The dyeing of the light

The suspense is nearly over. By late Tuesday night, we will know whether the lunatic has taken over the asylum. I remain confident that Hillary Clinton is on her way to the White House, but then I was confident that we would vote to remain in the EU. In this most unpredictable and disruptive of years, it is unwise to assume that the greatest disruption is not still to come.  

Whether Donald Trump will accept defeat, if he suffers it, remains to be seen. Having started by tarring Hillary Clinton with the brush of corruption, he has now tarred the entire democratic process of his country. That is why it is important that Clinton should not only win, but win big. The charge of a rigged election is harder to sustain when you are buried beneath a landslide.

Trump has been less than specific about how he believes that the election has been rigged against him. He has mentioned the bias of the media, which is hard to interpret as other than an assault on the freedom of the press. He will no doubt find evidence of voting irregularities. But there are always voting irregularities, even in the most immaculately democratic of countries. It seems probable that, in America, they are fewer than in the days of Tammany Hall and Mayor Daley. In any case, there is no reason to believe that the irregularities are all, or mainly, on one side.

But Trump does have a point. Unfortunately, he is one of the people least well placed to make it. American elections are, if not rigged, then heavily biased in favour of the rich. As usual, Trump has turned logic on its head. He has attacked Clinton for being in the pocket of the rich and powerful, then offered himself – a representative of the rich and powerful in whose pockets Clinton allegedly skulks – as a morally superior choice.

Trump is in the position he’s in, both politically and financially, because of the fortune he inherited from his father. The Clintons are in the position they’re in because their talent pulled them to the top from modest backgrounds. They may have compromised their integrity along the way, but how is a poor boy or girl supposed to get to the White House otherwise? And how does anyone get to build casinos in Atlantic City without compromising his integrity?

There were so many surreal moments in the presidential debates that it is hard to know which one to choose. Possibly my favourite was when Trump, under fire from Clinton for not paying any federal income tax, kept repeating: ‘That’s because I’m smart.’ Wait a minute. This man claims to represent the dispossessed of America who, he says, have been screwed by the elite and are paying for its mistakes. This billionaire presents himself as the saviour of the dispossessed, and hopes that they will think him smart for not paying the taxes that might have improved their lives.

The complaint of many at this election is that, however bad Trump is, Clinton is little better. Jeremy Paxman went so far as to call her ‘a crap candidate’ – a remark that was not only ungracious but ludicrous. Whether one likes her or not, there can seldom have been a candidate better qualified for the Presidency than Hillary Clinton. Yet the idea that American presidential candidates are lightweights has been fondly, and arrogantly, held in Britain for ages. The novelty is that it now seems to be held in America as well.

The exclusion of the best men in the country from power and influence is one of the worst features of American politics… The wretched system of Tickets, Platforms, Conventions and so forth – the whole machinery of the American party warfare – really transfers the elections from the people at large to an oligarchy of professional electioneering agents.

That critique appeared in a British journal in 1862. If it was true then, it is more true now. But, unless one believes that a long string of American Presidents (starting with Abraham Lincoln) have been demonstrably less good than an equally long string of British Prime Ministers, its truth does not signify anything. All it says is that two very different methods of selecting national leaders have each produced wildly variable results.

There is perhaps a particular reason why Americans appear to have come to share the negative attitude towards their politics and politicians that the British have long expressed. And why such an attitude will probably outlive this election, whoever wins it. American power and influence in the world have passed their zenith. They passed it some while ago, but the collapse of the Soviet Union temporarily disguised the fact. Power is shifting eastwards, and Americans now have to contemplate the fact of being a nation in relative decline. One reason for the howls of anguish is a rage against the dying of the light. The temptation is to put on rose-tinted spectacles and admire the dyeing of the light. Let’s make America great again.

Britain has, of course, been here already and we didn’t like it either. It took at least half a century, and two world wars, for us to admit that there had been a decline, and that it was irreversible. We then spent two decades agonising about our role in the world (read the early plays of John Osborne to get the full flavour), before opting for a shotgun wedding with what has become the EU.

Let us hope that Americans spend less time, and less angst, in their approach to the same problem, but the omens are not good. ‘The fall of Empire,’ said Isaac Asimov, ‘is a massive thing, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity – a hundred other factors.’ That sounds like post-war Britain, and it is beginning to sound like contemporary America.

Britain in the post-war years had a misplaced confidence in the ability of government to do everything. America, now, has a misplaced lack of confidence in the ability of government to do anything. It has adopted a political system that, at best, allows a President two years of real power. It has thus encouraged international grandstanding as a fig leaf for domestic impotence.

This election will change none of those things. Nor will anything else until there is a resigned acceptance in America that the world has changed, followed by a renewed hope that life can still be good. One could argue that it took Britain a century to complete this cycle. America will have done well if it takes much less.