by Darrin P. McDonald
2016 has featured perhaps the most encapsulating, and entertaining, election in recent memory. On one side, you have the ever-present stateswoman in Hillary Clinton, with as much controversy and baggage as just about any American politician and, on the other side, you have Donald Trump, a billionaire whose success in business is enviable, but whose character and preparedness is constantly questioned and challenged.
The issues drive deeper than the two candidates, however; each of these individuals is representative of a particular movement within American and, in some respects, global society and politics. Put simply, this election is a competition between nationalism and globalism, between putting America’s interests first and embracing America’s increasingly global economic and political priorities.
There is a tendency, in times of crisis, fear, or uncertainty, to identify a perpetrator and shape one’s response in such a way as to right whatever perceived wrong exists. In the US, for many, there is a disconnect in identifying the perpetrators.
On one hand, you have anger at a lack of job growth, income stagnation, and a system that does not work to benefit you. On the other, an anger at the inequalities, disparate realities, and lack of upwardly mobile, well-paying jobs. Each has its own validities and conjures its own enemies, and heroes.
When Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015, it was on a platform vying for more control over immigration, reigning in trade deals to be more favorable to US interests, and reasserting America as a strong, effective actor in global affairs.
While seeming a bridge between traditional Republican ethos and the rising alt-right on the surface, these stances harken to the days of populism and nationalism which once thrived in the Southern US and is now experiencing a resurgence throughout the West; driven not just by xenophobia and racism, but by valid concerns around the flow of refugees and immigrants into their previously homogenous countries, the effects felt from businesses moving to lower-wage countries, and foreign investment and cheap labor into their countries.
In a post-recession era, with the recovery not being felt among the middle and working classes nearly as strongly as in the markets, it is natural to think that the rules of the game are stacked against you and the only way to remount the income ladder is to rewrite them.
Onto the scene appears Trump, who offers unquestioned business experience and, therefore, a mastery of the rules that need to be rewritten. Add to that his insistence to put America, and Americans, first and you have a strong Republican-nationalist base, with a particularly strong, mobile support among white males and an appeal based on outsider status and a need for change.
Clinton, meanwhile, represents a very different interpretation of current events, and different priorities. Having served as Secretary of State under President Obama, Clinton is unequivocally associated with the current administration and, therefore, many of the policy goals that have been instilled in the last 7+ years.
Many of these policies she has embraced, and even sought for expansion, but some stances, such as in the cases of particular trade agreements, gun laws, and a criminal justice system in need of reform, she feels have fallen between the cracks under Obama.
An acceptance of climate change and subsequently the steps that need to be taken to counter it, which is in stark contrast to her opponent’s history, along with stances on abortion, taxes, and wage disparities position her well with the left, women, and marginalized communities, as a solid, traditional Democratic base.
Add to that her vast experience in policy, both foreign and domestic, and history as a generally effective lawmaker and secretary of state, if this is sometimes challenged due to perceived failures such as Benghazi, and you have a very strong starting point for a campaign.
We should not forget, however, that each of these individuals has their fair share of baggage and controversy, which continues to develop and evolve even in the aftermath of the second of three debates.
Most recently has been the recording of Mr. Trump making some very lewd comments about women which, for many, conjure interpretations of sexual assault; dismissed by Trump as ‘locker room banter’, but shocking to many nonetheless and surely damaging to his image, particularly among women, given a range of comments and past accusations of racist, misogynistic, or otherwise questionable, offensive behavior.
Add to this suggestions that he took advantage of a loophole to avoid paying federal income taxes for almost two decades, and his failure to offer evidence to refute this, and there’s no doubt he has an uphill battle ahead of him.
For Mrs. Clinton, the most pressing controversy is also a matter of national security. Having used a private server during her time as Secretary of State, there is a strong inclination to worry about the possible leaking of classified information via a hacker or some other means.
Additionally, deleting 33,000 emails following a subpoena and the continued claims of ignorance do suggest that something is being hidden in order to prevent a larger crisis. With Trump adding Bill Clinton’s particularly well-known sexual conquests and Hillary’s perceived attempts at intimidation, there are serious questions being asked of both of these candidates’ character and/or judgement on a fairly consistent basis.
It is these individual qualities and crises that make this an entertaining, if somewhat dark, campaign. We have, essentially, two ‘worst case scenarios’ cast as the enemies for each respective side; Trump’s supporters would have preferred anyone but Hillary and likewise for Hillary’s supporters and Trump. But, as I’ve touched on, this campaign is about much more than just the two individuals; there is a long term decision to be made this year between staying the course and effecting a paradigm shift.
This election is a referendum on the past eight years, and next four for that matter, and whether the progress that has been made has been positive or negative, which is an extremely subjective question. It’s a question of whether America can once again be great or if it never ceased being great and now it’s a matter of making it greater.
In terms of real policy, it will undoubtedly affect global environmental policies, diplomatic priorities, domestic economic and trade policies, and immigration policies. It will determine America’s openness, the manner of our cooperation with the global community, how we treat Russia along with the Syrian, Iranian, and other regimes down the road, and many other very important, very relevant issues that could quite literally go one way or the other.
This is not just a referendum on the last eight years, but a blueprint for the rest of the world going forward. Once again, it’s nationalism vs. globalism, and the same competition is occurring all over the Western world. It impacts every level of policy and, surely, whichever side wins out in the US will have a significant bearing on results elsewhere, not to mention those elections being held for lower offices.
There is a case to be made for and against each of these two candidates and each represents a highly significant movement within modern political discourse, equally valid and equally destined to shape American policy outcomes in the long-term.
America is voting on whether they wish to maintain course or regain an abstract concept of greatness that once defined us. It’s progress vs. regression, renovation vs. restoration, and, ultimately, a weighing of what is important to the American citizenry. The rest of the world is watching as the US referendum on progress unfolds, and it could go either way.