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Hillary Clinton’s novel about the dangers Trump unleashed isn’t all fiction

Hillary Rodham Clinton and the new book she co-wrote with Louise Penny. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Monica Schipper/Getty Images, Amazon)

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have both been writing fiction lately. Trump’s fictions have come in the form of fantastical statements about last year’s presidential election, which he continues to falsely claim was stolen from him. Clinton’s involvement with the genre has been more straightforward: This week, she and Canadian mystery writer Louise Penny published a thriller, State of Terror, in which a female secretary of state, Ellen Adams, must prevent a spiraling international crisis that could culminate in nuclear war.

How fictional is this work of fiction? Well, the nation is recovering from the “near-criminal incompetence” of ex-president Eric Dunn, who after leaving the White House has retired to a Florida estate hidden behind “tall gold gates.” The protagonist, Adams, is a media executive picked to be secretary of state by a president with whom she’d had an adversarial relationship, just as then-President Barack Obama did before he nominated her for the same post in 2009.

At one point, a former press secretary for Dunn who had been fired from his job laments, “Loyalty was the most important thing in that White House. Anyone who looked like they might say anything at all critical was let go.”

On Wednesday, Penney and Clinton hosted a book talk at Politics and Prose, a bookstore in the leafy northwest reaches of Washington, D.C. Though the event was conducted over Zoom, presumably because of coronavirus concerns, the location was a reminder of the brutal campaign that ended Clinton’s political career: Politics and Prose is just a few doors down from Comet Ping Pong, the pizzeria where in late 2016 an adherent to the far-right, absurd conspiracy theory that she and other high-level Democrats were harvesting blood from abducted children showed up brandishing a semi-automatic rifle and intending to “investigate.”

A spoiler alert: though the Middle East figures prominently in the book, Clinton and Penney are too sensitive of both thriller cliché and today’s cultural politics to pin all of the novel’s villainy on the Arab world. The two authors’ plotting moreover reflects growing conviction among intelligence and national security officials that right-wing domestic extremists pose a greater threat than do foreign ones.

A first-time novelist, Clinton described State of Terror as “a kind of reflection on the trendlines,” which she made clear weren’t headed anywhere good. “It truly is a cautionary tale,” Clinton said. “Because there is so much that is happening that is an attempt to really turn the clock back to undermine our institutions, to undermine the rule of law, to sort of impose a view about who is and isn’t ‘real American’ on the rest of us.”

She both avoided mentioning Trump by name and could not help invoking the charged political environment that may be his most lasting contribution: “What are we doing? I mean, why are we politicizing a disease? Why are we arguing about life-saving vaccines? Why are we trying to stop people from voting? What is going on?”

She lambasted the “patriots” who seek to “return our country to the real Americans,” a reference to the pro-Trump forces that remain avidly at work. Shortly after the event, she took to Twitter to share an article by Democratic attorney Marc Elias on Republican threats to subvert the electoral process.

“I fear Democrats still aren’t taking this threat sufficiently seriously,” her message said.

The book does have more lighthearted elements though: Off the Record, the real-life clubby hotel bar a short walk from the White House, comes in for frequent and generally affectionate mention. At a time before mask mandates and social distancing, before cocktails came in to-go pouches to be consumed during awkward Zoom happy hours, it was the kind of Washington establishment that symbolized the hermetic nature of power and influence, twin forces the Clintons mastered better than just about anyone.

Clinton beamed into Wednesday’s book talk from her home in New York City’s northern suburbs, the same home to which she retreated after losing to Trump in 2016, emerging for walks in local woods like an ordinary suburbanite. Not that she will ever shed the trappings that, for better or worse, come with being one of the most powerful and well-connected people in the world. In the book’s acknowledgements section, she describes how the idea for writing her first novel came from Bob Barnett, one of the most plugged-in attorneys in Washington. Barnett had gotten the idea, in Clinton’s telling, from publishing executive Stephen Rubin, who has also published Trumpworld chronicler Michael Wolff. Clinton’s husband Bill has written political thrillers too, in his case with mystery writer James Patterson.

As Trump’s likely 2024 campaign ramps up, he becomes ever more difficult to avoid, as Clinton well recognizes. “This sadly is realistic,” she said of her new novel. “It’s very real.”

The warning may have to do with nuclear war but also with more subtle developments. Faced with mass upheaval, some may choose the easy answers offered by authoritarians. At one point in State of Terror, an Iranian leader wonders, “Given a choice between bedlam and a dictatorship, what do you think the American people will choose?”

The question goes unanswered.


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