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Rarely in a US presidential election has the choice been so stark and the stakes so high. The contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has provided high drama, amply demonstrated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s reckless, last-minute intervention in the saga of Mrs Clinton’s emails. But there must be no doubt about the gravity of the 2016 election, for America and the world.
The international order of the past 70 years is fraying, maybe even breaking down. The Brexit vote in June likely removes a pillar of the EU. The Middle East points to a shattered system; further east, in the Pacific, China is becoming more assertive, challenging America’s dominant role in the region and the postwar Bretton Woods system. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has become emboldened, threatening Nato’s borders, spreading havoc in Syria, and apparently orchestrating leaks to influence the US election itself.
This is a moment for the renewal of American leadership. One candidate has the credentials. Mrs Clinton has served as first lady, senator for New York and US secretary of state. Mr Trump deals in denigration not diplomacy. He has abused allies, threatening to remove east Asia’s nuclear umbrella, sideline Nato and unleash trade wars. Mr Trump casts himself in the role of a western strongman to stand alongside the likes of Mr Putin.
Mr Trump has demonstrated contempt towards American democracy itself. He has persistently raised the prospect of a rigged election and declined, even when pressed, to guarantee he would accept the result. He has threatened to jail Mrs Clinton. Such arrogance is unprecedented and it points to a fatal flaw in his character. The first role of the president is to be commander-in-chief, in charge of the world’s largest active nuclear arsenal. Mr Trump has a thin skin and a questionable temperament. For all his many years as a reality TV host, he is simply not ready for prime time.
Yet Mrs Clinton has much to prove. To many American voters, Mrs Clinton’s decades of public service mean little. She epitomises a remote, self-serving establishment. Her campaign has lacked inspiration. She struggled against Bernie Sanders, a 74-year-old self-styled socialist from Vermont. The uncomfortable truth is that both Mr Sanders and Mr Trump have touched a nerve among voters, tapping into a cynicism about politics which has been growing steadily in the US, fuelled in part by the legacy of the 2008 global financial crisis.
The American dream, so potent for immigrants and US citizens alike, has become more elusive. The middle class has been squeezed for several decades but the 1 per cent have become wealthier. Populism has staged a revival, supported by a media which have become more polarised than ever. In the search for higher ratings, too many have been happy to strike a Faustian bargain with Mr Trump.
If elected, Mrs Clinton must work out how to heal the divisiveness which has characterised the 2016 election. If Mr Trump contests the result, her task will be harder. In the national interest she must show a determination to work with a fractured Republican party. This proved beyond President Barack Obama, whose fatigue with Congress verged on the fatalistic. Mrs Clinton, who has worked with ideological foes, has the chance for a fresh start.
After years of gridlock, the domestic agenda is clear: tax reform, an overhaul of America’s broken immigration system and a boost to infrastructure. Mrs Clinton has a sound programme, though she would have to face down Mr Sanders and fellow Democrats bitterly opposed to a lowering of the headline corporate tax. She would also be wise to review her cynical U-turn on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, a vital building bloc in the liberal world trade order and a bridge to hard-pressed allies in Asia, notably Japan.
The 2016 election, more than any in recent memory, is a test for the legitimacy of the US political system, with profound implications for the liberal world order. Mrs Clinton carries enough baggage to fill a Boeing 747. She is not trusted by the majority of voters.
But she is manifestly more competent than Mr Trump whose braggadocio, divisiveness and meanness are on daily display. Despite her faults, Mrs Clinton is eminently qualified to be the first woman elected to the White House. She has the Financial Times’ endorsement.