It was never really about the emails.
Remember the private email server and account that Hillary Clinton used to conduct official State Department business during her tenure as Secretary of State? Of course you do! It was the subject of months of Congressional investigations, numerous tweets from Donald Trump, front page headlines, and calls to “lock her up!” “But her emails” became a widely-circulated meme.
So, what happened when it came out that Vice President Mike Pence used a private email account to conduct government business ― and was hacked ― during his time as governor of Indiana? Predictably, a whole lot of nothing.
“There’s no comparison whatsoever,” Pence told CNN last Friday, when questioned about the parallels between his personal email account and Clinton’s. (Pence had previously praised the FBI on more than one occasion for investigating Clinton.)
No one is arguing that Pence should be taken down for sending emails about government business on his AOL account ― after all, neither Clinton nor Pence have been found engaging in any criminal activity.
And these two incidents were not exactly the same. One could say that using a private email account as Secretary of State ― especially given that the State Department explicitly discourages the use of personal email accounts ― meant that Clinton’s email account became a big red flag, and therefore became a national issue during her presidential campaign.
But looking at the two cases side by side, it’s impossible not to take note of the disparate reactions and wonder the cause.
In October, a poll from Public Policy Polling found that 84 percent of Trump supporters believed that Clinton should be sent to prison, while 40 percent believed she was “an actual demon.” Yet just three short months later, a poll from the same polling company found that 42 percent of Trump supporters believed that President Trump should be allowed to have a private email server.
And when it was reported in January that Trump senior advisers Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer and Jared Kushner were using email accounts through a private RNC email system, it was a virtual non-issue.
The headlines have faded, the investigations turned up nothing, and Clinton is not “locked up” ― she’s attending Broadway shows and hiking in Chappaqua. But the “email (non) scandal” remains a potent symbol of people’s worst instincts about Clinton. She’s untrustworthy. She’s conniving. She’s power-hungry. She’s a liar. She’s corrupt. She thinks she’s “above the law.”
In 1692, the people of Salem had witches to channel their rage and distrust of women towards. In 2016, Americans had Hillary Clinton.
The outsize vitriol that exploded in reaction to Clinton’s private email server was always more of a symptom than a cause. Before the FBI began looking into her emails, Clinton had weathered decades of criticism ― much of it gendered. Her facial expressions, hairstyles, makeup (or lack thereof), and her last name were always considered fair game. She was both told her success was thanks to her husband, and simultaneously taken to task for her husband’s moral and political failings. When she held a job, she was loved. When she asked for a job, she was hated.
So by the time the email “scandal” erupted, the public was already primed to look at Clinton with a base level of distrust and disdain. Many on the right (and some on the far left) already wanted to “lock her up.” The emails simply gave them a tangible reason to chant about it in public spaces.
On the day that the story about Pence’s email broke, Clinton and her longtime advisor Huma Abedin were on a plane. A fellow passenger snapped a photo of her, later realizing that in that moment Clinton was reading the front page of USA Today, which bore the headline, “Pence Used Personal Email In Office.”
That is the face of a woman who has been held accountable many times over for her mistakes while her male contemporaries are consistently given the benefit of the doubt, skating by on the promise of their innate worthiness.
“But her emails” allowed thousands to justify a burning hatred for one rather conventional female politician. But his emails? They’re already forgotten.