Ross Douthat at the New York Times and others have raised the notion of ‘pundit accountability’: at turning points or on crucial issues, commentators should make plain their preferences and predictions, and why. US presidential elections are obviously such a moment, and this one more than any in a very long time due to the nature of one of the candidates.
It is a cliché to say every four years that ‘we are living through the most important election of our lifetime’, but this year it is genuinely true. Donald Trump is such a unique threat to American democracy and is so grossly unqualified for that office that even outlets which normally do not endorse candidates have felt compelled to endorse Hillary Clinton, or rather reject Trump. As Foreign Policy put it, a ‘Donald Trump presidency is among the greatest threats facing America, and the Republican standard-bearer is the worst major-party candidate in history.’
In short, this election is now a referendum on Trump, with status quo Clinton reduced to a bit part in the Orange One’s ongoing, sprawling psychodrama of a massively rigged election denying him victory. Clinton is a fairly normal politician, with fairly typical taints of money-grubbing and abuse. The Bush Administration too ‘lost’ emails (22 million), as did the Trump organisation under subpoena. Just about everyone in Washington uses their access to feather their nest, an outcome of the nation’s sprawling, open lobbying culture and privately financed campaigns.
This is not to excuse Clinton. Most would have preferred some cleaner and fresher, like Barack Obama in 2008. But Trump is something quite different and far worse. Elsewhere I have argued that he is a normative threat to American democracy because of his authoritarian tendencies and apparent desire to change the Republican Party into something like the National Front. But even if he stays within the bounds of long-standing American democratic practice, he is still grossly unfit to govern as a practical matter.
Trump is woefully uninformed and uninterested, even worse than Sarah Palin. More disturbingly, he has shown no inclination to learn as the campaign has progressed. He is just as intellectually soft now as he was 18 months ago. By his own admission, he scarcely reads and gets his information from ‘the shows’; he has repeatedly made basic errors of understanding (regarding, for example, nuclear weapons); and he showed up for each debate woefully under-prepared. Even a mildly engaged candidate would have picked up a lot of new information over the course of the campaign, with an ever-improving stump speech and presentation. Instead, Trump has gotten worse; he recently spoke of a global banker conspiracy to destroy American sovereignty, which sounds like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Trump is almost willfully foolish and ridiculous (which also suggests it may be an act).
He would be something of an empty suit with advisers running most of his administration, fighting with each other and trying to be the last one to get his ear (just as it was with George W Bush). Few serious people want to work for him, compounding the problem of his questionable intelligence with a staff of hacks who would make 'heckuva-job Brownie' look qualified.
He is a serial liar, which would corrode almost everything he did as president, as no-one would trust him or know whether he genuinely stood behind his own policy pronouncements. He cannot stay on message, which means he would have huge trouble communicating with the public, much less serious people in American institutions. The meandering, undisciplined way he talks means he almost certainly does not have the mental focus to discipline himself to run something as complicated as the US government. One could see him walking out of cabinet meetings out of sheer boredom and just delegating the whole thing to Steve Bannon, who currently runs Trump's campaign.
Trump is wildly unstable: it would be a risk to both Americans and foreigners to trust him with the awesome powers of the presidency. He is vindictive, and may well focus on using the powers of the government for his own personal purposes (chasing enemies), leaving actual policy-making to others.
He has no experience in government at all, and the ‘policy proposals’ on his website are thin and/or regurgitation of standard GOP talking points. He has no history of public service or public spiritedness: he has used his charity to pay his bills, was caught openly lying about giving to veterans, and has exaggerated his charitable contributions for years. He has no experience or training in thinking about the ‘commonwealth’, as his bragging about not paying taxes shows.
He is likely to use his presidential authority to alter the law to enhance his family’s business interests, like some banana republic. He has resisted putting his assets, post-victory, in a blind trust; he refuses to release his tax returns; and he has used his campaign contributions to pay his own companies. He has boasted of committing sexual assault and may well face distracting law suits throughout his presidency. His language and behaviour toward woman make him an appalling role model to young men in an era where the president is also a cultural celebrity.
He may be ‘low energy’ himself: he is older than Clinton, overweight, exercises ‘as little as possible’, eats terribly, wakes up at 3am to tweet in a rage, looked tired and petulant in the debates, and his doctor’s ‘health review’ was a joke.
He would face enormous opposition throughout the government and Washington. Congress, including now much of the GOP, loathes and fears him; his relationship with the press is terrible, and an increasing number of venues which normally do not endorse candidates, like The Atlantic or Foreign Policy, have endorsed Clinton out of sheer terror over a Trump presidency; and Washington’s interest groups, lobbies, think tanks and NGOs are nearly monolithic in their rejection of him.
His ideas of executive leadership come from business, or rather the pseudo-business world of reality TV, where posturing, alpha-male CEOs bark ‘you’re fired’ with macho finger-pointing, and so on. Government does not work that way at all. Trump has idea no to compromise, learn, or admit error, as his campaign shows.
In short, Trump is a demagogue straight out of Thucydides or Plato’s fears about democracy: unstable, vindictive, lazy, short-tempered, self-aggrandising, and narcissistic. This is the closest the US has ever come to electing a Mussolini figure, and it is terrifying.
*I thank the Lowy Institute for allowing me to range outside my normal purview of northeast Asia on such an important issue. Here are my thoughts on the election’s impact on northeast Asia.
Photo: Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla