Clifford Orwin is professor of political science and senior fellow of Massey College at the University of Toronto.
As Silly Season continues south of the border, Hillary Rodham Clinton wilts while Donald Trump soars. These two outcomes are related.
Mr. Trump is the anti-Clinton. That's how he must position himself to persuade Republican primary voters and (if successful there) the broader voting public. He must show that he's got what she lacks. That's both an opportunity and a challenge, given that she lacks so much.
So much could be said about Ms. Clinton's campaign, little of it good. First, she is a terminally boring candidate, without ideas, without vivacity, without a sense of humour. A single arresting idea (or even some bad but provocative ones, such as Mr. Trump throws about with such abandon) would have enabled her to dominate the discourse about this election. She has offered nothing. Add her conspicuous lack of rhetorical skill – she doesn't even generate good sound bites – and you'll grasp why her campaign has garnered so little sympathetic coverage.
Journalists, for all their antipathy to the Republicans, snipe at her negatives (above all the colossal stupidity of her use while secretary of state of a private e-mail server) rather than helping her get out her message. And so, she cuts a bizarre figure: that of an entitled nonentity – feared, wealthy, inevitable, everybody's Madam President-to-be, but utterly grey and flat. (Yes, Barack Obama was being ironic back in 2008 when he reassured her that she was "likeable enough.")
Lastly (and here again in sharp contrast with Mr. Trump), Ms. Clinton is the candidate of the status quo squared. She is mixed up with Wall Street on the one hand, and with a lame duck (indeed dying swan) administration on the other. There must be few voters who can't find lots to dislike in one (or even both) of these. As a working man, I would be offended by her ludicrous corporate speaking honorariums. (As a professor, I'm merely envious of them.) That Mr. Obama's foreign policy has been particularly disastrous can't help his former secretary of state. She can avoid her complicity neither in America's plutocracy nor in its decline into impotence.
It is this decline, as well as Mr. Trump's outsider status, that have proved the keys to his success. Decline and greyness make good bedfellows: they share a common dispiritedness. Ms. Clinton is incapable of inspiring; Mr. Trump surprisingly capable of so doing. I'll admit that his success has astonished me as much as any other pundit. The man is a clown, isn't he? Yes, but a colourful one, and a clown who preaches resolute action.
Outsidership is important for reasons now well established in American politics. There is a churning, restless dissatisfaction with elites, whether economic or political. Mr. Obama was supposed to cure this, but hasn't. Every politician seeks to mobilize this current – for want of a better word, call it populism – but some do it better than others. Ms. Clinton does it badly (being so besmirched with the mire herself); the boisterous Mr. Trump does it well.
She is the coddled flunky of Goldman Sachs; he made his bundle in the cowboy world of real-estate speculation and casino gambling. He attracts lawsuits by the bushel (even in Toronto with his much-sued Trump Tower). He is to business what an MMA fighter is to sports. And then there was his reality TV show. Americans love such stuff.
Then there is the question of decline, pervasive in America today. Despite or because of his blustering, Mr. Trump offers voters reasons to hope. He does better at channelling the vanished optimism of the nineties than Ms. Clinton, its anointed heiress.
True, the policies for which Mr. Trump has made himself notorious are foolish, and would fail miserably if implemented. Several appeal to what's worst in Americans. But so what? He preaches grand if vague ambition ("Make America Great Again") and decisive action to achieve that ambition. He reassures voters that their country (and the world) have not spun out of their control, that they are still masters of their fate, that the country is stumbling only because its leaders have been Lilliputian. In this sense (which is the crucial one today) he has proved more successful at impersonating "traditional American values" than any of his Republican rivals. He's the crude second coming of Teddy Roosevelt. There's no telling where it will end.