The last debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is history. As of today—Monday, October 24—only a fortnight is left before the Americans begin voting at their polling booths,(postal votes are already coming in). Of course, they are not casting votes for Trump or Clinton. The votes will choose the members of the Electoral College which will then choose the winning candidate. The Electoral College device was set up by the Founding Fathers because they distrusted direct democracy. But now, it is only a flimsy curtain hiding nothing.
It is a cliché to say that this contest has been unique; either the worst, most vulgar and demeaning, or the Revealing One which has brought out the hidden disaffected masses. Memory is short and people forget how violent and scurrilous campaigns used to be. When Thomas Jefferson ran, it was said that if he won, no woman would be safe on the streets. As a supporter of the French Revolution, he was suspected to be the epitome of anarchy and loose morals. In 1828, Andre Jackson defeated John Quincy Adams, the incumbent president and son of a president. The elite was displaced and the uncouth Irish military adventurer was elected. George Washington had seen nothing like the mayhem his supporters caused at the Inauguration. Abraham Lincoln was criticised constantly as being ape-like and Ulysses Grant was an alcoholic. But, America survived them all and many more bad presidents. It is only since the Second World War that people have acquired the idea that the presidency requires highly-qualified and clean candidates. Even so, Richard Nixon was impeached and Bill Clinton nearly so.
The most interesting development has been the growth of the Tea Party movement and the fracturing of the Republican Party. Historically, the Republicans were the established party. They had Lincoln who signed the Abolition of Slavery into the law. Since the War, nine of the 16 terms had Republican presidents and seven had Democrats. If Hillary Clinton wins and gets re-elected, then the balance would be even.
It is not obvious however that she will win. The polls may say whatever they want to, but several elections recently have surprised us by the effect of the ‘the silent voter’. Most recently, this happened in the UK’s Brexit referendum. All received wisdom was for ‘remain’ to win. That was the liberal progressive position. But, the silent vote prevailed in the end. The Indian election of 2014 surprised many by the size of BJP’s victory. The underestimation was due to a visceral dislike among the professional politicians for Narendra Modi all around, including from within his own party
There are two sleeping dogs. One is the usual silent majority, i.e., white, right-wing, populist vote. This is the Tea Party vote. The other, more unknown quantity is the reluctance on part of Americans to vote for a woman candidate as president. This is difficult to quantify as we have never faced this situation before. This ranges across race and colour among all men.
Trump has run an unusual campaign breaking all rules of political decorum. He has been much more populist in terms of what right-wing radio and TV commentators have laid down as a manifesto. He is xenophobic, blames everyone else for America’s decline, proposes drastic action plans—the Mexican Wall, for instance. This makes more sense on the ground than in liberal media. The British referendum turned entirely on control of migration from other countries of the EU into Britain. The UKIP was a fringe party, with a single theme of exit from EU. When it started, it was dismissed as a bunch of nut-cases. Yet, within 10 years, it has transformed British policy in Europe. Trump has appeal over control of migration expressed in terms of Mexicans and Muslims. It may yet work.
There is another parallel between the Brexit vote and a Trump-win. If Trump were to win, the markets will overreact. The pound collapsed sharply on June 24 when the results came out. In the American case, people may go for gold and, paradoxically, for the dollar as safe havens. It is unclear how long that effect would last. Ultimately, a Trump presidency would be just like any other. All will depend on his ability to deal with Congress and responses to unforeseen foreign shocks. He may be as good, coming from the outside, as Hillary Clinton who is a quintessential Establishment candidate. She will be business-as-usual, and if Obama’s record is anything to go by, expect further retreat of American power from the global stage.
In economic policy, Trump would be more ready to spend money on infrastructure, borrow more and cut taxes. He will be like Reagan in his fiscal profligacy. Given the weakness of the recovery and the huge infrastructure investment gap in America, this may not be a bad idea. American presidents have seldom balanced their Budgets. Trump can join the gang. Clinton will do the same, but in a much more standard Keynesian way.
The author is a prominent economist and Labour peer