The US mood (Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt))

As fate would have it, I have often had the opportunity to observe US presidential elections first-hand, either when the process first begins with the Republican and Democratic nominations, or as the race heats up and one of the contestants makes it first over the finish line and into the Oval Office.

This time, when I arrived in Washington for the autumn academic term, I found the political climate dominated by two topics: the nuclear agreement with Iran and the next presidential elections. Of course, there were other hot subjects. Not least was former secretary of state and former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s emails. But somehow this became part of the larger political struggle.

To be frank, my predictions have not always proved true in previous presidential election rounds. Ultimately, the source of the error was that I had not properly assessed the American mood at the time.

A national mood is a complicated political phenomenon. It relates to the collective mentality of a people and the point it has reached between the poles of preservation of the status quo and demand for radical change.

American politics, as I have experienced it, is like a pendulum, always swinging between left and right and never resting at either point for very long. Perhaps this election will prove little different from previous ones.

The first presidential elections I watched was the 1980 contest between incumbent Jimmy Carter and his unconventional challenger, Ronald Reagan. Carter epitomised the change in the American mood following the Vietnam War, the Nixon administration’s Watergate scandal and the latent weakness of Gerald Ford.

Ford had moved into the presidency simply because he happened to be vice president at the time of Nixon’s resignation. The American people had not chosen Ford as vice president and in the 1976 polls they were not inclined to make him president.

When Carter ran for a second term in office, he entered the race with a major feather in his cap: the success with the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations. His challenger, by contrast, was inexperienced. Reagan may have been qualified for the governorship of California, but not for the leadership of the US.

I also believed that Carter had the advantage of being the incumbent, as incumbents were hard to remove after their first term. But when I put the question to my students at Northern Illinois University, I was in for a surprise: the majority of them were solidly in support of Reagan. The American mood had changed. It had overcome the Vietnam War and was now looking for a strong president. Reagan won.

A similar situation occurred after George Bush Sr’s first term. In general, he had been Reagan’s partner in all Washington’s victories that culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, he was at the helm at the time of the victory in the war to liberate Kuwait. Bill Clinton, in my opinion, was not convincing.

He came from a state that carried little weight, had a handful of sex scandals, little experience and no military experience at all. I was certain Bush would win. But the US mood had changed again. It was looking for a younger man who represented the new age. Clinton won.

Then, despite some fresh scandals, he achieved an economic boom for the US unparalleled by any president before or after him. Moreover, in terms of geopolitical strategy, he expanded US influence in the world and intervened militarily in the Balkans without losing a single US soldier.

At the end of his term, it looked like his buddy, political companion and vice president, Al Gore, would win the 2000 presidential elections against George Bush Jr. Or so I thought. In fact, Gore did win the popular vote. Unfortunately, that is not what ultimately determines the outcome of presidential polls.

Rather, it is the votes of the states or the Electoral College vote and this came out in favour of Bush. Still, his victory signalled another change in the American mood. Americans were no longer interested in Clinton’s liberalism. They wanted a conservative from Texas who would not hesitate to use military force, which is exactly what he did at the first opportunity, launching two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I was not in the US at the end of Bush’s first term, but I was fortunate enough to be there at the end of his second term. This time, I observed that the US mood had changed due to the total failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and to the global economic crisis.

Americans were also prepared to accept not just an African American as president, but also someone who, in the American ideological spectrum, stood to the left of the liberals in the Democratic Party. The youthful Obama beat the elderly McCain in 2008 and had little difficulty in beating Romney in 2012. However, the political winds were shifting again and the Republicans secured a majority in both houses of Congress.

Today, it looks like the mood will be the decisive factor again. Up to the moment I arrived in the US it seemed that it favoured Hillary Clinton. She has little opposition from within the Democratic Party and she has her personal record of success to which can be added the record of the Obama administration. The latter has much to say for itself.

Under Obama, US forces left Iraq and Afghanistan. More importantly, his administration steered the US out of the economic and financial crisis. Also, in spite of all the troubles in the world, whether in the Middle East or in the South China Sea, US soldiers are not returning to the US in coffins.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are very divided. Their candidates are innumerable, whoever emerges at the end will be politically drained and out of pocket, and most likely the supporters of the rival nominees will prefer to sit out the polls.

But things are never as simple as they appear in US electoral campaigns. Suddenly, Donald Trump raced ahead in opinion polls, nearing Hillary Clinton’s ratings. According to the latest poll, if the elections were held now, Clinton would win 43 per cent of the vote and Trump 42 per cent.

The percentage point difference falls well within the margin of error for a poll of this sort. Trump has charisma and a lot of money and a certain crassness that appeals to some segments of US conservatives.

In addition, he has wasted no time in drawing up an ultraconservative electoral platform that, most importantly, stands against everything that Obama and the Clintons (both Bill and Hillary) stand for. Is this a manifestation of a new change in the American mood: a swing from ultraliberal to ultraconservative?

Naturally, it is still premature to draw conclusions from this in terms of its repercussions in the US or the rest of the world, and the Middle East in particular. What concerns us here is what it means with respect to US elections.

Trump is not new to political controversy in the US. In addition to his huge financial empire (worth some $10 billion), he has left his mark on the media industry and he is very adept at playing on American heartstrings and anxieties.

He is a nervous, vulgar version of Reagan in the 1980s. In contrast to him, Obama/Hillary are like a past that will soon be consigned to history. In the US, unlike in the Middle East, the eras change as quickly as the seasons.

One is reminded of Karl Marx’s observation in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte all great personages in history appear twice: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.