America is no stranger to tense presidential contests, but the ferocity of feeling on either side of the 2016 election has little precedent in living memory. On Wednesday I’ll be flying out to Florida (on a decidedly non-political holiday of the Mickey-Mouse variety). Americans go to the polls in a matter of hours, and I can’t help but wonder what sort of country I’ll be landing in.
Donald Trump has been accused of being a hate-filled racist bigot, a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a protectionist, a braggart, a bully, and a bored billionaire playing at politics. His every action has been picked over by the press. Private conversations are scrutinised with obsessive detail. Accusations of sexism, misogyny, rape and even paedophilia have dogged him.
Meanwhile Hillary Clinton is held up as the devil incarnate: the butcher of Benghazi who repeatedly endangered national security by using of a private email server whilst serving as Secretary of State. The cash-for-access scandal surrounding the Clinton Foundation has blown up in her face. Her husband’s sexual indiscretions are national news in a way they haven’t been since he left the White House.
For what it’s worth, I’m not a huge fan of either nominee. One of the advantages of watching this election from a distance is not having to participate in it. My ideal presidential candidate would probably be an amalgamation of Thomas Jefferson, Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan. Oh and Margaret Thatcher, too.
Hillary is too much of a big state progressive for my liking. On her watch, the US government would take on greater responsibility for childcare, university tuition and social security. This will undoubtedly lead to higher levels of federal spending and tax hikes.
Unlike her husband, who presided under one of the most successful periods of pro-market reform and economic growth in modern American history (although credit for this must be shared with a Republican-dominated Congress), Mrs Clinton is an unashamed big-government Democrat.
Meanwhile Trump is far too willing to rip up US trade agreements, and far too soft on Russian aggression in Eastern Europe and Syria. He has no plan to reduce government spending. He does not appear to be overly concerned with religious liberty.
His plan to build a Mexican wall is an expensive folly. As the emperors Hadrian and Antoninus might tell him if they could be made to speak from their ancient graves, long walls do not keep the barbarian sealed out forever.
If I were an American I’d probably vote for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate – although he’s not perfect either (in a nutshell, he’s said a number of very un-libertarian things and doesn’t know where Aleppo is. Even so he’s better than Trump and Hillary).
If you held my feet to the fire and forced me to pick between Hillary or Trump, with no third parties and no option to abstain from voting, then I suppose I’d have to pick Trump – though I’d be far from happy about it.
That said, I don’t believe the world will end in a nuclear holocaust if Hillary Clinton wins. Nor do I think the United States would descend into fascism under the presidency of Donald J Trump.
Neither candidate is a monster. They are human beings – with all of the flaws that go with that – competing for the most powerful office on Earth. Each appeals predominantly to a different set of human values, preconceptions and prejudices: liberal (in the welfare statist American sense), metropolitan globalism vs traditionalist, middle-American nationalism.
One of the smartest things I’ve seen written about the frenzied state of American politics was this piece by Jonathan Haidt, who quite reasonably points out that the world will not disappear under a nuclear mushroom cloud if the ‘wrong’ candidate wins.
Americans will send their kids to school, drive to work, complain about their government and their taxes, fight with their spouses or engage in more pleasurable activities, much as they did under President Obama, and President Bush before him.
The tone of debate lately has been nothing short of apocalyptic, with the UK’s Guardian newspaper branding a possible Trump victory “a new age of darkness”. Both sides need to calm down and remember that for all their differences, they are all Americans.
“Democracy”, Haidt argues, “requires trust and cooperation as well as competition… We must find a way to see citizens on the other side as cousins who are sometimes opponents but who share most of our values and interests and are never our mortal enemies.”
We ought to avoid “motivated reasoning”, where the purpose of thinking ceases to be a search for the truth and becomes a means of defending ourselves and attacking our opponents.
This is more of a problem when people retreat into their tribes on social media and only read articles whose authors they agree with. People with at least one friend in the other political party are less likely to hate the supporters of that party.
My gut feeling is that Trump will narrowly win the White House tomorrow, whilst the Democrats take the Senate and the Republicans hold the House of Representatives. But whoever wins there will be a great groundswell of opinion refusing to accept the result.
Like sour-grapes leftists who rioted in the streets when the ‘evil Tories’ won the last British general election, there will be a large group of angry people who will not accept the Presidency as a legitimate institution if their favoured candidate loses.
This tendency ought to be rejected. Tomorrow’s winner have won fair and square, according to rules agreed on by both sides. Grow up, accept that you lost this time around, get a better candidate, and come back in four years time. Those are the rules of the great game we call democracy. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.
Whoever wins, America will not stop being America.