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Fair enough, there was the US civil war. Amid all the carnage the Yankees still went ahead with the 1862 and 1864 elections on schedule. Other than then, there is little in US history to compare with what is at stake on Tuesday.

Donald Trump, one of the possible next presidents, forecasts that the vote will be rigged. A Trump victory could still happen, which makes it so odd that he plays the sore loser before actually losing. Hillary Clinton, the other candidate, believes the US system is working fine except for the threat posed by Mr Trump. In its way, Mrs Clinton’s outlook is almost as deluded as her opponent’s. America’s system of democracy is teetering, whether or not Mr Trump wins on Tuesday.

Imagine two kinds of threat: one where a bear breaks into your cabin, the other where termites eat it from within. Mr Trump is the bear. The upside to a Trump victory is that he would be unable to claim the election was stolen. Far from it. The 2016 vote count would be the cleanest in world history. America would be great again! That aside, it would be a disaster.

Many serenely predict US democracy would emerge intact from a Trump presidency. Their reassurance comes in two parts. The first is that Mr Trump would surround himself with experienced advisers who would curb his worst instincts. The second is that even if Mr Trump’s team were crackpots, the US constitution would correct any over-reach.

They are too complacent. Most of those advising Mr Trump are as unsettling as he is. First among these is Mr Trump. “My primary foreign policy adviser is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff,” he says. Bear in mind he has questioned the point of nuclear weapons unless they are used. He has also recommended China’s neighbours acquire their own. The decision to play the nuclear card is the president’s alone. The Pentagon can only advise. Virtually every Republican with national security experience signed a letter in August warning that Mr Trump would be “the most reckless president in history”.

Then there is his political team. We need go no further than Stephen Bannon, his campaign chief, who is former head of the hard right website, Breitbart News. Anyone who cherishes America’s first amendment rights should be very afraid. Mr Bannon would be in line to become Mr Trump’s White House’s ideological director.

Second, America’s system of checks and balances relies on those upholding it. Leaving aside his character, Mr Trump has no respect for constitutional boundaries. The last president to breach their limits was Richard Nixon. He was forced from office in 1974 for covering up his administration’s complicity in the burglary of the offices of the Democratic National Committee. The system worked, but it took two years.

Nixon had an expansive view of the president’s powers. “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” he said. That is also Mr Trump’s view.

But Nixon’s secret lawbreaking pales against what Mr Trump openly vows to do. He has publicly urged Russia to burgle Democratic databases. He has also threatened to jail Mrs Clinton, reinstate torture, cancel treaties and start a global trade war. Some of this is illegal. Some of it is legal.

Much of what Mr Trump promises lies in between. Either way, it could take the US courts months or years to rule on his actions. By then much of the damage would be done.

How could a Clinton victory possibly compare? If she won by a landslide — and the Democrats regained control of Congress — all bets would be off. But that is not going to happen. No poll has put her close to 50 per cent since the election began. The dangers of a Clinton presidency are no less troubling for their subtlety.

Before Mrs Clinton is elected, Republicans are vowing to block whatever she tries. John McCain, her closest Republican friend, says he will oppose any Supreme Court nominee she submits. Others have threatened impeachment hearings.

The Republican party is hopelessly divided. It spans pro-globalisation
multiculturalists and nativist protectionists. In most other democracies, it would have split into different parties. The one glue keeping Republicans together is abhorrence of Mrs Clinton.

This is without mentioning Mr Trump’s threat to cry foul if he loses . Either way, Republicans aim to make a desert of Mrs Clinton’s presidency and call it democracy. They have the means to do so. Four more years of gridlock would only deepen America’s popular frustration.

The good thing about a bear is that you can see it coming. Termites are invisible. It is hard to pinpoint when they began to eat away at the foundations. When and why did Americans lose faith in their system? There is no consensus on this either. Some point to rising inequality. Others blame the growth of government. It does not mean Americans cannot regain the trust they have lost.

But for the time being the US is becoming steadily harder to govern. As Abraham Lincoln said, a house divided cannot stand. Though he faced far deadlier challenges, Lincoln’s observation is as true today as when he said it. The basis of US democracy is co-operation. Whatever happens after Tuesday is unlikely to fit that description.

edward.luce@ft.com

Letter in response to this article

Christ is the source of the ‘house divided’ quote / From Lorenz Jorgensen

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