The Agony and Ecstasy of Chelsea Clinton Fans
Image by Lia Kantrowitz
Since her unexpected defeat in November, Hillary Clinton has mostly faded into the background, as losing presidential candidates so often do. Neither she nor her husband, Bill, have really joined in the anti-Trump resistance—instead their daughter Chelsea has stepped into the spotlight, suddenly becoming the most vocal member of a political dynasty despised by both leftists and conservatives.
In her tweets, Clinton the younger has derided the American Health Care Act as "disgusting," spoke out against violent white nationalism, and opposed a federal bill that allows "the cruel killing of baby animals"—and that's just in the past few days. The New York Times wrote an entire article about her social media activity, while the Hill, a Washington politics website, reported on rumors that she might be considering running for Kirsten Gillibrand's Senate seat in 2020 if Gillibrand decides to run for president. (Clinton's team has emphatically denied these rumors, telling the Hill, "She is not running.") The former first daughter also announced that she will soon release a children's book about inspiring female role models titled She Persisted, a reference to Mitch McConnell's famous description of Elizabeth Warren. And this week, it was announced that the 37-year-old would get an award from Variety and the Lifetime channel for her charity work, an honor that was wrongly reported as a "lifetime achievement award," which led to people denouncing her for benefiting from nepotism.
As the anger over the award showed, many people are looking for a reason to hate Chelsea Clinton. She's obviously benefitted hugely from her parents' power and influence; few people think she'd be on the boards of IAC and Expedia, for instance, without her last name. It seems wrong to vilify her for taking advantage of her parents' position in society; but the idea that she's somehow qualified for public office mostly due to her bloodline is also deeply flawed.
Naturally, there's backlash to the backlash. The newly woke Teen Vogue published an article defending her accomplishments, framing the backlash as misogynistic. Others have complained that Clinton is receiving unfair scrutiny compared to current first daughter Ivanka Trump.
As Business Insider's Josh Barro pointed out on Twitter, "Let's suppose you're a smart person with extraordinarily prominent parents, one of whom served as president. You do stints in consulting and private equity, get some advanced degrees, run your parents' foundation, sit on some boards. Those are kind of normal activities for a person in that extraordinary position, not extraordinary activities." In other words, considering where Clinton came from, her accomplishments are not particularly remarkable. The idea that she might run for office would subject her to a new level of scrutiny—but for now she's just a private citizen, albeit a pretty famous one.
But all this debate over Chelsea Clinton's merits and shortcomings got me thinking: Who are the people stanning for her? Strong feelings about her mother and father are natural, but before the past couple weeks, I seldom thought about Chelsea, though she seemed like a nice enough lady to me. But some people love her: After Clinton announced her children's book, New Republic staffer Sarah Jones quipped online about the Clinton family monetizing our current political predicament. In response, Clinton family loyalists had some strong (and incredibly sexist) words for Jones, calling her a "whore" and "Bernie brat," blaming her for Trump's victory, and accusing her of being "catty" and "jealous."
Clearly, people have strong feelings about Chelsea Clinton. But was it just a natural consequence of people loving her parents? I set out to find Chelsea fans and ask them a simple question: Why?
Danielle Blake, a 28-year-old from Birmingham, in England, explained her Chelsea fandom like this: "As someone who was also called ugly as a young girl, I really identified with and feel for how Chelsea was on the receiving end of vicious attacks about her appearance [when she was first daughter], which in her case was infinitely worse because these were actual adults broadcasting these comments to millions of people... I have an instinctive sympathy for anyone who takes undeserved flak but keeps on going nonetheless."
Lauren Seltzer, a 32-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, came of age around a similar time as Chelsea, which sparked her fandom. "I remember feeling like she must be so lonely, because she's his only child in the White House, and her parents are both these huge public figures. I got this sense of sadness for her in a lot of ways," she told me over the phone.
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Others, like Neil Wren, a 24-year-old website administrator in Milwaukee, possessed a fandom born out of love for her mother: "First and foremost, I was a fan of Hillary, and the more I heard about Chelsea, the more I felt a connection to her as well. The thing I find enticing is that she represents women who are smart and cool. That's the thing people don't realize about the Clinton women."
Nick Stevens, a 26-year-old Texan Chelsea stan, was reluctant to identify as a Clinton fan: "I'm a Chelsea and Hillary fan. Bill's fine, but let the ladies do what they do best and run the world. Unfortunately, if Hillary or Chelsea ever read these words, I probably won't be allowed within 25 miles of them."
Some of the Chelsea fever obviously has to do with her image as a celebrity: She seems cool and kind and relatable, and she has been in the public eye since childhood. But the fans I spoke to didn't see her as just a star; they also saw her as a viable political candidate. Lamar Simpson, a 39-year-old, explained why Chelsea would get his vote: "I believe Chelsea would be a policy hawk like her mother and father, because she has a clear and concise understanding about making good policy, and she has the best interest of the American people at heart." Simpson also said that when it comes to choosing your candidate, "People should leave their emotions out of the voting booth and vote based on solid information, because voting is like investing in the stock market."
Still, we have no idea what kind of leader she would be. Sure, she's been tweeting about her political ideas more, but many people do that. The only reason she's even considered a potential candidate is because of her parents, and we can only really understand her politics as an extension of them. Like a lot of people, I don't like to think of America as the sort of place where our leaders are born rather than made. So I asked these Chelsea fans if that bothered them.
"I completely understand where you and others are coming from on the political dynasty thing," Danielle Blake explained to me in an email. "Especially as it looked at one point that just two families would have held the White House for at least 24 of the last 30 years. But I also don't think it's fair that Chelsea should suddenly become a lightning rod for this sentiment, when no one bats an eyelid at say, Joe Kennedy III holding office in [Massachusetts]." Other Chelsea fans responded to this sentiment similarly. Lauren Seltzer immediately brought up Ivanka Trump, saying, "The criticism for Ivanka makes so much more sense to me. Like the fact that she's getting an office in the West Wing is like mind-blowing to me."
"What has Chelsea ever done wrong or to you? Everyone is always threatened by powerful women, but I am not."
When I asked Neil Wren to convince me why I should be a fan of Chelsea Clinton, he said, "Chelsea is good because she doesn't bow to critics like you who 'just don't get' her. She remains steadfast in her pursuit of knowledge and opening doors for women globally, and I don't know why I have to explain that as being good. Not only does Hillary deserve a break but so does Chelsea. What has Chelsea ever done wrong or to you? Everyone is always threatened by powerful women, but I am not."
Nick Stevens defended Chelsea's political qualifications like this: "Hillary is Queen, Bae, Beyoncé—you get it. Chelsea is the prodigy—2.0, if you will."
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