Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Yes, the US is at a fork in the road: Please bear with us

Yes, the US is at a fork in the road: Please bear with us

Easy, Australia.

Don’t let some bombast and uncivil language from Donald Trump change your view of the United States and its intentions. We share a language, a set of values and too many common interests to be anything but friends and allies.

Cover your ears and bear with us for another six months. The rhetoric will only get worse as The Donald and Hillary Clinton square off in what will certainly be a nasty campaign for our presidency. But at the far end, you’ll find us a resilient nation that will continue to be a shining beacon for the world.

The American democracy looks particularly ugly from abroad. The view isn’t exactly pretty from inside the country either, but for people who tune into our melodrama on an irregular basis, it can appear scary.

Today, America has come to a fork in the road. We do this about once a generation. Sometimes the issues threaten to tear us apart; the Civil War, the Depression, Vietnam. Sometimes they unite us; World War I, World War II, 9/11.

For most of a generation, we’ve been on a zig-zag course;  from left-leaning Bill Clinton to a right-leaning George W Bush and back to a left-leaning Barack Obama. There’s simply been no clear mandate from the voters. The opposition has been able to slow and often block progress toward any decisive action.

Into this stalemate comes Trump, a wildly successful real estate developer with an out-sized personality and ego. He’s parlayed these assets into a television series that magnifies both his accomplishments and his style. He has flirted with running for president before but could never gain enough traction.

This time, the stars have aligned.

Trump’s politics have been fungible. He’s widely seen as a liberal on social issues but a hardliner on the military, trade and immigration. He’s not a classic fit for a Republican party long driven by a coalition of evangelical Christians and wealthy business interests. He offends both but he has struck a chord with a wide swath of disaffected middle class Republicans, who feel betrayed by the party’s inability to deliver fundamental change, and the swelling ranks of voters who identify themselves as independents.

His over-the-top rhetoric rallies his constituency which sorely wants a candidate who will blow up the roadblocks and make something happen. They seem willing to trust that Trump is such a character, even if they’re unsure where he is headed.

Trump is the author of a book called The Art of the Deal and, love him or hate him, his credentials as a negotiator are unquestioned. He has surrounded himself with a strong legal team that has allowed him to skate to the edge of the law without getting into serious trouble. Friend and foe acknowledge his use of bankruptcy laws has been masterful —and profitable.

He fills a perceived void as a strong and decisive leader, a CEO-in-chief, in a time when the country is tired of political correctness and compromise. Whether that style will work in the 21st Century world remains to be seen but a healthy cohort of Americans hope it will.  [fold]

Opposing Trump is a familiar political name; Hillary Clinton. She comes with a wealth of classic credentials: Secretary of State for Obama; two terms in the US Senate; and a generation in the public eye. In many election cycles, she would seem a natural choice but this time she’s carrying a lot of baggage ranging from the sins of husband Bill to the furor over her sloppy use of a private email server while Secretary of State.

In many ways, she’s an ideal foil for Trump, who can cast himself as the outsider to her position as the ultimate insider. She speaks in diplomatic tones; he yells and his word choices are often over the top. He promises clarity while she seems to deal in shadows.

American voters certainly have a clear if not wholly satisfying choice. And many voters have already made up their minds. Both Clinton and Trump are household names. But polling reveals each of the candidates has a massive 'dislike/don’t trust' coefficient.

Many pundits see the match up as a chance for Democrats to win a broad mandate to lead the country further left. And a rational analysis of electoral math and demographic shifts suggests that is the most likely result.

The wildcard is Trump’s ability to rally the disaffected who have not always voted. The record turnout in primaries suggests that is a possibility.

The bottom line here is the American democracy is a system of checks and balances that can compensate for the vagary of unorthodox candidates. Minnesota elected wrestler Jesse Ventura as its governor; California elected actor Arnold Schwarzenegger as its governor. Neither state collapsed. Three decades ago, the US elected actor Ronald Reagan president and that went fine.

Having a candidate who is accustomed to playing roles and speaking in sound bites has its risks. One is misunderstanding and over-reaction abroad.

Please take the long view. Judges us on what we do, not on the internal rhetoric that gets us past this painful fork in the road.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Peter Miller

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