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Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

Margaret Wente

Why is the U.S. election so close? Add to ...

This election should have been a blowout. Instead, Donald Trump has a non-trivial chance of winning – roughly the same chance the Chicago Cubs had of winning the World Series when they were behind three games to one. Despite all the wounds he has inflicted on himself, Americans may be about to elect a rogue president – a know-nothing blowhard who doesn’t care about the rule of law or our NATO allies, and generally wants to smash things up.

Why is it so close? Perhaps 45 per cent of the voters have been invaded by a malignant brain-eating virus. Or perhaps there are other explanations.

One popular theory for Mr. Trump’s rise is that he has summoned forth all the basest instincts in America, which are astonishingly widespread. His people are the rednecks, the racists and the rubes who resent losing their place in the pecking order. “A lot more Americans than we’d like to imagine are white nationalists at heart,” Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times. Another explanation is sexism and double standards. Too many people simply can’t endure the idea of a female president.

There’s some truth to this, but not enough. Americans elected a black president – twice. If Barack Obama were running again, he’d win in a heartbeat. He’s wildly more popular than either of the candidates. As for sexism, I am sure it endures – but it is a relatively minor factor, as racism was for Mr. Obama.

More important: The appetite for change is much greater than we thought. I’m not convinced that the source of people’s discontent is mainly economic.

Unemployment is low. Ford-150 sales are strong. The trouble is the perceived failure of the elites to run the country competently. As Trump supporter and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel put it last week, two political dynasties created a stock market bubble, a housing bubble, a recession, a series of ruinous foreign wars, a flight of manufacturing jobs and a mountain of student debt. Bernie Sanders made exactly the same points. People are rightly angry at a political system that’s corrupted by big money on both sides. What’s to like?

If only Mr. Trump had stayed on message – i.e., if only he’d been someone else – this race wouldn’t be close. As The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza pointed out, he nailed it perfectly the other day, “I am not a politician,” he told a crowd in Pennsylvania. “My only special interest is you, the American people. The guiding rule of the political class in Washington, D.C., is that they are looking out only for themselves. They will say anything, and do anything, to cling to their power and prestige at your expense. I’m running to change and reverse decades of failure, and to work with the American people to create generations of success.”

But he couldn’t stay on message. Instead, he ran the worst campaign in history. He was enabled and abetted by the entire Republican establishment, which didn’t take him seriously at first, then acted paralyzed. Their failure was moral as well as strategic. They stood by as the alt-right seized the airwaves and flooded the nation with its crazy conspiracy theories and venom. Sean Hannity and Breitbart and Rush Limbaugh hijacked the party long ago. It will be a long road back.

The right-wing media have been demonizing Hillary Clinton for 25 years. They’ve done a lot of damage. A not-insubstantial minority of Americans think she’s capable of murder and probably did it. A wider group (not excluding Democrats) believe that at the very least she’s sleazy and dishonest. The unanimous endorsement of her candidacy by the entire Old Media class hasn’t changed their minds.

Ms. Clinton represents continuity when people are desperate for change. She’s a technocrat when people want a visionary. She believes in incrementalism, with ’90s solutions to 21st-century problems.

The predominant tone of this campaign is visceral disgust. Half the voters on each side are voting with no real enthusiasm. They’re voting because they truly believe the other candidate will be ruinous to the republic.

For many voters, the constant barrage of scandal, outrage and e-mail investigations has become a blur. They see an equivalency of sins. They are unable to distinguish between a demagogue with an ungovernable temperament – one who poses a serious threat to the Constitution – and someone who, despite being investigated by the FBI, is likely to uphold it. They can’t bring themselves to vote for a candidate they loathe, even though it’s the right thing to do. Those people bear the blame, too.

No wonder we’re horrified by this election. It shows that American liberal democracy is more fragile than we thought.

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