Trump isn’t fit to serve as president of the United States. Clinton isn’t relating emotionally to the electorate. These points of contention seem to be at the heart of debates around this year’s presidential election. Gone is the traditional division between left and right, or liberalism and conservatism. What we are seeing instead, is a competition between technocracy and populism.
It is little surprise that this election has been described as a choice between the “lesser of two evils”. We have a reliable, if uncharismatic, policy wonk on one hand; and an entertaining, if unpredictable, maverick on the other. And it is this opposition – competence v charisma – rather than substantive policy disagreements, that is framing the election.
Consider that, when it comes to policy positions, these two candidates are among the most different in recent memory. Yet such differences don’t really seem to be at the center of attention, either for the candidates themselves, or the public at large.
In their recent debate, Clinton said explicitly that she intends to “increase taxes” for the rich and address the “systemic racism” of the country’s criminal justice system: positions that not even Obama had dared to take so plainly four or eight years ago. Trump instead declared he intends to lower taxes for the top income brackets and dismissed the problem of racism as a question of “law and order”. Similarly, on international trade, they took almost diametrically opposed stances: Clinton sees it as a factor of growth and stability, whereas Trump says trade is “killing our country”.
Yet all this somehow remains in the background. The real core of what Clinton was attempting to communicate is that she is more competent than her rival, because she has greater policy expertise. This explains her reliance on the opinion of “independent experts” to make the case for her economic plan, as well as the insistence on “fact-checking” Trump’s assertions.
Conversely, most of Trump’s efforts went into depicting Clinton as a political insider, who is responsible for the “mess” the country is supposedly in at the moment, while presenting himself as a “strong leader” who can solve the country’s problems precisely by virtue of his decisive and unconventional approach.
The roots of this populist drift in the Republican party go back several decades. Although the party’s current establishment professes to be outraged by at least some of Trump’s excesses, there is a direct line of continuity running from the late 1990s’ bid to impeach Bill Clinton over the Lewinsky affair, to George W Bush’s self-presentation as the candidate one would “most like to have beer with”, the choice of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate in 2012 and many features of Trump’s current campaign.
The Democrats’ response has been to move progressively towards the center, assuming the mantle of “reason” and “respectability”, while presenting their rivals as irresponsible mavericks. No wonder the substantive policy differences between them have fallen into the background: when politics is structured around the opposition between competent technocrats on one hand and anti-establishment populists on the other, there is little room left for substantive policy disagreement in the middle.