I remember a time when the ‘free world’ used to worry about Russian, Chinese, African and Middle Eastern presidents; when experts looked for warning signs of despotic, corrupt, anti-democracy, abusive, war-mongering tendencies among the candidates and likely winners.
Meanwhile, they sat back and enjoyed the sheer spectacle and hoopla of the US presidential campaigns.
There may have been some general concerns and policy questions hovering around Kennedy, Nixon, Bush, Clinton, Carter, Ford, Obama, Romney, Dole, Mondale, Kerry, Gove et al, yet, generally speaking, it was assumed (mind you, looking at American-funded war-mongering during the Cold War and after, I think the assumption was misplaced) that the winner, Republican or Democrat, would be a “force and voice for freedom and democracy.”
Yet all of that complacency could change in the early hours of Wednesday morning. While the odds continue to favour Clinton, it is still possible that Trump could win. And if he wins then all bets are off in terms of what could happen over the next four years. That said, I would caution against panic. US Presidents don’t have as much of a free hand as some of Trump’s supporters (or opponents) imagine. Building walls, okaying bombing missions and deporting large numbers of people isn’t as easy to do as many of his Trumpeteers seem to think it is. And however else we may view Trump, we need to remember that at heart he remains a narcissist, fuelled on celebrity, pomp and self-aggrandisement; the sort of personality who wants to be adored rather than despised. All of which means that I think he would be a lot cannier in office than his campaign tactics have so far suggested.
Writing in 1888, James Bryce noted: “Europeans often ask, and Americans do not always explain, how it happens that this great office, the greatest in the world, is not more frequently filled by great and striking men. In America, which is beyond all other countries the ‘country of a career open to talents,’ a country, moreover, in which political life is unusually keen and political ambition widely diffused, it might be expected that the highest place would always be won by a man of brilliant talents.” 130 years later--and substituting man for person--Bryce’s observation seems even more striking. How did we reach the point at which the occupancy of the White House has come down to a choice between two hugely unpopular (even within their own parties), divisive, tarnished and psychologically flawed individuals: or, as I put it a few months ago, how did we end up with a race between a Westworld reject and a Stepford wife?
In Clinton’s case it’s to do with destiny, dynasty and entitlement. She really does believe that she is ‘entitled’ to be President. Not because she has a vision or overarching worldview, but simply because she has the CV for the job. That’s why she lost to Obama in 2008. That’s why she took a role in his administration--just to add to her CV. That’s why she had such a tough fight with Bernie Sanders. That’s why she struggles for popularity. It’s hard to love a CV and a machine. That’s why she hasn’t been able to build a substantial lead over Trump and why her campaign still takes nothing for granted.
Trump, on the other hand, has set himself up as the anti-machine (which is why Clinton was the perfect opponent for him) man of the people. That he’s no such thing is neither here nor there, of course, because millions of those people have stopped listening to logic. They were/are the primary casualties of the last economic crash and they are angry with everyone. And he--from the gold-plated opulence of Trump Towers--has persuaded them that everyone, except him, is their enemy. And he has also tapped into a middle-class discontent as well, from people who think that America shouldn’t bear the huge costs of being the world’s policeman anymore. 9/11 rattled a complacent America and made it willing to listen to someone supporting a new era of insularity and isolationism. These same themes and concerns were the key to the Brexit victory here.
Trump also recognised the resentment which grew within the Republican base at the treatment meted out to Sarah Palin in 2008 by ‘liberal elites’ and by the ongoing failure of Tea Party republicanism to change the direction of the party. He saw how Obama had won in 2008 by motivating millions of new and non-voters (making them believe that he could win, but only if they voted) and reckoned he could do the same with millions of disaffected republicans. His pitch is simple--it’s stolen from Obama--”your vote really will make the difference this time.” And maybe, just maybe, it will.
Irrespective of who wins tomorrow, the Clinton/Trump race has changed America and changed American politics. The Democrats and Republicans will have to examine their internal processes and structures, as well as addressing the growing complexity of the competing and contradictory demands of their support bases. The American government needs to assess and explain its political/moral/democratic/social/economic world role against a background of huge national debt and a deeply, dangerously divided country. Most important of all, though, it needs to return to Bryce’s original observation and ensure that it never again ends up with such an appalling, uninspiring, dispiriting and unsettling choice for what remains (although for how long) the most important political office in the world.