Last night’s primary results suggest it’s Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump come this fall. What does this mean for America?
Hillary is the easiest to gauge. She’s been in politics for a long time and possesses a lengthy and controversial record. She is of course a transformative candidate, the first female candidate for president from a major party. That’s where the revolution begins — and ends. Hillary is a pragmatist who promises a continuation of Obama’s policies. Even more so than Obama, she is an establishment candidate, well ensconced among Wall Street financiers, K Street lobbyists, and all the other special interests that rule America today through money and power. If this were 1976, you could well imagine her running as a moderate Republican against a Democratic candidate like Jimmy Carter (or Bernie Sanders). With respect to foreign policy, she promises a hard line and the continuation of perpetual wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
Many liberal Democrats, and more than a few Republicans, will likely vote for her with noses held and fingers crossed. Mainline Democrats will vote for her based on certain issues, such as Supreme Court vacancies, her pro-choice stance on abortion, and so on. In a normal election year, an establishment Republican would have a good shot at beating her since Hillary’s negatives are so high. But this is not a normal year.
Enter Donald Trump. If Hillary promises more of the same, Trump promises unpredictability. His simplistic rhetoric about making America great again has obviously resonated, just as Obama’s similarly simplistic message of “hope” and “change” did in 2008. Trump is a man of (certain) people: unlike Hillary, he’s not a career politician. Unlike Hillary, he’s not tied to the political establishment. In essence, he’s part wild card, part joker, and his outlandish statements on Muslims and Mexicans and walls and women suggest he’s not playing with a full deck.
No one really knows what a Trump presidency would look like. I don’t think even Trump knows. Trump has a habit of speaking off the cuff, of making statements that are more than a little grandiose, partly because he loves to grandstand. He’s easy to dismiss — all too easy — yet look where he is now, closing in on the Republican nomination despite long odds.
Trump, as I wrote back in July 2015, likes to pose as a proto-fascist. He likes to boast that the military will follow his orders even if they’re illegal. (He backed off that statement, but the fact he made it speaks loudly about his judgement.) On occasion he says something insightful and honest, as when he insisted the Iraq war was a mistake, costing the nation trillions of dollars, or when he attacks poorly negotiated trade deals as hurting working-class Americans. But with the good comes lots of bad.
A big challenge for Trump this fall will be appearing presidential. So far his policy knowledge in debates has been a mile wide and an inch deep. He’s gotten away with this because of the size of the Republican field, but Hillary, the consummate policy wonk, will make mincemeat of him in the fall debates if he continues to speak off the cuff and glide over specifics.
Clinton versus Trump: it’s a grim choice for America. An establishment oligarch versus a quixotic autocrat. More of the same versus God knows what. What they collectively represent is both the decline of progressivism and of conservatism in America.
For now I’m putting my crystal ball aside, except to say that one day (perhaps very soon) Americans may look back with fondness on the eight years Obama was president.