A vote for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, the Clinton campaign has suggested in broad ways and subtle ones, isn’t just a vote for a Democrat over a Republican: It’s a vote for safety over risk, steady competence over boastful recklessness, psychological stability in the White House over ungovernable passions.
This theme has been a winning one for Clinton, and for good reason. The perils of a Trump presidency are as distinctive as the candidate himself, and a vote for Trump makes a long list of worst cases — the Western alliance system’s unraveling, a cycle of domestic radicalization, an accidental economic meltdown, a civilian-military crisis — more likely than with any normal administration.
Indeed, Trump and his supporters almost admit as much. “We’ve tried sane, now let’s try crazy,” is basically his campaign’s working motto. The promise to be a bull in a china shop is part of his demagogue’s appeal. Some of his more eloquent supporters have analogized a vote for Trump to storming the cockpit of a hijacked plane, with the likelihood of a plane crash entirely factored in.
But passing on the plane-crash candidate doesn’t mean ignoring the dangers of his rival.
The dangers of a Clinton presidency are more familiar than Trump’s authoritarian unknowns, because we live with them in our politics already. They’re the dangers of elite groupthink, of Beltway power worship, of a cult of presidential action in the service of dubious ideals. They’re the dangers of a recklessness and radicalism that doesn’t recognize itself as either, because it’s convinced that if an idea is mainstream and commonplace among the great and good then it cannot possibly be folly.
Almost every crisis that has come upon the West in the last 15 years has its roots in this establishmentarian type of folly. The Iraq War, which liberals prefer to remember as a conflict conjured by a neoconservative cabal, was actually the work of a bipartisan interventionist consensus, pushed hard by George W. Bush, but embraced as well by a large slice of center-left opinion that included Tony Blair and more than half of Senate Democrats.
Likewise the financial crisis: Whether you blame financial-services deregulation or happy-go-lucky housing policy (or both), the policies that helped inflate and pop the bubble were embraced by both wings of the political establishment. Likewise with the euro, the European common currency, a terrible idea that only cranks and Little Englanders dared oppose until the Great Recession exposed it as a potentially economy-sinking folly.
This record of elite folly is a big part of why the United States has a “let’s try crazy” candidate in this election, and why there are so many Trumpian parties thriving on European soil.
One can look at Trump himself and see too much danger of still-deeper disaster, too much temperamental risk and moral turpitude, to be an acceptable alternative to this blunder-ridden status quo ... while also looking at Clinton and seeing a woman whose record embodies the tendencies that gave rise to Trumpism in the first place.
Indeed what is distinctive about Clinton is how few examples there are of her ever breaking with the elite consensus on matters of statecraft. She was for the Iraq War when everyone was for it, against the surge when everyone had given up on Iraq, and then an unchastened liberal hawk again in Libya just a few short years later.
She was a Russia dove when the media mocked Mitt Romney for being a Russia hawk; now she’s a Russia hawk along with everyone else in Washington in a moment that might require de-escalation.
The good news is that she is not a utopian; she is — or has become, across a long and grinding career — temperamentally pragmatic, self-consciously hardheaded. So she is unlikely to do anything that the cosmopolitan capitals of Europe and America would consider obviously radical or dangerous or dumb.
But in those cases where the cosmopolitan position isn’t necessarily reasonable or safe, in those instances where the Western elite can go half-mad without realizing it, Clinton shows every sign of being just as ready to march into folly as her peers.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times.
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