“I can’t bring myself to stay up for the debate tonight,” one UK Labour Party insider announced at the bar at the party’s annual conference in Liverpool a few hours before the first Trump-Clinton face-off. “It’s on too late and it’s just too depressing”.
It was a fair point. There are two deeply intertwined reasons why the rest of the world might be paying slightly less blow-by-blow attention to this year’s campaign. First, while it is unquestionably important, since the rise of Donald Trump it has also been seen as just too alarming to really think about. And secondly, many other countries in the world are in the middle of their own political crises and have more than enough at home to worry about.
Britain, of course, remains up to its neck in political disputes and confusions over Brexit, with the opposition Labour Party having its own fratricidal civil war for good measure. Elections are looming next year in France and Germany, with incumbent politicians facing mounting opposition from the far right. Italy, Brazil, Greece and a multitude of other states have their own crises. In many cases, when they look at the U.S. election their views are heavily colored by what is happening at home.
In the UK, for example, it’s increasingly common to encounter people who expect Donald Trump to win. That view, however, is often much more the result of what has happened in Britain over Brexit than any fundamental understanding of the U.S. political ecosystem.
Perhaps even more than in the United States, therefore, regardless of who wins, 2016 will still be seen as very much the “Donald Trump election”. Hillary Clinton might be one of the best-known people on the planet, but she still feels much more a side character – even if the overarching international consensus remains that she will win. As in America, it’s the “Donald” who is consuming the oxygen and driving the agenda.
That perception will not necessarily have been shaken by Monday night’s debate, in which the Republican candidate repeatedly tried to talk over his Democratic rival and where his views – and indeed, his frequently awkward relationship with facts and reality – dominated the discussion much more than hers.
Most mainstream U.S. media outlets have judged Clinton by far the winner of Monday’s debate. Those overseas may be rather more skeptical – the UK referendum, after all, demonstrated just how wrong political and media pundits could be.
For many countries in Europe in particular, the forces that have driven the rise of Trump – particularly an increasing white backlash against globalization, migration and a perceived metropolitan elite – are also on the rise, and becoming dramatically more powerful. So are rabble rousing politicians committed to smashing the status quo. For many of those in authority, such views seem totally unreasonable, completely beyond the pale. And yet growing proportions of the electorate, they fear, are being inexorably drawn to them.
A Clinton victory – or perhaps more accurately, a Trump defeat – would dent that narrative – as would a significant pushback against the far right in 2017 French and German elections. But it certainly wouldn’t derail it entirely, not least because if Trump does lose, it will be seen as heavily self-inflicted.
In some respects, though, Clinton represents very much an old order of leaders that has almost entirely been swept from most countries – a throwback to the era of Tony Blair. Few figures from the early 2000s survive in European politics, let alone the 1990s.
The rest of the world does, at least, feel it knows Hillary Clinton, even if it doesn’t particularly like her. If she wins, it would be a rare victory for the status quo in an era in which long-held political assumptions are being increasingly overturned. Other global leaders are, in many cases, already used to dealing with her. Their populations are relatively used to seeing her, they are deeply familiar with her broader style and the likely approach the United States would take to the world.
For all the focus on Trump, on the other hand, remarkably little serious thought seems to have been given to how the world might handle relations with him if he does move into the White House. Many other governments and world leaders – including those of Britain and Israel, America’s closest allies – have already gone on record heavily criticizing many of his positions. In many countries, the idea of a “special relationship” with a Trump-run Washington is frankly a political anathema.
The rest of the world would clearly deal with a Trump-run America rather differently, but then a Trump White House would also take a different approach to the rest of the world. Central and Eastern European countries are already feeling nervous about that, worrying that Trump’s less than enthusiastic position on NATO commitments may be a sign of a wider and potentially long-running shift in the United States that could continue to grow regardless of what happens in November.
In some ways, the global shock that might yet follow a Trump victory could bear a striking resemblance to that which came after Brexit. Intellectually, outside observers had always known that such an outcome was possible, indeed perhaps becoming increasingly likely. Until it actually happened, however, they neither truly believed it nor were able to rationalize with it.
The shadows of that misjudgment now inevitably color views of what is happening in the United States. As we get closer to November, there seems little doubt that attention will heighten more with each passing week. And as long as the polls remain as close as they do now, there may well also be a mounting sense of unease.