Inquirer editorial: Clinton-Trump contest pits insider vs. outsider

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Donald Trump speaks to the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference at a campaign event in Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S. July 26, 2016.

America's political establishment has endured, in one form or another, an antiestablishment season. One party weathered an insurgency; the other succumbed to a takeover.

The latter left the Republican Party not quite recognizable. Black flight from the GOP dates to the civil rights era and the New Deal, but it appears to be culminating under Donald Trump, who drew an eye-widening zero percent among African Americans in one recent Pennsylvania poll. Less than 1 percent of delegates to the party of Lincoln's convention were black.

The Cleveland gathering also marked the GOP's distance from a nearer forefather, Ronald Reagan. "Whatever else history may say about me when I'm gone," Reagan said in 1989, "I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears." By contrast, Trump vowed "to liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities."

Last week's Democratic convention strove to underscore the new Grand Old Party's apocalyptic turn by seizing the city-on-a-hill high ground - at least when it wasn't dwelling on Trump's chances of ushering in the end times he prophesied. Noting that Trump had taken his party from Reagan's morning to "midnight in America," Hillary Clinton asserted that "America is great because America is good." President Obama told the Philadelphia gathering that Americans "don't fear the future; we shape it, embrace it as one people, stronger together than we are on our own." As a riposte to Trump's enthusiasm for exclusion, the "love trumps hate" Democrats offered a politics of inclusion, expressed most powerfully by the Constitution-brandishing Muslim American father of a fallen Army officer.

At the same time, Democrats downplayed their drift from their roots in favor of free trade, entitlement reform, and interventionism, of which the nominee's husband was an architect. Despite efforts to remind the faithful of her liberal roots, Hillary Clinton also embodies the shift, from her support for military action in Iraq and Libya to her corporate speaking fees and tortured Trans-Pacific Partnership position. That's what gave Bernie Sanders his opening, which the convention struggled to close over the antiwar, anti-trade chants of his stalwarts.

Elite consensus on trade and war also enables Trump, whose anti-immigrant fervor springs partly from the same popular economic angst as his protectionism. He further claims, without evidence, long-standing opposition to the Iraq invasion. Regardless of his agenda's authenticity or logic, Trump's strength is that he is a bona fide stranger to the political establishment, incapable of conforming to its conventions even when he tries. Sanders' exit makes Trump the last outsider in an outsider's year.

Clinton, a consummate insider who strikes much of the public as such, is forced to hope that a majority of Americans are either reasonably satisfied with the status quo she represents or too frightened by Trump to consider him a viable vessel for their dissatisfaction. Trump, meanwhile, must rely on disaffection deep and broad enough to overcome his shortage of experience and coherence.

Since they haven't yet, these two thoroughly familiar nominees seem unlikely to surprise anyone. But their contest could depend on not only the popular will for change but also the candidates' capacity to change. A more credible Trump would be difficult to defeat, if hard to imagine. So would a less calculated Clinton.