A particularly low point in French politics was reached in 2002, when the electorate was left to choose their President from between the louche, conniving, incumbent Jacques Chirac, and the beyond-the-pale Jean-Marie Le Pen.
The French people, without any joy but mindful that the credibility of the Fifth Republic was on the line, opted for the former. However, graffiti sprung up all over Paris pithily summarising their odious predicament: “Vote for the crook, not the fascist”.
In a very real sense, a similar nightmare is now facing the American people as either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will succeed Barack Obama (who is looking better by the day, as his improved opinion poll numbers attest to) as President of the United States. Both choices are deeply flawed; there is a reason the two candidates are the least popular major party nominees to run for the presidency since modern polling began. Yet, in the end, tomorrow one of them will – self-inflicted wounds and all – become the most powerful person in the world.
First to Trump. He, and his rise, is the reason I am today leaving the Republican Party. Trump is poison for America because he, like most home-grown demagogues, doesn’t care about the Constitution of the United States, which in the final analysis is all that binds my very heterogeneous country together. As Tom Hanks’s character makes plain in the first rate thriller Bridge of Spies, the Constitution amounts to the rule book, the all-important glue that cements Americans to each other.
The French have had five Republics; America just one. This record of remarkable political continuity, an unheard of historical story of political stability in a republic, is based almost entirely on the majority of every generation in the end adhering to the Constitution. Threatening it in any way, as Trump – in his xenophobia and bigotry – so obviously does in his disregard for due process and the rule of law, makes the man my personal enemy.
Trump is challenging the Constitution, the civic religion of the United States, the crucial thing that makes it exceptional. For this reason alone, he must be stopped.
Yet if Trump is real trouble for America, Hillary Clinton – bull in a china shop that she is – is about to unwittingly put the transatlantic relationship in real peril. Let us conjure up a simple thought experiment, one likely to occur in early 2017. A newly elected Clinton meets German Chancellor Angela Merkel for the first time in her capacity as President. She speaks candidly to the Chancellor in a conversation that goes something like this.
“Angela, we are both Wilsonians. And because of our common activist view of the world, having seen off the pernicious forces of populism, it is time for us to act together forcefully, and in concert, to do far more.”
“As such, I look forward to you and the rest of Europe meeting the Nato defence spending targets immediately, helping us arm the Ukrainians and standing up to President Putin, working with us in constructing a no-fly zone in Syria and doing far more there, and at last properly nation-building in Libya to finish the job.”
My guess is that this is the point where Mrs Merkel giggles nervously, looks at her shoes… and nothing happens.
And then the crisis will be on. For it is one thing to blame transatlantic disagreements on the loathsome Trump. However, in Clinton, Europeans would seem to have their dream President: competent, a known quantity, someone who knows and respects Europe. But in reality Clinton and her old-time garden variety Wilsonian views are the dagger pointed at the heart of what is left of the transatlantic alliance.
For Europe will do almost nothing in terms of falling in line with Clinton’s foreign policy wishes. And if two like-minded, values-sharing leaders like Clinton and Merkel cannot craft common policies, then isn’t the transatlantic relationship dead and buried, though clueless elites on both sides of the Atlantic might be just waking up to that fact?
A Trump presidency would put off this day of reckoning, in that his far less interventionist foreign policy would allow Europeans to continue their nap from history, that these practical structural transatlantic differences could be masked for a time, giving Europe a last chance to get its act together.
Instead, the most likely political risk outcome of Clinton’s election will almost certainly be a transatlantic foreign policy crisis in 2017, when it at last becomes plain to all that the Emperor simply isn’t wearing any clothes, and that in foreign policy terms Europe and America have drifted decisively apart.
The paradox of the present election is that Trump is undoubtedly the worst thing for America and Clinton is undoubtedly the worst thing for the future of transatlantic relations.
By the way, I am writing in Speaker of the House Paul Ryan as my vote for President.