Just How Much Did the Benghazi Attack Affect the Outcome of the 2016 Election?
Ethan Corin on the Weaponization of Benghazi Amid the Ride of Extreme Polarization
Assisted by the Obama administration’s highly confusing response to the attack on the US Mission, the American Right was able to weaponize Benghazi, though not quite in time to upset Obama in the 2012 presidential election. But the scandal was cultivated in such a way to project turbulence well into the future. The basic strategy was to attach Benghazi to Clinton personally as a marker of poor character, under-pinned by long-term Republican narratives about the Clintons.
The instrument of this long reach was the House Benghazi Committee, whose main purpose was to keep Benghazi in the public eye as long as possible while serving as a platform from which to search for other material relevant to the 2016 election. The committee hit the jackpot in the form of Clinton’s emails, which quickly outpaced Benghazi in terms of public interest and forced the Republicans to pull back on Benghazi, lest they be accused of overreach. Though the House committee didn’t turn up much in the way of real answers, the emails became a constant refrain of right-wing media and lawmakers (and then-candidate Trump).
When all was said and done, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes and lost the electoral college to Donald Trump, 227 to 304. About 80,000 votes stood between Clinton and enough electoral college votes to win the election, across the Rust Belt states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—all of which went to Obama in 2012.
In the days before the election, Clinton appeared to be comfortably ahead of Trump, leading by one to seven percentage points, according to various polls, and was expected to win the electoral college handily. “Clinton has 90 percent chance of winning,” a Reuters/Ipsos poll proclaimed on the eve of the election. A New York Times forecast predicted Clinton’s chance of losing was equivalent to the odds “that an NFL kicker misses a 37-yard field goal” (about 15 percent).
Predictably, in the aftermath, many pundits’ first reactions were to look for a single, unexpected event that disturbed the status quo. The eleventh-hour Comey announcement ripped the scab off of the endless email scandal, and conjured up the prospect of a criminal investigation hanging over a Clinton first term as president. Though many Americans saw Clinton’s handling of her emails as disqualifying, many undoubtedly just wanted the whole thing to be over. Benghazi may not have played a major role in postmortem conversations around the election, but the controversy it spawned remained central.
On top of the emails, interest quickly swung to a second, and equally dramatic, plot twist: mounting evidence of unprecedented Russian interference in the election, through a series of cyberattacks on Democratic Party institutions and candidates. The Obama administration had known about the Russian cyberattacks in the weeks leading up to the election but chose not to call them out publicly.
Though it would have been satisfying to identify a single cause or misstep that could be blamed for Clinton’s defeat, the idea that such a factor existed is predicated on the persistent idea that Clinton was ahead by a much greater margin than she was in the weeks and months before the election. But as was quickly apparent, the polls were off in ways that they hadn’t been in the past, consistently underestimating support for Trump.
Over the following months and years, it became clearer that the factors that influenced who voted and who didn’t, and how they voted, were quite complex and intertwined. As Ezra Klein argues in his 2020 book, Why We’re Polarized, a more productive approach to analyzing Clinton’s loss would be to ask “How did a candidate like Trump… get within a few thousand votes of the presidency in the first place?”
As (mostly liberal) pundits started to widen their inquiries around the Trump win, election numbers provided strong clues. The largest demographic voting for Trump was suburban and rural lower and middle-class white males, who also voted in record numbers. Clinton, on the other hand, failed to capture the volume of Black and minority votes that Obama did in the 2008 and 2012 elections. How did Trump manage to excite this base to vote in such numbers, and why didn’t minority voters turn out as strongly for Clinton as they did for Obama?
The next phase of liberal reflection focused on Trump’s base and their disaffections. Conversations touched on rising inequality in America’s heartland, the role of so-called identity politics and political correctness, and the ways in which many whites—particularly poorer whites—began to feel overlooked (a fear ripe for political exploitation by the Right and Trump). And Trump’s victory forced a renewed focus on what all of these things and more had to do with the ever increasing ways in which American politics has become supercharged and super polarized in recent years.
Looking at the election in that context, Benghazi takes on a much bigger role.
Even though the Benghazi attack has been conspicuously absent from debates over what factors and what trends influenced the 2016 election, its presence can be seen practically everywhere.
Even if the issue of Clinton’s emails had nothing directly to do with Benghazi, it was inextricably connected to it. Various Benghazi touch-points framed the discovery of the emails—from the leaked Blumenthal correspondence (which alerted members of Congress to the existence of Clinton’s private email account) to the various frustrated FOIA requests for copies of her official emails (which intensified various media attempts to investigate Benghazi).
The House Benghazi Committee’s subpoena of Clinton’s emails led the State Department to request former secretaries return copies of their private emails, which then led to the New York Times breaking the story of the existence of the private server in early March 2015. That led to the FBI investigation into whether or not Clinton had released classified information, which, of course, then led to the two Comey statements, both of which were damaging to Clinton’s prospects. The first statement, whose “extremely careless” qualification infuriated Clinton and the Democrats, has been credited for driving Republicans to the polls to vote against her. The second, announcing the reopening of the FBI investigation into the emails, has been seen as potentially discouraging those who otherwise would have voted for her from voting at all.
But Benghazi’s impact on American public opinion and polarization didn’t stop there. The Russians used the controversy and its derivative scandals as feedstock to power its Right-riling fake news campaigns. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, in her book Cyberwar, documents how Russian bots and trolls inserted Benghazi-related memes and phrases, like “Killary,” “Remember Benghazi,” “Lock her up,” and “the Butcher of Benghazi,” into their social media campaigns. The Russians clearly understood the potential to use social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to destabilize American society before the American political classes did, or could mount an effective defense. They also under- stood how well-suited Benghazi was to their objectives. There was even one incident during the campaign in which Trump seemingly quoted a false, Kremlin-funded news report about Benghazi.
And this is clear to many of those in the Obama administration who were watching this unfold.
When I asked Ben Rhodes in 2017 whether he thought Benghazi affected the 2016 election, he responded, “Of course Benghazi had an effect on the election—just start with the email server and move on down the line.”
And despite Clinton’s focus on the email issue and Comey’s role, she acknowledges Benghazi’s pernicious and pervasive influence as well. In her election memoir, What Happened, she writes: “The press agreed that the committee was a bust for the Republicans. But I was experienced enough in the ways of Washington scandals to know that some damage had already been done. Accusations repeated often enough have a way of sticking, or at least leaving behind a residue of slime you can never wipe off.”
But a deeper question needs to be asked: Was Benghazi just one (albeit visible) factor among many that led to a dramatic increase in American political polarization, or was it truly a game changer? Did the extended brawl over Benghazi fundamentally alter the normal rules of American politics? And if so, what was it about Benghazi that was capable of triggering such transformation?
It’s hard to imagine creating a controversy with more potential to divide the American electorate than Benghazi. First, for Americans, the setting was a complete blank slate. Even the name—Benghazi—was distinctively foreign to American ears. Yet it also had all the latent negative associations that came with being part of a war-torn region of the Middle East and in a country in which the United States had intervened militarily.
Second, the nature of the attack touched on a large number of hot-button issues that defined the fight between Democrats and Republicans over the previous two decades—and overlapped uncannily well with Trump’s “America first” campaign platform, with its anti-terrorist, anti-immigrant, protectionist themes. Without much effort, the Right could link Obama—and then Clinton—to any of these issues through Benghazi, and then package it as a narrative of abandonment, in which Democrats allowed “terrorists” to take advantage of their negligence and left American heroes to die on the field.
Add to this the plausibility of the Democrats’ trying to shape the story to dodge attacks they knew were coming (and which Romney confirmed), and a subsequent blowout over what constituted “truth” was almost inevitable. What the Obama administration might have seen as justifiable little white lies may have pushed the campaign past the finish line, but they enabled a relentless stream of far bolder lies by the Right afterward. Obama may have saved himself with this strategy, but the story handicapped many of the Democrats who would follow in his wake, and would hollow out both the domestic and international legacy he aspired to leave.
None of these developments, however, quite explain the full explosive nature of Benghazi. There’s one additional ingredient of interest here, and that’s the development trajectory of social media.
Walter Quattrociocchi, who researches the polarizing effects of social media on elections and teaches computer science at Sapienza University in Rome, says 2012 was a watershed moment in both the ability and exploitation of social media to polarize political contests—not just in the United States, but also in Europe. “Had Benghazi occurred a year before it did,” Quattrociocchi says, “the technology and revenue models could not likely have been weaponized to the same degree.” As is entirely evident now, for conspiracy theories and misinformation, social media is a force multiplier the like of which has never been seen—a reality that just so happened to coincide with Benghazi.
This coincidence may have been a necessary but insufficient condition for an explosion of self-referential, echo-chamber, and silo-grown hate in America and around the world. And it may have given Benghazi its ultimate power in finally convincing each side of the aisle that the “other” was simply awful and irredeemable.
And indeed, in late August 2013, the media started associating Benghazi with the rising trend of fake news. The lack of prior information about the place or the conditions, so few witnesses, and the foggy conditions around the attack made Benghazi perfect for fake news. Who could tell what was fake news when members of Congress didn’t seem to really know what happened? And in response, there was a remarkable proliferation of fact-checking feeds. PolitiFact, founded in 2007, published ninety-six fact-checking pieces on various aspects of the Benghazi attack alone.Was Benghazi just one (albeit visible) factor among many that led to a dramatic increase in American political polarization, or was it truly a game changer?
President Obama could insist that with respect to “phony scandals” like Benghazi, “Washington has taken its eye off the ball, and I’m here to say this needs to stop.” But much as the Democrats might have wanted it to stop, it looked like they really didn’t understand the dynamics at play, especially not in the way Republicans did. Clinton, like most of the rest of the country and despite all she’d been through with Benghazi, probably still didn’t fully understand the roots of the rage Benghazi had help awaken on the Right. She thus stumbled into an unexpected trap when she made the following remarks at a private fundraiser, just before the election:
You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it… He [Trump] tweets and retweets offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now some of those folks, they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.
It was exactly the kind of comment that could motivate white, suburban middle-class males to get out and vote, as it spoke to many of Trump’s followers’ deep-rooted fears of being marginalized in a multicultural, multi-ethnic society. But it was ironically also an opportunity for the Right to ridicule what it saw as the Left’s embrace of extreme political correctness.
Clinton seemed to take the election results deeply personally—and she may have been right to do so. “There was a fundamental mismatch between how I approach politics and what a lot of the country wanted to hear in 2016,” she wrote in her 2017 memoir What Happened. But there was so much about this election that had nothing to do with her, and everything to do with forces over which she had no control. Looking back to the rationale Clinton gave for initially rejecting Obama’s offer of the secretaryship—that some event might arrive that constrained her ability to act—one has to say that her worst fear had been realized.
Trump’s win in 2016 was undeniably a product of America’s extreme polarization. Though it’s impossible to prove how much of this transformation was due to what, the more one digs into the dynamics of Benghazi—what it resulted from and what it produced—the more it’s clear that Benghazi was a part of that process, not just a reflection of it.
Excerpted from Benghazi!: A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink by Ethan Chorin. Copyright © 2022. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.