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Authenticity: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

As last week's Hillary Clinton coverage demonstrated, the search for candidate "authenticity" is a fool's errand.
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Hillary Clinton formally  announced her intention to seek the 2016 Democratic nomination for  president during a rally on Roosevelt Island in New York on June 13, 2015. (Photo: a katz/Shutterstock)

Hillary Clinton formally announced her intention to seek the 2016 Democratic nomination for president during a rally on Roosevelt Island in New York on June 13, 2015. (Photo: a katz/Shutterstock)

The painful politics of authenticity were on full display last week, this time surrounding Hillary Clinton. I've written previously (here and here) about how searching for "authenticity" in our politicians is a fool's errand, and everything that happened in the last week just served to confirm my beliefs.

It started when Hillary Clinton, regularly criticized for being calculating and emotionally inaccessible (and understandably concerned about her own declining favorability ratings), announced that she will show more humor and heart in her future campaigning. Basically, her campaign is planning to be more spontaneous. As a Mitt Romney aide explained: "The same force and energy that is giving a lift to Donald Trump is dooming Hillary Clinton, and that is authenticity. Experience does not matter to them. What matters is you appear genuine.”

This is all related to her apology over the email server scandal, done to make it appear like she has nothing to hide. Of course, it's not clear that she did anything wrong, no less illegal, in this matter. But the main problem, according to many pundits, was that she appeared aloof and insensitive to any possible improprieties. Surely an apology would help with this problem and restore some much needed authenticity. Of course, that didn't happen—she was derided for the quality of her apology, which made her appear inauthentic.

To get a good sense of the absurdity of authenticity as a campaign quality, I encourage you to listen to the most recent episode of Slate's Political Gabfest. The entire first segment was about authenticity and demonstrated both the futility of the concept and why reporters and campaigns are obsessed with it. Here's a particularly good exchange between host David Plotz and guest Julia Ioffe, in which Ioffe suggests that Clinton has failed to learn the lessons of her losing campaign in 2008:

Ioffe: "[Hillary Clinton is] super stilted, very cautious, very scared of the press, and being very calculated about how much of her real self she lets show...."

Plotz: "What do you even mean 'her real self'? Why is it important to identify a 'real self'?"

Ioffe: "You would think she would have learned that lesson [from 2008], that she should at least put on a good show of authenticity."

A good show of authenticity. It seems clear that whatever we mean by authenticity, it's not supposed to be authentic. John Dickerson says as much in his comments, noting that no remotely healthy human being would actually enjoy running for president, so seeing someone having a good time doing it is hardly authentic. What we're looking for, he suggests, is some estimation of a candidate's true character, since that candidate would have a lot of power once elected and we'd like some idea of how the candidate would use that power when we're not looking.

That strikes me as a more reasonable pursuit than the search for authenticity, but still, it's a strange and fruitless mission. For one thing, this is who Hillary Clinton is. We've seen her operate publicly for more than two decades; we have a pretty good sense of her leadership style. Why is she campaigning now like she did in 2007? Because she's still the same person.

Among the things we've learned about her is that she's pretty cautious around reporters. (Gee, why would Hillary Clinton feel a need to be cautious around reporters?) She's extremely bright. She's a very strong debater, although her public speeches tend to be well crafted but not very inspiring. She's better in small events that large forums. We've known all these things for years, and they're not going to change. That is authentically her, and changing that would not make her more authentic. And guess what: This is how she'd act as president. If you don't like her style now, you probably wouldn't like her presidential leadership. And if you're OK with what she's doing now, ditto her administration. You want some idea of how Clinton will actually govern? You've been seeing it every day for decades.

Finally, it's a point I've made before, but it bears repeating. Whatever is sustaining Donald Trump's popularity simply can't be authenticity. For all his business successes, his primary job for the past two decades has been managing his own image. He sells buildings and neckties with his name on them and he goes on television to play a jerk who fires people. There is nothing authentic about that. Perhaps some people define "authentic" as being uninterested in treating people decently, but that, like so many other things, is a real stretch of the term.

What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.