In the weeks since the election, some Americans have found a new folk hero in a familiar face: Hillary Clinton, comfortably dressed suburban retiree.
Within hours of her loss, a steady stream of photos began surfacing of supporters posing with her as she took part in lazy-day activities: There’s Hillary, walking in the woods of Chappaqua, New York; Hillary browsing the aisles at an independent bookstore; Hillary shopping for Thanksgiving dinner at the market; and Hillary walking in the woods of Chappaqua again, this time with Bill.
Adam Parkhomenko, a longtime Clinton aide, has started a Twitter account, @HRCInTheWild, for tracking the spontaneous sightings.
Each chance Clinton meeting is marked with a digital memento: A selfie with the woman who would be president (sometimes photographed by a man who was).
These photos are posted and passed around the liberal social media bubble, where they’re received like salves for the lingering pain of the election. The selfie offerings have collectively racked up tens of thousands of likes and shares on social media, along with coverage from CNN, Vogue and The Daily Mail.
Clinton shot plenty of selfies with supporters throughout the campaign, of course. But while it may have been energizing for supporters to catch her at a planned stump speech, it’s a bizarre thrill for them to spot her unexpectedly scampering through a pastoral setting. Many who have crossed her path pass on morsels of wisdom from Clinton: “Don’t be discouraged, never give up,” one woman says she told her at the grocery. “We must stay strong together no matter what,” relayed another.
But the real message is in the visuals. In each photograph, Clinton smiles warmly. Her face is free of makeup, her hair undone. She wears practical layers — leggings, turtlenecks, patterned fleeces, fun scarves. After the knockdown, drag-out battle of the campaign, the images suggest she has, unexpectedly, found peace. She has cast off the militaristic coats, the pantsuit uniform, the helmet hairdo and the mask of TV news makeup that she wore as Hillary Clinton, embattled Democratic hopeful and Republican villain. Now she presents as a recently retired woman living her best life.
There is a larger Democratic fantasy being enacted here. The smiley sightings project an idea of enclaves — perhaps deep in the woods of Chappaqua, or in the stacks of an indie bookstore — where the fear and depression felt by many after the election does not loom. The Huffington Post called it a “peaceful alternate universe.” If the woman who bested Trump as a debater, and in the popular vote, can put on a brave face and head out on a brisk hike, these selfies say, then perhaps there is hope for her supporters, too. One woman who encountered Clinton in the woods tagged her selfie with the hashtag #lightfollowsdarkness. At Quartz, the writer Lux Alptraum read a feminist political message into the selfies. Clinton’s “makeup free look,” she wrote, is “one last middle finger to the patriarchy.” She added, “If there’s any silver lining to this election mess, it’s that after 40 years of scrutiny and stricture, Hillary Clinton is finally, triumphantly, human again.”
But there is another way of looking at these images from the left. While some are warmed by the shots, others are exhausted by a meme that exalts a Clinton whose candidacy helped torpedo the Democratic Party to its lowest political power in years.
“Dear Hillary Clinton,” Jamie Peck wrote on the left-leaning music and culture site Death and Taxes, “please stay in the woods forever.”
Or as the writer Alana Levinson put it, “I don’t want to live in a world where ‘Hillary Clinton Hiking Selfie’ is a genre.”
Off-putting to some — especially those who feel Clinton pulled the party to the center, only to lose — is that the selfies, and the commentary swirling around them, telegraph an attitude of almost religious reverence for Clinton. They reek of the blinkered Democratic worldview that saw Clinton as so qualified, deserving, even destined for the presidency that prospective challengers ought to clear the way of her path to the nomination. And following her stunning loss, they present Clinton as innocent of blame for the country’s new direction. Writing in the leftist labor publication In These Times, Kathleen Geier critiqued the “pro-Clinton media bubble” that’s rushed to enshrine the candidate postelection, while continuing to ignore the legions of voters who hold a “far less rosy view.”
Some on the right, meanwhile, have been quick to remind the selfie-happy Clinton supporters that they’re living in Trump’s America now. Nowhere is safe, they suggest, from the attitudes and ideals empowered by his presidency, not even the woods of Westchester County. On conspiratorial blogs, YouTube channels and Facebook pages, Clinton’s “selfie tour” was swiftly denounced as a staged public relations stunt. Clinton, they said, had beckoned her cronies in the woods to smile for selfies and make her look folksy and beloved.
One selfie taker received so much personal vitriol over it, she locked up the Facebook photo from view. She told The New York Post that she’d received death threats in the wake of the post.
This is how it goes on the partisan internet of 2016: Even a nice, smiling photograph quickly becomes a Rorschach test, a vessel for all the fears, demons, aspirations, fantasies and victory laps that can be conjured by the farthest reaches of the political spectrum, and everyone in between.