Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House

Image of Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House
Release Date: 
November 6, 2017
Hachette Books
Reviewed by: 

For some time now, the United States’ two dominant political organizations have functioned less as real political parties than as corporate fundraising platforms and vehicles for the promotion of big money candidates. Donna Brazile’s new campaign memoir offers a highly readable and entertaining window on how this problem played out in the Democratic Party, permitting the election of Donald Trump last year. 

To say that Brazile brings an insiders’ view to the matter is an understatement. She was named interim Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chair to replace the incompetent Clintonite hack Debbie Wasserman Schultz as the Democratic Party held its national convention two summers ago. Brazile stayed in that position through the disastrous election, which left her depressed but still determined, she says, “to heal [the nation’s] partisan divide” and “to fight for my country.”  

Much of this volume is problematic. Clinging to an absurd image of Hillary Clinton as a noble champion of social justice and human rights, Brazile demonstrates no sense of Mrs. Clinton’s deeply conservative, corporatist, militarist, and imperial record and world view. 

Brazile shows no understanding of how Barack Obama’s corporate-neoliberal, imperial, wealth- and power-serving presidency contributed to Trump’s ascendency.

Brazile reveals little understanding of the depth and degree of the moral and ideological division between progressive Bernie Sanders Democrats and the reigning Clinton-Obama-Wall Street Democrats. She would have readers believe that the conflict between these two Democratic Party factions stems essentially from WikiLeaks and Russian cyber-hacking.

Brazile is unconvincing in her claim not to recall having used her role as a CNN commentator to send the Clinton campaign advance looks at debate questions during the presidential primaries.

It is hard to take seriously Brazile’s claim to have had the power to “replace [Hillary] as the [Democratic] party’s candidate for president” in September of last year.

Much of Hacks is dedicated to the notion that Vladimir Putin and Russia gave the election to Trump by hacking the DNC. Brazile sees Trump’s election largely as an assault on U.S. “democracy” by Moscow. Unfortunately, Brazile offers no substantive evidence for this paranoid belief. She relies on what she was told by an unnamed and mysterious “Spook” (her term) and the DNC’s hired cybersecurity experts. 

Brazile complains about “Russian interference” in U.S. elections without acknowledging that Washington regularly interferes in other nations’ political processes, or that whatever influence Moscow may have had on the election is a drop in the bucket compared to the controlling power regularly exercised on U.S. electoral politics by top U.S. corporations and financial institutions.

Brazile denies that the corporate Democratic Party rigged the primary campaign against the progressive Democrat Bernie Sanders—a charge for which there is abundant evidence. 

At one point, Brazile defends Hillary against Trump’s claim that Mrs. Clinton helped write tax laws that favored the rich by saying that “Hillary has not served in Congress, the branch of government that writes the tax laws.” Does Donna Brazile not know that Hillary Clinton was a U.S. Senator from New York from 2001 to 2009?

Still, Hacks holds real historical value when it comes to how the Democrats handed the election to Trump on their own, with no help (real or alleged) from Vladimir Putin. Here the evidence is more substantive and compelling, based on Brazile’s own first-person experience of how the Obama political team and the Clinton campaign “drained the party of its vitality and its cash.”

Brazile writes with humor and irony about her failed efforts to get the Brooklyn-headquartered Clinton campaign to engage and energize the Democratic Party’s fading progressive base. She portrays a Clinton team that was too arrogant, too confident, too coldly attached to “data,” and too devoid of an inspiring “human touch” to turn out the voters it needed to prevail. She gives an evocative and instructive reflection on her first trip to the Clinton campaign’s headquarters:

“My taxi pulled up in front of the towering brick office building at One Pierrepont Plaza . . . Security was tight.  I had to be escorted up from the lobby to the offices on the tenth floor, where I felt some of [the] campaign energy I craved. By contrast, on the executive floor, where Hillary’s trop staff worked, it was calm and antiseptic, like a hospital. It had that techno-hush, as if someone had died. I felt like I should whisper. Everybody’s fingers were on their keyboards, and no one was looking at anyone else.”

“In campaigns, it’s not just about electing a candidate. It’s about getting citizens more engaged in their democracy and giving them a voice. The campaign succeeds when it makes supporters feel that they hold in their own hands the power to change the country. When you have that feeling, you usually aren’t too quiet about it . . .”

“Look, I really respected a lot of people in that building . . . But I could see that it was run only by analytics and data, which is only part of what you need to win an election. [Clinton campaign chief] Robby Book believed he understood the country by the clusters of information about voters he had gathered . . . The attitude in Brooklyn was Hillary was such a superior candidate that she had already locked up the race.  Clinton’s campaign needed people to call and remind them: Hillary needs you today to go out and talk about her plan[s] to create jobs . . . to protect children and child health. I did not see that. I heard them saying that they only needed to register five new Hillary voters in this neighborhood, and seven over here . . . I did not leave Brooklyn feeling enthusiastic.”

Here Brazile revealingly fails to mention that Bernie Sanders had run precisely the kind of campaign that she identifies as the kind that succeeds: one that advances by “getting citizens more engaged in their democracy and giving them a voice . . . mak[ing] supporters feel that they hold in their own hands the power to change the country.” Did she really not know about the giant crowds that turned for Sanders because he campaigned in exactly the way Brazile says she “craves”?

Brazile’s primary revelation is that the DNC was under the explicit, contractually obligated financial and programmatic control of the Clinton campaign by August 2015, well prior to Hillary’s securing of the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.  

The “Joint Fundraising Agreement” that Brazile discovered weeks after becoming DNC chair specified that, in her words, “Hillary would control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised.” This gave the Clinton team “control of the party long before [Hillary] became its nominee . . . I had been wondering,” Brazile writes, “why I couldn’t write a press release without passing it by Brooklyn. Well, here was answer.”

“The funding arrangement,” Brazile reflects, “was not illegal, but it sure looked unethical. If the fight had been fair, one campaign would not have control of the party before the voters had decided which one they wanted to lead.”

Brazile demonstrates no conscious understanding of the important fact that Sanders would very likely have defeated Trump. Still, it is hard not to pick up from Hacks a sense that Sanders would have fared better against the orange beast.  Brazile repeatedly notes Mrs. Clinton’s failure to elicit popular excitement on the campaign trail.

In early September of 2016, Brazile recalls, Sanders asked her what she thought of Hillary’s chances in the upcoming November election: “I had to be frank with him. I did not trust the polls, I said. I told him I had visited states around the country and I found a lack of enthusiasm for her everywhere.” 

Speaking to an acquaintance of mine in Iowa City, Iowa, on the last Friday before the election, Sanders confidentially said the same thing about the difficulty he was experiencing trying to rally support for Hillary Clinton at rallies in the upper Midwest: “She’s in trouble.”

What Sanders understood and Brazile still does not was that the “lack of enthusiasm” for Hillary was rooted in Mrs. Clinton’s longstanding and ongoing ideological and financial attachment to the nation’s economic wealth and power elite.

Brazile significantly includes black and other minority voters among those who were less than excited about Hillary. That is an important observation in light of the exaggerated emphasis many commentators have given to the Democrats’ failure to turn out and win “white working-class” voters last year. Hillary failed just as significantly with the black and Latino lower and working classes, which “Brooklyn” took for granted in light of Trump’s racism and nativism.

Here, though, are some final words of wise retrospection from Brazile—words that Sanders and his backers might well appreciate in a “told you so” kind of way.  Speaking to her Georgetown University Women’s Studies class in the aftermath of Trump’s chilling victory, Brazile found, she writes, that her students now “disliked identity politics. They thought that Hillary spent too much time trying to appeal to people based on their race, or their gender, or their sexual orientation, and not enough time appealing to people based on what really worried them—issues like income inequality and climate change.” 

You don’t say.