The 2016 presidential election is almost a pure choice between the establishment and an anti-establishment candidate.
Hillary Clinton is the establishment. She's the candidate of think-tankers, wonks, and the established style of governance that has dominated the Western world since the end of the Cold War. She represents the standard managed capitalist vision at home. She's for big free-trade deals. And she is hawkish on defense issues in the Washington way, embracing the use of air power and proxies abroad to "shape" outcomes in America's favor. She sides with liberals in the culture war, but in a way that seems cautious and calculating. She is pious about gay rights now, but she was not pioneering then. She is politically correct, but not politically courageous. She says all the right things, once the left has made it compulsory for her to do so. The press is openly rooting for her in a way that is unprecedented in modern American politics.
That's because Donald Trump is the candidate running against almost all of the above. He pits himself against "globalism" — which is the populist word for what the establishment calls "internationalism." He opposes trade deals. He seriously questions the ever-freer movement of capital, goods, and people. He criticizes (sometimes hypocritically) America's post-Cold War foreign policy. He questions the utility of the NATO alliance. Hardly any think-tankers or policy experts work with his campaign. And Trump doesn't just question whether mass immigration is good for America. He questions whether the immigrants are really up to snuff as humans. For him, Mexicans are rapists and Middle Eastern refugees are terrorists in waiting. For his supporters, Trump's crudity is part of his broader assault on "political correctness," one that will pull down all the establishment's taboos and allow Americans to finally say what they really think again.
So it would seem to be straightforward. If you want to blow up the status quo and the system, vote for Trump. If you think the existing order and the existing direction of that order is worth defending, vote for Clinton.
But it's not that simple.
The intensity of populist attachment to Trump's candidacy is aided by his wealth, celebrity, and ability to dominate a news cycle. He seems to be the one populist who has a real shot to loosen the establishment's grip on both parties and cut a path to the White House. Many populists think Trump is their one shot.
But the better shot for the anti-establishment crowd may come if Hillary Clinton wins and torches whatever last shreds of credibility the establishment has left.
The post-Cold War political establishment is officially loyal to Clinton and hostile to Trump. But at the same time, the establishment must confront its own vices in Clinton: its fundamental clubbiness, its self-seeking, its overwhelming priority to "do well" while doing good, its habit of doing what is technically legal but obviously unethical. And at the same time, the establishment sees its virtues when it opposes Trump: its respect for facts, its liberality and graciousness. In other words, the establishment seems to be demoralized by having Clinton represent it. Correspondingly, it is re-moralized when it gets to oppose Trump. And its behavior in this election — siding overwhelmingly with Clinton in an election that is a referendum on the establishment itself — means that they will own the outcomes of her presidency.
Clinton seems positioned to fail spectacularly if elected. She does not have the ability to charm and quiet the press or the public the way Obama or Bill Clinton did. Her one political trick is trying to outwork her problems, and to show the public she is putting in lots of effort. But America may soon face another recession. Obama bequeaths to her America's involvement in four civil wars across the Middle East. America's involvement in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen has no actual support from the American public beyond its indifference. Another bomb or riot that turns into American casualties, and already her presidency is put on the defensive.
Clinton is experienced at failing. She failed to get health-care reform in the 1990s. She failed to win the Democratic nomination in 2008 when the process wasn't tilted entirely in her favor. The one piece of policy entrepreneurship she brought to the State Department was her advocacy for intervening in Libya's civil war, an ongoing disaster.
A vote for Clinton is a vote for a status quo that, when left to itself, can barely hide its exhaustion, self-hatred, and incompetence much longer. H.L. Mencken said that "democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." The establishment deserves Clinton as its tribune. She reveals its competence as mere cleverness rather than wisdom. She is its idealism turned into a cold glare. She is the promise of revolution turned into a shoddy grift and a mirthless job.
Who will be left to defend the establishment when she's had her turn with it?