy idea that anybody ever had could now be broadcast to the world.

So when I said what I said in the late ’90s, I was thinking about the organized effort fueled by commercial financial interests, ideological and partisan interests, even religious interests, to try to inject doubt and to cause a loss of confidence in our system, to try to tilt both the financial and the political balance toward the right. I saw all of that happening, and I saw some of the main characters like Newt Gingrich and others who were architects of that. But I was not prepared to see people trying to have a conspiracy theory about 9/11—nor much of what followed in the years after with the rise of social media; the extraordinary dispersal of disinformation; the role, frankly, that the tech companies played by how they set up their algorithms, which really do favor conspiracy theories and the craziest, most eye-catching commentary. And then when we get to January 6, which, unfortunately, I see a line from what I saw and tried to describe in the ’90s through the beginning of this century, the first 20 years of it, and the role that Donald Trump and his enablers and others played in creating this absolute cauldron of conspiracy and hatred and anger and looking for explanations and scapegoats. I sadly think that the seeds were planted long ago, but they have been watered vigorously in recent years.

Senior: Okay, then two questions immediately come out of that. The first is, if you were right in 1998, was Robert Kagan right in The Washington Post a few days ago when he said that the constitutional crisis is already upon us and that 2020 was just a dress rehearsal? How bad do you think this is going to get?

Clinton: I read that article and I have to say I largely agree with it, because I’m not sure that many people—and this includes obviously the public, but also the press—fully appreciate the determination, the relentless pursuit of power, the design of minority rule that we are currently watching happen. I won the popular vote, lost the Electoral College by 70,000-plus votes, and we saw all this stuff online about the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks and the Russians and all of that. And then Joe Biden won by a huge popular-vote margin, but only won the Electoral College by about 100,000 votes. So the parallels between what happened in 2016 and 2020 are not often understood. And why that’s important is, the Republicans—and now we have to say the Republican Party, not just the Trumpers and all of those who are part of this effort to undermine our democracy, but the Republican Party—were shocked that they lost, because they never thought that they would lose by such narrow margins and, we know, accurately and legitimately in places like Georgia or Arizona. So what are they going to do now? Now they’re not only going to try to suppress votes on steroids; they’re going to try to change the way elections are determined. They’re going to try to give legislatures the power to basically throw out elections if they don’t go their way, because now they want to be able to win, even if they lose the popular vote and they legitimately lose the Electoral College.

Senior: What do we do? Are there legislative fixes? Would you end the filibuster?

Clinton: Yes, absolutely. Because keeping the filibuster now, when you’re dealing with a political party that does not respect the rule of law, does not even respect the process unless it works for them—witness what they did to Merrick Garland when President Obama had every right to appoint a Supreme Court justice. You see what they are trying to engineer by using the filibuster, but also equally important, what they’re doing in the states right now. I did an event last night with Tyler Perry and Lin-Manuel Miranda and Sally Yates in Georgia to try to raise money for the people on the front lines, trying to overcome the legislative obstacles that are being put in the way of casting your vote. But the new part [is] having your vote counted, because they want to replace independent people like we saw with the Republican secretary of state in Georgia who stood up to tremendous pressure—now they want to throw elections, if they can, either to state legislatures or if necessary to the House of Representatives, where the vote is counted by state. We are in the middle of a constitutional crisis. It’s like the frog dropped into the water. It’s boiling. People are still arguing about stuff that is important, but not as fundamental as whether or not our democracy will be broken and then taken over. And minority rule will be what we live under, the norm.

Senior: I want to know whether you think that we’re in irreversible decline then. I mean, we have more people now who believe that the election was stolen than we did a few months ago. We have more people now who are getting COVID—and there’s a vaccine—than in November.

Clinton: It’s a reasonable question. We are certainly facing some extraordinary challenges that we have to figure out better ways to deal with. Let’s look at the vaccine mandates. When people are told “Get vaccinated or you lose your job,” we’ve seen not all but a vast majority responding. Because all of a sudden it’s real. It’s not like, Oh, let me read this Facebook post or let me look at that YouTube video about people who want me to buy their herbs or take a veterinarian medicine for horses. No, all of a sudden now, it’s real, and the injection of reality is one of the most important steps we can take right now. It can’t be this both-sides-ism—Well, you know, I think vaccines that are made by scientists and tested in clinical trials are right, but it’s okay, you can believe they’re not. No, no. We have to do a much better job. And I’m begging the press, please get rid of both-sides-ism. There is a reality, and then there is craziness and conspiracy and nuttiness. And you’ve got to stand up and say the facts, the facts, the facts, evidence, evidence, evidence. And guess what? There really is truth and reality.

Senior: And I agree, although it’s not clear to me how much it persuades people. I think there are limits. But to that point, I know we’re practically out of time, but I want to read something to you. Your former colleagues, a lot of them, have really disappointed [people] because a lot of them used to be, to my mind, reasonable people. In 2005, I wrote a cover story talking about the fact that you were a very plausible presidential candidate. George Bush had just won reelection, so New York magazine decides to put you on the cover and say, “You know what, Hillary would be a great candidate.” Okay. So I run around Capitol Hill. And I don’t even have to buttonhole this person; he agrees to give me 45 minutes in his office to talk about you. It’s Lindsey Graham. So if you don’t mind, a brief stroll down memory lane. Here are the nice things he said to me about you for this piece. Just a highlight reel:

“There’s a level of trust with her that’s very real. When she does something with you, she makes sure that you’re getting as much credit or more than she does.” He then said that he went to you first if he wanted to get anything passed on the Armed Services Committee. He said that you were fun. Then he said that you were funny. To which I said, “Funny how?” And he said, “Hey, you’re either funny or you’re not, okay? And she’s funny.” And then, I said, “Well, what do you say to the people who dismiss her as a potential candidate?” And he said, “Well, I’ve worked with her. She’s intelligent, she’s classy, and she’s comfortable with who she is and what she believes. The Hillary Clinton who’s the subject of Republican campaign mail-outs and the Hillary Clinton who’s the senator from New York are vastly different people.” What happened to that guy?

Clinton: Well, I can’t possibly know everything that happened, but I think it’s clear that he became willing to follow Trump, because he saw that the hard-core base of the Republican Party, particularly in his state, were excited, were thrilled, enthralled by his behavior, his contentious, combative, nasty comments about people—they really loved all that; they ate it up. And I think that what happened to Lindsey Graham is, after standing for so many years alongside John McCain—look, one of the things that I did with Lindsey Graham and John McCain was to go on a climate-change tour to point out how desperate the need was for action, and coming back to the Senate, where we all made speeches and we tried to work on legislation and all of that back in ’05, ’06, et cetera. So I think he tried to stand up to Trump. He talked about what a disaster, a train wreck Trump would be during the 2016 election. Trump got to become president. And he’s looking around thinking, Wow, I guess I’d better trim my sails. And I don’t know, at the time that he made that calculation, that he understood everything that he was signing up for, and it’s very saddening to me because he was fun too. We had a good time. We worked on legislation together. And when I saw what he said standing up the night of January 6, “It’s too much. It’s over. It’s done.” I thought, Okay, well, the big light bulb finally has gone on. And then, no. We see a continuing willingness to support things that, in his heart, I have to believe he knows are bad for the country. But it’s not just a problem with him, Jennifer. I mean, I served with a lot of the people who are lining up and saluting Trumpism. They’re giving up their values, their common sense.

Senior: Why?

Clinton: It’s amazing. Why do demagogues capture people’s allegiance? I used to watch, when I was a student, newsreels of Hitler or Mussolini making speeches. And I would think, Who would follow that goofy-looking person? I mean, get a transcript of what they’re saying. What are they talking about? We’re looking at a phenomenon that is fueled not just by political calculation, partisan advantage, personal survival as a politician. We’re looking at a cultural phenomenon even more than a political phenomenon. The audience for anger, for fear or hatred, is so large in America right now, and as I said earlier, sadly, much of the responsibility has to lie with the tech companies who have been the channels for creating that kind of information system that we are now living with.

Senior: What do you do with them?

Clinton: I’ve talked to a lot of people who are thinking hard about how to rein them in, how to regulate them. I mean, good for [YouTube] for finally taking down vaccine disinformation. They all should. Every single one of them should. The people who are promoting vaccine misinformation are making money off of it. They’re either making money because they’re selling ridiculous alternatives to protecting yourself other than the vaccine or how you get treated, or they’re making money in the sense that they are politically being reimbursed, if you will, for siding with such nonsense. But I go back to this idea of, it’s time to have a focus on reality. I talked to a hospital administrator I know who said, “I’m getting ready to fire 5 percent of my workforce because they won’t get vaccinated.” And he said, “You know, I’m very sorry about it, but we have done everything. And when you talk to a group of people who—you talk about the science, you have all kinds of really good information, and they come back at you with YouTube videos and Facebook, I’m done with them. Maybe they’ll find their way back to facts and evidence, but they cannot be in our health-care system right now.” So it’s time for people to say, “Enough.”

I really give Joe Biden a lot of credit. He is really trying to kind of fight against all of these trends to come up with legislation that will make a difference in the country, show people that our government can actually work again, instead of being in a constant state of paralysis and absolutely nothing to show for it. And he’s also trying to model a different kind of leadership, a grown-up kind of leadership. So we’re in a tough spot. And it is an existential crisis in lots of ways because there’s no doubt in my mind that the plan on the other side is to win the presidency again, whether or not they win the popular vote and the Electoral College. And the same will be true to take back the Senate, to take back the House. And anybody who thinks that’s not the most important issue facing our democracy is really not paying attention.

Senior: We are beyond out of time. And you’ve been extremely gracious and generous. Thank you for your time.