The choice facing Americans in November has been likened to being either shot or poisoned.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump inspire more distrust than they do affection. The least dislikeable of the two will probably win. For a political experiment that Abraham Lincoln called ‘the last best hope of earth’ this is depressing.
But how unusual is an election between two unpalatable candidates and how pivotal might it prove?
In several respects, 2016 is highly unusual. Most obviously, we will see, for the first time, a female nominee contending for the nation’s highest office.
Ms Clinton is also the first former first lady to attempt to repeat the success of her husband. We have had sons follow fathers into the White House. We have never had spouses.
Mr Trump’s candidacy has been built on his claim that he is not a politician. Politicians tend to dominate American elections. If he wins, this could be claimed as some sort of first.
Where Ms Clinton must carefully exploit her gender, Mr Trump must carefully exploit his political neophytism. If she overplays her hand she will alienate people who distrust gender as a political claim.
If he overplays his, he risks the charge that he lacks the necessary deportment to succeed in the political realm.
Hillary as a woman is an outsider. Hillary as a politician and politician’s wife is the consummate insider. Trump as a non-politician is an outsider. Trump the real estate magnate is a political insider (donating freely to campaigns irrespective of party). Their rhetoric is a study in ambiguity.
Each wants to have it both ways. Neither can pull it off. Disaffection for them grows.
Hillary will often posture on her gender – which has earned her the near tribal loyalty of college-educated women – but has a disquieting history of denigrating the female victims of her husband’s sexual conduct – which causes many other women to distrust her.
Trump is as anti-Hillary as it is possible to imagine, which earns him the applause of some conservatives. But by resorting to anti-intellectualism, he has also horrified many. Neither candidate has yet resolved the internal inconsistencies that define their political reception.
Because of its unorthodox candidates we rather assume this election is different. Is it?
This is an odd election year – even weird – but it is not a unique one. Rock and a hard place electoral choices were evident in 1848 when the Whigs (forerunners of the GOP) sealed their political demise by handing the nomination to the anti-politician Zachary Taylor.
Taylor, regarded as one of the worst presidents in the nation’s history, was the unenthusiastic choice of less than half the electorate in the ensuing general election.
In 1860, Americans had a choice between a man who would defend slavery and thereby dissolve the union and another who would assail it and thereby force others to dissolve it. They chose Abraham Lincoln to do the latter.
The stakes this year are not nearly so high.
Electing a woman as president for the first time would make history. But the real revolution was surely that of 2009 – when Barack Obama became the first black president.
The United States has a long history of gender inequality but it has a much longer and more violent history of racial conflict. Obama was inconceivable a generation ago, let alone two; Hillary was not. The election of women is becoming routine. Australia, Britain (twice), Chile, Germany, India, Israel, Liberia and Pakistan, among several others, have each delivered up female leaders.
Were Ms Clinton to win, the United States would join a trend rather than create one.
What kind of departure would a Trump presidency represent? In several respects, he signifies the expansion of identity politics to both sides of the ideological spectrum.
His appeal is to a white middle America at just the moment when the political leverage of that demographic has gone into eclipse. The average household income of his supporters is $72,000 (A$96,000).
Trump voters are not all poor but many are culturally dislocated. They want the promise of protection that Democrats routinely make to their constituents.
‘We will protect you’ has become a mantra for Democrats addressing non-whites; Trump has succeeded in making it the chant of his white-centric ‘movement.’ “If the GOP establishment speaks for the white rich and the Democrats for the ethnic poor, who speaks for us? I do,” says Trump. “I am your voice.”
When Left-wing politicians do this it is called ‘progressive,’ when Right-wing ones do so it is called ‘racist.’ Whatever label is put upon it, it has worked, so far, for Trump.
His victory would be pivotal – i.e. would frame the next several elections – not least because it would expose a white America larger and more politically engaged than many experts believe is the case.
Whites would again be in play. The GOP establishment and the Democrats would be obliged to address white alienation. Sneering at ‘rednecks,’ ‘white trash,’ and ‘trailer parks’ would become politically incorrect.
However, this great silent white majority exists more in Trump’s imagination than in electoral reality. Any Republican candidate faces a rising demographic wall that only the most politically skilful could scale.
Non-Hispanic whites now comprise 69 per cent of the US electorate, down from 78 percent in 2000. By 2060 it will be 44. About 6 out of 10 whites vote Republican but the growing racial diversity of the electorate cancels out this advantage.
In 1988, the Democrats nominated possibly their weakest candidate of the past 50 years and Michael Dukakis was beaten in landslide. If that election was rerun in November, he would become president. Gaining white support won’t matter unless the GOP can win over more non-whites too. Trump has shown no capacity or inclination to do this. His Republican successor will have to.
So 2016 might be pivotal as the last doomed attempt by the Republicans to pretend they could play at identity politics as well as their opponents. The party will either fracture even more and die – like the Whigs (remember them?) in the 1850s.
Or it will make itself relevant again by increasing its appeal to conservative non-whites – a group that both major parties manage to make feel unwelcome.
The perils of victory for the Democrats are oddly similar to those of defeat for the Republicans. Trouncing Trump will feed the illusion that identity politics offer a perpetual road to success at just the moment when Republicans realise they are not.
Timothy J. Lynch is Associate Professor in American Politics, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne. He is part of a four-part masterclass series in the Faculty of Arts assessing pivotal elections in US history.