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Coffee House US Election

America, what has become of you?

7 November 2016

5:58 PM

7 November 2016

5:58 PM

And so, at long, long last, the end approaches. In fact, as millions of Americans have voted before election day, the end has begun already. Thank heavens for that. Like Paradise Lost, no-one ever wished this election longer.

It has been a gruelling time, in which patience has been of the essence. For months, members of the reality-based community – in the United States and across the world – have waited and waited and waited for Donald Trump’s campaign to fizzle into deserved nothingness. That patience has been tested time and time again; with luck and the good conscience of America it will finally be rewarded tomorrow.

But to think it came to this at all. Trump’s rise to the Republican nomination was bad enough, his staying power much worse. It’s fashionable, at least on the British left, to now argue this shows the weakness and inadequacy of Hillary Clinton. Perhaps it does, though the wistful suggestion an Elizabeth Warren or a Bernie Sanders would have thumped Trump strikes me as a powerful piece of comfortable confirmation bias, unsupported by any strong evidence to bolster its claims. The world is not always ordered as we might wish.

In any case, you dance with the partner you have, not the candidate you might have desired. Whatever else may be said of Hillary Clinton, she has a certain dogged stickability. For a quarter of a century now, in one role or another, she has defied her critics. Mud-spattered and bruised, she keeps on going. There is something to be admired there, even if you do not find yourself naturally drawn to Mrs Clinton.

But in this election she is, as Barack Obama once put it, likeable enough. In fact, Hillary has never been more likeable, if only because the alternative is so grotesque. The contrast with Donald Trump ennobles Clinton. Hell, it would ennoble almost anyone. Clinton emerges from a foul and tawdry campaign with her status enhanced. The Republican party failed to stop Trump so the task falls to her. For the sake of her party, her country and, in a broader sense, the rest of the world too. There may be plenty of reasons for thinking Clinton a sub-optimal candidate, none are strong enough to warrant casting a vote for any other candidate. Not when the alternative looms so threateningly, not when the stakes are so high.

In that respect this is the most consequential Presidential election in more than half a century. In no other contest has the idea of America so obviously been at stake. In no other has the survival of that idea been so obviously threatened. Its loss would impoverish the United States and, in some strange but meaningful manner, the rest of us as well. It would feel like a kind of failure. The final closing or evaporation of the American idea.

Yet, despite all that seems so obvious to so many of us all around the world, millions of Americans will vote for Donald Trump. It is not hard to understand why. But there’s a risk that in understanding Trump’s appeal we venture perilously close to excusing it. That will not do either.

All across the western world we see intimations of comparable revolts against an imagined establishment or elite that is, we are told, screwing the ordinary Joe. Not all of this howling rage is unwarranted; the gains from the post-1989 Great Openness have been a wonder to behold but they have not been shared equally. The developing world has prospered like never before and so, in many ways, has the upper-middle class in the west. By any objective standard, the working and lower-middle classes in the western world remain among the global elite; holders of winning lottery tickets. But, relative to their wealthier compatriots, they have lost out. Old certainties and opportunities once thought the natural way of things no longer prevail as once they did. It’s all very well and good everyone else – including foreigners far away – getting on but what’s in it for me?


That’s hardly an ignoble question. Nor is it easily answered. So the appeal of a false prophet like Trump, whose promise amounts, in effect, to little more than setting fire to everything is easy to understand. His election will do nothing for the class of left-behind voters he purports to represent but it would be one in the eye for the coastal sneering classes. And that has to be worth something. (That’s also why, in every country, you can rely on the worst kinds of people to support Trump. He appeals to the kind of people who get their kicks from shooting other people’s cats and these people exist everywhere.)

Nor is there any point in denying another obvious truth: this is still an election about race. There are parts of the United States that, deep down, never quite accepted the legitimacy of Barack Hussein Obama. More to the point, there are parts of the United States deeply uncomfortable with the manner in which America is changing. The Republican party has benefitted from – or, if you prefer, exploited –  the resentments of the white working-class for more than 40 years now; Trump’s campaign is the natural conclusion of that process, that calculation, that strategy. He leads a white man’s movement in an America that is no longer the exclusive preserve of white men. In that respect, his campaign is the end of an old song. Amidst the ugliness, there is an element of pathos too.

The difficulty the Republican party faces is how to maintain its standing with its traditional constituencies while also adapting to present a modern face better reflecting modern America. That’s a two-horse strategy requiring a candidate of some stature, capable of riding both beasts. That difficulty becomes more, not less, acute every four years. The bell tolls for a party that has to win a higher percentage of a declining white vote every four years just to maintain its current position. It can work in off-year elections, but Presidential elections are a different ball-game.

Still, tribal loyalty runs deep. How else can Trump’s appeal be explained away? It is based, not on policy, but on attitude. Trumpism is a state of mind but Republicanism is a habit and a stubborn one at that. Trump’s candidacy offers proof that a random American citizen, chosen by lottery, has a good chance of winning at least 40 percent of the vote. That’s true of any man representing the GOP and it’s true of any candidate representing the Democratic party too. My team or your team, the same this year as every year. That might be depressing, but it’s also a reminder that the United States has been deeply but evenly divided for at least twenty years. Partisanship is both a powerful magnet and a potent drug and it corrupts plenty of people who should know better.

So in that sense, Trump is demonstrating that those political scientists who argue candidates don’t matter very much have a point. If he, so manifestly unqualified for the Presidency he makes Sarah Palin look like the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln, can win something close to 45 percent of the vote, then so could anyone. But that is only part of the point. In a two-party system in an evenly-divided nation a candidate who can shift the needle by just a point or two becomes the winning candidate. The ‘fundamentals’ matter but, when the country is divided into two roughly equal camps, the candidate matters more than ever. That’s a commentary on Trump, but also on Clinton.

But to think it has come to this! Nothing we have learnt about Donald Trump since he won his party’s nomination should surprise us. It was all there all along. He is who he has been for more than a quarter of a century. You will, if you are a sensible person, have your own reasons for thinking him unfit for the presidency. Mine, or at least the one that’s remained uppermost in my mind, was his support for the Chinese massacre in Tiananmen Square. This, he noted at the time, was an admirable display of governmental toughness. (It should be noted that Trump decried American weakness in the Reagan years too. He is, and always has been, a thug and a fool.)

No wonder this has been an election in which policy has played almost no part whatsoever. It doesn’t matter, not when the election is a referendum on the character of the Republican nominee. Whatever else may be said about Mrs Clinton it is obvious that, even if you dislike the Democratic candidate, her ghastliness is within the bounds of ordinary and customary political ghastliness. Trump’s in of a different order, level, and magnitude.

You might not like Hillary but in this election you don’t have to. She, quite plainly, can do the job. Indeed, no candidate since George HW Bush has been so obviously qualified – in a CV sense at least – to occupy the Oval Office. More importantly, the idea of America can withstand four years of Hillary Clinton. I’m not sure it can survive Donald Trump.

A divided America? Yes, but in this instance one divided between decency and indecency. The darkness represented by Trump has always been a part of American democracy, of course, but it’s never, at least in recent decades, been given so much support by so many mainstream people who should know better. That’s a stain upon the likes of Paul Ryan and, indeed, the whole Republican party that will not fade any time soon. Nor does it deserve to. The mark of Trump is the mark of Cain.

Those of us who still have faith in the eventual and essential good sense of the American people must trust that patience will be rewarded. Florida and North Carolina and Nevada and New Hampshire are firewalls to prevent a much greater conflagration. One or two of them may be breached; we trust that at least one survives. Otherwise, tomorrow will be the moment we mourn the losing of the American mind and the incineration of the American dream.

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7im-nov-2016-970x250-v2After the American people have voted, what next for the US and the rest of the world? Join panellists including Sir Christopher Meyer, KCMG, former British ambassador to the US, for a discussion chaired by Andrew Neil on 30 November at RIBA, London. Tickets include a drinks reception. In association with Seven Investment Management. Book now.

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