Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton - America faces a truly appalling choice
It is remarkable how a country that is so good at business, science, the arts and just about everything else, can be so bad at politics. There are now 318 million Americans, including many of the world's most creative and brilliant people: the US electorate ought by rights to be spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing its president.
Yet from this immense talent pool, the American political system has managed to narrow the race down to two supremely flawed human beings, neither of whom remotely deserves to be in the White House.
On the one hand we have Hillary Clinton, a scandal-ridden, uninspiring candidate whose left-wing policies would destroy what is left of US exceptionalism; on the other is Donald Trump, a demagogue who specialises in whipping up hate and threatening cataclysmic trade wars.
This depressing choice comes at the worst possible time for the US: the country is bitterly divided, faith in the American Dream and US constitution is receding, and many would like nothing better than to shut themselves off from the world. Meanwhile, the threat of terrorism remains as high as ever.
For the prosperous parts of the east and west coasts, all is great, at least for the middle-aged and for those with Ivy League degrees; but the rest of the population is in its worst funk since the Seventies, in desperate need of a strong, competent, reformist leader who will begin to fix its economy and restore its mojo.
There were problems when I first visited the US in the early Nineties, but nothing like today. It is no exaggeration to say that the very fabric of US democracy is being tested.
Thirty-five years ago, the saviour was Ronald Reagan, who announced that it was, once again, morning in America, and who liberated the economy; in 2016, tragically, the choice is between two dinosaurs seemingly intent on precipitating their country's own demise.
Neither George Bush nor Barack Obama tackled the real threat to the American way of life. For much of the post-war era, the average US worker used to enjoy a real-terms pay rise every year, and there were plenty of good, well-paying jobs even for those without much of an education. This is no longer true: wages for tens of millions of Americans have been under pressure for years. Surging healthcare, higher-education and housing costs have gobbled up what little productivity gains there have been for those workers.
The country needs a skills and educational revolution if it is to create well-paid jobs for the many, not just the few, as well as comprehensive tax and regulatory reform to unleash a new entrepreneurial revolution across the country, not just in Silicon Valley. This would require a unifying, visionary candidate of the sort that is tragically absent from the political scene.
For the moment, at least, the opinion polls are clear: Clinton would easily defeat Trump. The demographics are against him: it is almost impossible for a Republican to win without Hispanics, and he has angered them with his sickening rhetoric.
But it would be madness to underestimate Trump: with the Republican nomination in the bag, he has already started to moderate his language and recruit more high-level advisers.
Republican big-hitters will gradually endorse him, and he will doubtless jettison some of his most deranged and offensive policies, such as his obscene proposed ban on all Muslims travelling to the US. He will switch to wooing the centrist vote, doubtless with some success.
Trump's opportunity is that the modern Democratic Party, even more so than Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party in Britain, has been taken over by an elite class of highly educated professionals.
Such folk, who can afford to be left-wing, can barely camouflage their contempt for the American poor's suburban lifestyles, the fact that many still go to Church, their patriotism, the kinds of cars they drive, even the food they eat. This has pushed many into the Republicans' arms, and Trump hopes to grab even more such voters.
Yet because the Grand Old Party is rightly supportive of the free market and low taxes, chunks of the working class remained with the Democrats.
Trump, who is happy to say anything to get elected and has no problem bashing the capitalist system that made him rich, is not encumbered in the same way by principle. His protectionism, opposition to migration and contempt for supposedly faceless corporations mean that he is ideally positioned to scoop up even more disgruntled middle-class voters.
His foreign policy will also go down well with Middle America, including many blue-collar democrats. It will be a different kind of disengagement than the one pioneered by Obama, but the results will be the same.
Even if he were to abandon his planned trade war with China and the worst of his other ideas after winning office, the world's great crises would continue to fester dangerously under a Trump White House.
If a Hillary presidency were to be a rerun, in policy terms at least, of the last time she was in the White House, albeit as First Lady, many Republicans might actually decide that she would make an acceptable compromise. But in reality, she would be far worse than her husband ever was.
Partly because it was kept in check by Newt Gingrich's Republicans, Bill Clinton's administration represented the last hurrah of the centrist, pro-market Democrats. In a series of reforms that would be unthinkable under Hillary, Bill signed Nafta, cut spending, sought to balance the budget and introduced revolutionary welfare reforms.
Since then, the Democrats have veered to the left in a major way.
The party will nominate Hillary but its heart is with Bernie Sanders, the socialist firebrand. In any case, the only way that Hillary will be able to compete with Trump is by launching ever more extreme attacks on business and the wealthy. She could yet also be felled by her mounting legal troubles, which have the potential to spiral out of control.
I love America, a very special nation. But I'm glad I'm not a US citizen, and that I won't be asked to choose between these two appalling candidates on November 8. There will be no good outcome, so it is time for the world, as well as America itself, to begin preparing for four years of purgatory. (© Daily Telegraph London)