“Hobson’s Choice: A choice of taking what is available or nothing at all.”
In a nutshell, that is the dilemma facing American voters when they take to the polls on 8 November for the U.S. Presidential election that will choose their next leader. A choice that seems like no real option at all, between two candidates who inspire apathy at best, nausea at worst. To say it’s an unenviable prospect is an understatement of epic proportions. What’s the alternative to choosing between two distinctly unappealing candidates? Staying at home? For a nation that prides itself as a bastion of democracy, there must always be a compelling reason to exercise the democratic franchise previous generations struggled to attain. Alternatively, voters can plump for Gary Johnson. However, with the Libertarian candidate all but out of the contest, where is the merit in that action? When all’s said and done, no matter how it’s diced, the 2016 Presidential election boils down to a simple, inescapable choice: Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Hobson’s choice indeed.
The overriding narrative of the campaign thus far has been a seemingly obsessive determination to keep the controversial Trump out of the White House at all costs. Until last week, the Republican nominee’s chances of victory still seemed remote, but with only a week left to attract voters, all indications suggest that the maverick businessman is closing the gap on his more illustrious rival. An ABC News/Washington Post poll remarkably has Trump leading by a percentage point over the Democratic nominee. Indeed, Clinton’s aggregate lead (at the time of writing) could even be as low as two points, depending on which pollster you listen to. All of a sudden, the heretofore unthinkable scenario involving a Trump victory is looking more plausible by the day. While a Trump win remains pretty unlikely, the outcome dreaded by many citizens in the U.S. and beyond is far from impossible. Quite a remarkable turn of events. However, as the recent Brexit vote demonstrated, improbable outcomes should never be discounted in politics.
So, what’s going on? Although Trump is ostensibly a mainstream candidate, his journey to presidential nomination is that of the definitive political outsider. Despite his ratification as a candidate by the Grand Old Party, Trump is undoubtedly a maverick and eccentric; a candidate who’s the very antithesis of political orthodoxy. While it’s easy to characterise Trump’s ambitious march to the White House as the ultimate manifestation of an oversized ego that’s spiralling out of control, his nomination is symbolic of a wider trend that’s both global and increasingly prevalent. Mr Trump’s campaign is indicative of a deepening disillusionment with establishment politics and mainstream political faces. After all, you can’t get any more “establishment” than the GOP and yet they’ve opted for the most unorthodox candidate imaginable to square off against Hillary for the presidency. Many commentators had earmarked 2016 as an election that was eminently winnable for the Republicans and yet they’ve staked their modern political reputation on a man that courts controversy like it’s going out of fashion. Allegations of misogyny, confusion over immigration and an allegedly reprehensible attitude to Islam. None of these excesses have derailed the Trump campaign in any significant way.
Cynicism with establishment politics is evident throughout the world at the moment. It’s one of the primary drivers of the UKIP expansion into British politics and is further evidenced by the plethora of independent candidates contesting Irish elections, for example. On a more local level, disenchantment with mainstream politics was seen in the last Stormont election, where Gerry Carroll topped the poll in West Belfast for People Before Profit. If the establishment parties aren’t listening to these outcries, they should be. Voters are becoming increasingly disillusioned with political norms and conventions, and they’re turning to some extremely unorthodox alternatives as a consequence. Global recessions, economic meltdowns and unjustifiable wars have all played their part. As has declining standards of living for millions of ordinary people who feel that traditional politicians no longer represent them or their interests. Political mavericks who previously wouldn’t have stood a chance of electoral success are reaping the rewards for voter apathy and disillusionment. The upcoming U.S. election has become the unlikely nexus of this popular disdain.
The success of Trump is just one manifestation of this crisis of political confidence. A victory that once seemed absurd and preposterous is now potentially only a week away. Clinton’s inherent lack of charm and warmth is only part of the problem. Many voters are utterly fed up with the obnoxious Bush/Clinton duopoly that’s dominated the most prestigious political office in the world for over 15 years. Only Obama’s underwhelming tenure has interrupted the relentless advancement of these wealthy familial dynasties. Perhaps this is why Republicans unexpectedly anointed Trump as their nominee. He wasn’t Jeb Bush. What applies to Republican grandees, is equally true of ordinary voters. Trump represents the ultimate outsider and maverick. This is the reason the Clinton camp must fear him. Trump can win on 8 November. Make no mistake about that.
Clinton, on the other hand, seems tired and battle weary in comparison. The unfortunate allusions to her health may be somewhat below the belt, but they’ve fuelled the perception of a candidate lacking a certain freshness and energy. Certainly, it seems a lifetime since Hillary’s old man announced himself as a “bridge to the future.” The entire Clinton project seems rather jaded from the halcyon days when Bill’s charisma and charm endeared all and sundry with its universal appeal. For all that, Hillary is still the devil we all know, if you excuse my clumsy turn of phrase. A safe pair of hands that is better trusted with an office that, although diminished, is still the most important in world politics. Will Clinton’s constancy and perceived reliability be enough to finally accede to the job of her dreams in what’s surely her last chance? Or will the ultimate outsider pull off one of the greatest electoral upsets of all time? History beckons for Mrs Clinton, but the polls are too close to permit anyone sleeping easy. Despite an unfortunate lack of box office appeal, Hillary has one last trump card. She is not Donald. That may be enough to see her home by a whisker and allow the rest of us to breathe a massive sigh of relief.