Hillary Clinton spoke at the New York Public Library in 1993
It was my third day at the Republican National Convention in 1996, and my notebook overflowed with a one-note theme: “You do know that Hillary Clinton is funding the whole radical feminist agenda?” “She had Vince Foster killed.” “She’s behind many more murders than that.” “It’s well-established that Hillary Clinton belonged to a satanic cult, still does.” The consensus among Pat Buchanan’s supporters seemed ardent and universal, though the object of this obloquy wasn’t even on the opposing ticket.
One of the mysteries of 2016 is the degree to which Hillary Clinton is reviled. Not just rationally opposed but viscerally and instinctively hated. None of the stated reasons for the animus seem to satisfy. Yes, she’s careful and cagey, and her use of a private email server, which the F.B.I. flung back into the news on Friday, was a big mistake. But no, she’s not more dishonest than other politicians, and compared with her opponent, she’s George Washington. Her policies, even where bold, are hardly on the subversive fringe.
Yet she’s cast not just as a political combatant but as a demon who, in the imaginings of Republicans like Paul D. Ryan, the speaker of the House, and Representative Trent Franks, would create an America “where passion — the very stuff of life — is extinguished” (the former) and where fetuses would be destroyed “limb from limb” (the latter).
Donald J. Trump and his supporters posit their antipathy as a reaction to Mrs. Clinton’s accumulated record over “30 years in power.” It’s important to recall that she was deranging Republicans on Day 1. Understanding her demonization requires admitting her full significance in our political history, for she is not simply a pioneering woman fighting an Ur-misogyny. Mrs. Clinton faces a two-headed Cerberus, an artificial conjoining that occurred in the early 1990s, of wounded Republican invincibility and wounded male prerogative. Our current political crisis won’t be resolved until those forces are separated and the Cerberus slain.
Few current observers seem to recall the wrath that greeted Bill Clinton’s ascension. To the left, “Clintonism” implies accommodation and calculation. But to the right in 1992, it meant usurpation. Reaganism held almost religious significance, and its reign was supposed to be transformative and permanent. For the One True Way to be restored, Clintonism had to be delegitimized.
That delegitimization ushered in the politics of party restoration at whatever cost, governance and country be damned. This led first to an attempted legislative coup in 1998 and then to a judicial coup in 2000. And to all the more recent outrages of birtherism, government shutdowns, delayed Supreme Court confirmations and, ultimately, the rise of a would-be autocrat as a party nominee.
But political restoration was only one head of the Cerberus. The other — wounded male prerogative — was personal and sexual. The 1990s produced a generation of men who felt (and still feel) left behind by a society redefining power and success in terms of ornament and celebrity and demoting the value of industry and brawn, while simultaneously challenging men’s value as family providers. Though women weren’t the source of men’s pain, the antagonist conjured up by aggrieved men I talked with in those years had a feminine face, and very often that face was Hillary’s.
A startling aspect of the rage that greeted Bill Clinton was how much of it was aimed at the women he entrusted — or tried to entrust — with power. When I was investigating one of the early skirmishes of the Clinton years, the burning of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex., which right-wingers attributed to Clinton’s F.B.I., I was treated to the fervent rants of “Patriot” men, aimed not at Mr. Clinton but at what I came to think of as the Three Witches of Waco: Attorney General Janet Reno (“Reno’s master is Satan,” a Third Continental Congress militiaman told me), the gun-control advocate Sarah Brady and, most of all, Hillary Clinton. Her anti-male conspiracies were legion: redirecting their tax dollars to bankroll women’s rights around the globe (“She gave away a million dollars to each first lady she visited in Africa to get educated”), using their Social Security to “pay for abortion,” and “calling the shots at the White House.”
Republican ideological absolutism, nourished by masculine insecurity, created an amalgam corrosive to pragmatic politics. For Hillary Clinton, it’s meant being demonized for traits that have little to do with her character. Not only by right-wing politicians, who found the Hillary-with-horns specter a convenient recruitment tool, but by the culture at large. Even the supposedly liberal mainstream media still seek out any bit of evidence that can be chiseled to fit that prefab 1990s narrative — and if she denies the caricature, she’s called a liar. Her famous “hiddenness” is, at heart, her refusal to cop to the crime of purloined male authority. A Spy magazine story in 1995 made that theft succinct: a cover image of a grinning Hillary, her skirt billowing up as in the old Marilyn Monroe photo, to reveal male briefs bulging with a penis. Across her legs ran the headline: “Hillary’s Big Secret.”
You Can’t Hurt Lindsay Lohan Now
He’s a Superstar Pastor. She Worked for Him and Says He Groped Her Repeatedly.
The G.O.P.’s gender grudge feeds on its own defeat. As the culture moves further away from the conservative ideal — as women gain freedoms, minorities assert rights, same-sex marriage proves commonplace — the monster’s howls grow louder. But the howls say nothing new. This election is the decisive battle in a Thirty Years’ War.
“We’re going to fight this if it takes a hundred years,” one of the Patriots I met in Waco advised me. “Our republic’s on its knees. Our throat is about to be slit.” And then: “Radical feminism gave the government all this power.” Flash forward to October of 2016, as Trump supporters, egged on by their candidate, talk openly about getting their guns to “take out” the “radical feminist” candidate who has declared “open war against men.”
The left needs to acknowledge what the right has long known: that it’s a fiction to think we can move on beyond the brawl of the 1990s without settling it — and settling it requires helping Mrs. Clinton triumph once and for all against the calumnies that were created to define her. It would be a mistake to think that Mrs. Clinton, the imperfect politician, is not the right standard-bearer for this fight. She was nominated to her role not last July at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, but in 1992, when her husband destroyed the myth of Republican invincibility and Hillary Clinton was anointed the feminine face of evil.
Susan Faludi is the author of “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women” and, most recently, “In the Darkroom.”A version of this article appears in print on Oct. 30, 2016, on Page SR5 of the New York edition with the headline: How Hillary Clinton Met Satan.