On 20 January 1993, I was in Washington DC to observe the inauguration of a new US president. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the outgoing president had left a note for the man who was about to move into the White House.
‘You will be our president when you read this note,’ it said. ‘I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.’
The man who wrote the note was the Republican President George H.W. Bush. The man to whom he wrote it was the Democrat Bill Clinton, who went on to serve eight years as president.
I am back in the US this week, watching with appalled fascination the closing stages of a presidential election campaign unlike any other in recent memory. On Wednesday night, I sat with friends watching the last of the TV debates between the two presidential candidates, as President Bush’s successor as the Republican party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, called Bill Clinton’s wife Hillary, his Democratic party opponent, ‘such a nasty woman’ .
We have come to expect over the course of the past few months extremes of vulgarity and mendacity from Mr Trump that have set new lows in campaign standards. Even so, you could hear millions of American jaws hit the floor as he refused on Wednesday to say that he would accept the result of the election. Yesterday, he refined his position somewhat – he will accept the result, he said, if he wins.
It is difficult to imagine a clearer challenge to the most basic of democratic principles: that the loser of an election concedes to a victor and accepts the verdict of the voters. But Mr Trump has revealed himself to have not a single democratic instinct in his body: like all narcissists, he cannot bring himself to accept that there are any circumstances in which he may not be automatically entitled to be granted whatever it is that he wants.
As I watched him on Wednesday, I realised who he reminded me of: a three-year-old who has been told that he cannot have the toy he wants to play with. And when he referred to the ‘bad hombres’ he said he would deport across the Mexican border, I heard the unmistakeable sound of the racist bigot Mr Trump has revealed himself to be.
All the opinion polls suggest that Mrs Clinton is on course to win a clear victory on 8 November. But we Brits have good reason to be wary of opinion polls: after all, they got the result of last year’s general election wrong, and the result of the EU referendum wrong.
But suppose that the American polls are right: for the first time in this country’s history, it would have a female president, a development every bit as significant as the election of its first black president eight years ago. It is a measure of Mr Trump’s malign presence on the electoral scene that her potential achievement warrants barely a mention.
It is all too easy for the transatlantic visitor to see parallels between the Trump and Brexit phenomena. Both are born out of a profound cultural and political chasm that divides progressives from conservatives and liberals from authoritarians. And both demonstrate a depth of anger among voters who feel that their views have been ignored that has gone unrecognised for far too long.
I would be appalled if Donald Trump were to win in less than three weeks’ time. But I do not regard Hillary Clinton’s likely victory with equanimity: I worry about the vehemence of her attacks on President Putin of Russia, and I worry too about her hawkish instincts when it comes to the maelstrom of conflicts in the Middle East.
For that reason, if for no other, I have taken solace in the sheer genius of a new online game that has developed since Wednesday’s TV debate. It has been all over Twitter, imagining how Trump might summarise, using the same language he used in the debate, some of the best-loved classics of English and America literature.
Macbeth: ‘Tremendous king. Made Scotland great again. But those witches. Came in from Syria. Nasty women. Europe is a mess.’
A Tale of Two Cities: ‘It was the best of times. The best! Was it the worst of times? WRONG! It was the best. I have hotels in those two cities.’
The Great Gatsby: ‘You're telling me that Gatsby is great? Wrong. Terrible driver. Weird parties. No, he's not great. Trust me folks.’
And if you think this is not the time for laughter, I would be tempted to agree. The alternative, on the other hand, doesn’t bear thinking about.