Many observers were eagerly awaiting the results of the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s irregular practice of using a private server and email account. I wasn’t. The 2016 presidential election will not turn on trustworthiness, or even competence. Donald Trump’s triumph in the Republican primaries has fundamentally shifted its terms. The upcoming election will be about the kind of country we want to become.
Clinton represents the status quo. The status quo is factious, of course. We hear a great deal about Washington gridlock. But the establishment consensus is strong, and most leaders accept it, some happily, some grudgingly. It defies easy summary, but I’ll try:
Globalization is inevitable. Diversity is a boon, not just for culture, but also for business. Human beings are primarily utility-maximizing machines, and thus politics is really an epiphenomenon of economics. History is on the side of the sexual revolution. America must run the world.
The establishment that subscribes to this consensus is not limited to a narrow leadership class. It extends to the well-educated, high-earning upper-middle class—the top 20, perhaps 25 percent. These are the people who, by and large, think that things are heading in the right direction. There are setbacks, yes, and problems to be addressed. Republicans and Democrats in this top quartile disagree, sometimes bitterly. But the consensus holds.
The establishment is not insensitive to the peccadillos of the Clintons, of which the law-bending private email account is just one instance. Those who pay attention are troubled by the Clintons’ invention of a postmodern political machine. The Clinton Global Initiative is transparently a vehicle for influence-peddling on a grand scale, and it sustains an extensive network of organizations, activists, and politicos.
In other circumstances, the bad odor of the Clintons would be off-putting. But our leadership class has just received a shock: They have become aware that their consensus isn’t as widely shared as they imagined. It turns out that the stakes are higher than anyone thought possible only recently, and that in light of them, Clinton’s character and trustworthiness hardly matter.
Trump challenges the notions that globalization is inevitable and that diversity is a good thing. We can pick apart the bombast in his America-First rhetoric, show the economic impossibilities of his protectionist gestures, and point out the irresponsible, divisive demagoguery in his talk of building a wall and suspending Muslim immigration. All this is true, but it is as irrelevant as Hillary’s emails. Voters see what Trump is after. They recognize in him a politician who, unlike Clinton and the status quo she represents, does not believe that globalization is inevitable and does not think that an ever more diverse nation welcoming ever more immigrants would be better than one that is more homogeneous and closed.
Similarly, Trump’s neo-isolationism overturns what have been the foundations of American foreign policy since the end of World War II. It’s telling that the Republicans most closely associated with muscular American internationalism have announced their support for Clinton. Who can worry about private servers when America’s unique role as guardian of the global order is suddenly in question?
The establishment is so shocked by the very possibility of the Trumpian alternative that they can’t conceptualize it as a political choice at all. Instead, they re-describe it as a psychological disorder, a phobia, or a terrible vice—racism. The more generous ascribe Trump voters’ self-evident irresponsibility to their economic duress. Trump supporters aren’t really rejecting the status-quo consensus; they’re just in the awkward position of being shortchanged by the otherwise good processes of globalization and greater cultural diversity.
On the contrary, Trump supporters see that Trump favors the particular loyalties of citizens to their nation over vague sentiments of universal philanthropy that justify a system conveniently benefiting those who trumpet its political correctness. He questions the presumption that American power must guard a global system that seems less and less ordered to American interests—or at least to the interests of Americans not in the upper stratum of society. His aggressive violations of political correctness reassure those who tire of the diktats of “history.”
Faced with a choice between the status quo and a radical departure from it, voters are discarding the ordinary criteria. Trump’s faults, weaknesses, and vices are plain to see—and they are as irrelevant as Clinton’s.
I’m tired of conversations with friends who harp on Clinton’s corruption or Trump’s vulgarity and volatility. I’m also fed up with explanations of how what Clinton or Trump promises “won’t work.” 2016 will not be a normal election. When there’s a settled consensus about the first things of public life, the middle-of-the-road voters who decide our elections focus on determining whom they can trust, or which policy proposals address their concerns. This November those concerns will be eclipsed by a more fundamental decision.
It’s been said, and rightly, that we can’t turn back the clock. But as the British vote to leave the European Union reminds us, it is often possible to reject the future that seemed ordained and strike off in a new direction. That’s the decision people will confront this year. The usual matters of political consequence (scandal, incompetence, dishonesty, and recklessness) will be largely inconsequential. It is going to be unsettling, even frightening.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.