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Opinion: US Election – the Unloved Known and the Feared Unknown | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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To Trump, or not to Trump?

As the US presidential election day draws closer, more and more Americans are pondering the question. Though it might look like a mere word play at first sight, the question isn’t altogether without pertinence. A vote for Donald Trump, the candidate entering the race under the Republican Party label, would trump the traditional power game played by narrow elites with incestuous political tendencies.

If it happens, a Trump victory would be a major slap in the face of an establishment gangrened by cowardice, corruption and crime. A Trump victory could produce another failed presidency. But that would become apparent only later. In the immediate and near-term it could make a substantial number of Americans, perhaps even a majority, feel that they have stopped the usual suspects in the political elite from prolonging their control of the gravy train.

This election has shaken old loyalties, upset usual calculations and unleashed sentiments hardly suspected to be there. Donald Trump is in no way the classical Republican nominee while the Democrat hopeful Hillary Clinton is the typical product of her party’s machinery. In a sense, and despite the fact that the two of them viscerally hate each other, her victory would mean the prolongation of Barack Obama’s presidency into a third term.

Thus, for many, perhaps a majority of voters, this election is a kind of referendum on Obama’s eight-year record. Those who approve of that record will pick Mrs. Clinton, whether they like her or not. Those who see Obama’s presidency as a disaster, on the other hand, will ignore Mrs. Clinton’s own qualities and vote for Trump to settle scores with the current incumbent.

There are, of course, those who will never vote for a Democrat or, at the other end of the spectrum, for a Republican. In a recent trip to several states in the US and in talks with a number of American glitterati on visit to Europe, we also noticed that this time round, emotive considerations play a much larger role than ever before.

Many Democrat friends seem clearly embarrassed that their choice is limited to Hilary Clinton, especially since she has been attached to Obama’s tailcoats. “Obama’s presidency has been a disaster especially in foreign policy,” a high-flying leftist American intellectual was telling us the other day. “At the same time, I cannot vote for the Republican candidate because his party opposes abortion, gay and lesbian marriages and the abolition of the death penalty.”

Interestingly, Trump has taken no position on any of those issues. Nor has the Republican Party clearly committed itself on them in its election manifestos since the 1970s. In other words, on issues of “cultural war”, Trump remains an unknown quantity.

More surprisingly, the two candidates have not been able or willing to set up their economic and foreign policy stalls. Mrs. Clinton has danced around the issues with the subtext that she would continue Obama’s policies. But since Obama’s policies have been vague, deceptive and erratic, it is not easy to know what she is talking about. For his part, making a habit, not to say a virtue, of contradictions, Trump has promised everything and its opposite, at times twice in a day.

I believe that he has raised a number of important issues, including the contours of global free trade, the mutual duties of allies towards each other, and the limits of victimhood as a claim to privilege. Nevertheless, he has provided no credible answer.

Thus, right now, Trump’s chief asset is that he is not Hillary Clinton or Obama. This is an important point for all those who believe Obama has provided the US with poor leadership and that allowing him to retain influence on American strategy, albeit indirectly through Mrs. Clinton, would be bad news. In other words, this is a Manichaean exercise in which the choice may be between evil and the lesser evil.

The violent attacks made on Trump by establishment Republicans, notably former CIA chief Robert Gates and the former Secretary of State Colin Powell may be dismissed as pinpricks if only because neither bureaucrat is regarded as a great luminary. What could hurt Trump more would be a decision by former Presidents Bush, father and son, and former presidential candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney to actively endorse Clinton.

At a discussion the other day the question was “Why Has Trump Done So Well?” I believe the real question is: Why has Trump not done even better? The best masters of propaganda couldn’t window-dress Obama’s record as a success. The US economy has just registered a 1.1 per cent growth rate, something close to statistical error. The purchasing power of the average American family has fallen by around 3.6 per cent on Obama’s watch. Racial tensions are at their highest in a generation and American prestige abroad is at its lowest.

In foreign policy, Obama’s “leading from behind” strategy has meant “leading by giving enemies what they want.” At the same time, the Democrat candidate is in doubtful health, involved in at least 11 potentially dangerous investigations and unable to develop a coherent message. Mrs. Clinton is also intensely disliked in the progressive wing of her party which flexed its muscles with the Bernie Sanders candidacy.

Obama’s miserable record and Clinton’s dicey position should have been enough to make next November’s election a cakewalk for a Republican challenger. The fact that Trump has not blown the Clinton candidacy out of water shows the weaknesses of the Republican standard-bearer. Right now the election resembles a miasmatic mass of hackneyed policies, tired clichés and outlandish utterances with the focus on personal attacks. The next six weeks may well impose some shape on the campaign, especially through the planned television debates and their thematic discipline.

Clinton apologists, who are often Obama fans, claim that she may be a victim of sexism, although one could also argue that she may attract some votes just because she is a woman. In 2008, the same apologists had accused Obama’s critics of racism, although his mixed race background may have even favored him at least with part of the electorate.

Right now, the choice is between a candidate who is known but unloved and another who is relatively unknown but feared.