A particularly low point in French politics was reached in 2002 when the electorate was left to choose its president from the louche, conniving, incumbent Jacques Chirac, and the beyond-the-pale Jean-Marie Le Pen. The French people, without any joy but mindful that the credibility of the Fifth Republic was on the line, opted for the former. However, graffiti sprung up all over Paris pithily summarizing their odious choice: “Vote for the crook, not the fascist.”
In a very real sense, a similar nightmare is now facing the American people as it becomes increasingly clear that either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will succeed Barack Obama (who is looking better by the day, as his improved opinion poll numbers attest to) as President of the United States. Both choices are deeply flawed, and yet, in the end, one of them will – self-inflicted wounds and all – become the most powerful person in the world. The answer as to who will triumph largely depends on which candidate can put the crook/fascist stereotype farthest behind them.
The joylessness of Hillary
Because European elites have been so terrified by the Trump bogeyman (and also due to their generic center-left bias), they just do not seem to understand that if the Republicans had possessed the sense to nominate merely a garden variety, uninspiring Republican (think Mitt Romney), the White House would almost have certainly been theirs’s this time around. For Hillary Clinton is a truly awful candidate.
Think of it this way: a deeply undistinguished, 70-year-old socialist senator from Vermont (remember this is still America where it’s been 100 years since Eugene V. Debs was the last socialist to matter) has run her a very close race. Hillary talks like a wonk, dutifully knows her briefs on the issues, but unlike her creative husband, lacks either the joy in what she is doing, or the innate ability to link her issues together into a truly compelling narrative in the way Sanders has managed to do. Hillary knows a series of things; but not one big thing. To paraphrase Churchill, even on policy her pudding lacks a theme.
But that is not Secretary Clinton’s biggest problem. Rather, the widespread perception is strong: that throughout her long career, it has always seemed as if she thought the rules of the game were for little people, as though she were entitled to ignore them if they got in her way. This was true about billing records being magically found in the White House from her legal firm at the height of the Whitewater Affair, to her making a fortune speaking for Goldman Sachs, all the while sickeningly posing as a tribune of the people. But the email server controversy has taken this annoying tendency to a whole new level. The nonpartisan FBI simply doesn’t place 150-plus agents on a case if they think nothing is going on, nor do they offer immunity to the man who set Hillary’s private server up (thus forcing him to testify) unless they believe something truly untoward happened. And again, at a minimum, rather than play by the rules, Secretary Clinton opted to try to retain a creepy form of total control over her time as Secretary of State, as unnecessary as it was sailing very close to the legal wind.
While Democrats in general don’t care about the issue, the same in polling doesn’t prove true of vital independent voters worried about good governance. There have simply been way too many of these issues for Clinton to evade the general sense that she is part of the problem of a system more and more Americans find corrupt.
How do you stop a problem like the Donald?
But Mrs. Clinton is blessed in one great sense. If it were not for his underwater poll numbers (fully 67% of those polled detest him), she would be the most unpopular major presidential candidate in modern history. But with Trump’s numbers in Charles Manson territory, Secretary Clinton looks like the luckiest candidate in history.
Beyond the odiousness of some of the things Trump has said, needlessly alienating major swathes of the country for no good reason is just dumb politics, as there simply are not enough angry white men left to make up the difference. In particular, African-Americans, women and Hispanics despise him; it is hard to see anyone carrying the country if they overwhelmingly lose all three constituencies.
Hispanics are perhaps the best exemplar of this. As politically shrewd Republicans from Ronald Reagan to the two George Bushes and John McCain understood, Hispanics are the great future prize for the Republican Party. The fastest growing segment of the population, Hispanics tend to be pro-family, deeply religious, and pro-business, all of which favors the GOP winning them over time. However if the Trumpistas begin every sentence by talking about deporting Hispanics who have lived here for decades, all the rest goes out the window, as the Republicans become associated by Hispanics as simply the party of white privilege. A fantastic electoral opportunity is being lost here by giving way to bigotry.
There is no doubt Donald Trump has skillfully found himself as the voice of disenfranchised, ignored (and they have been) high-school educated, lower middle class white males, who rightfully see themselves as being on the firing line in terms of paying the price for globalization. Trump will turn out these heretofore discouraged voters in droves, which will partially make up for his other electoral deficits. He has a narrow window of political opportunity, were he to carry the whole the Rust Belt: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. It is possible, but hardly likely, that he can do this. Secretary Clinton must now be seen as the favorite, if not a prohibitive one.
But the more worrying longer-term question is simply this: is this really the best America can do? These two deeply flawed candidates – however starkly different – are the cream of the crop for the most important job in the world? American political dysfunction, and the global political risk that increasingly flows from it, is going to be with us for a long time, whatever the outcome of this depressing election.