The outcome of the U.S. presidential primaries was supposed to be Hillary Clinton, the wife of an ex-president, vs. Jeb Bush, the son and brother of other ex-presidents: both worthy but somewhat boring candidates, and both definitely members of the "establishment." Less than a week before the first primary, the Iowa caucuses, Bush is dead in the water and even Clinton is looking vulnerable.
In Bush's place as the Republican front-runner is Donald Trump, billionaire property developer, TV reality star and demagogue, who told a campaign rally last Saturday "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters." His arrogance is not misplaced: to the despair of the Republican Party's hierarchy, he probably has the party's presidential nomination locked up.
Three months ago, Democrats thought this would virtually guarantee Hillary Clinton's election, as a majority of Americans would refuse to vote for such a crude clown. That was probably correct, but it's irrelevant if Clinton doesn't get the Democratic nomination. Ominously, her "socialist" rival, Bernie Sanders, is neck-and-neck with her in Iowa and clearly ahead in the next primary, in New Hampshire.
Sanders is not really a socialist — 50 years ago he would have been an unremarkable figure on the left wing of the Democratic Party — but in any case "socialist" is no longer a curse-word in the United States. When pollster Frank Luntz asked "Would you be willing to vote for a socialist?" last June, nearly 60 per cent of the Democrats surveyed said yes — and an astonishing 29 per cent of the Republicans.
Both the major parties are facing a mutiny among their traditional supporters this year. A presidential race between Donald Trump and Bernie Saunders (the Tea Party vs. Occupy Wall Street) is entirely possible. But both Trump and Saunders are too radical for at least a third of American voters. That would leave the middle ground of American politics unoccupied.
Enter Michael Bloomberg, another billionaire, who started out as a Democrat, became a Republican to run for mayor of New York City in 2001, and now calls himself an independent. He won't run if Hillary Clinton still seems likely to win the Democratic nomination — but if Sanders is pulling ahead, he probably will.
In a three-way race featuring Trump, Sanders and himself, Bloomberg would be the one "moderate" candidate, and he might even win. The probability that all this will come to pass is still well below 50-50, but the fact that it exists at all shows just how far American politics has departed from the usual track. Why?
The rise of Trump is mainly due to the fact that gerrymandering has turned 90 per cent of the seats in the House of Representatives into safe seats for one party or the other: win the nomination, and the seat is guaranteed. So would-be Republican candidates have to appeal to the party's strongest supporters, white working-class people without a college education, not to voters in general.
A lot of these Republican stalwarts are very, very angry. Their incomes are stagnant or falling, and as demography change gradually turns the United States into a country where the minorities are a majority, they feel that they are being marginalized and forgotten. They want their candidate to be angry too, and Donald Trump intuitively understands this and plays to it.
Paradoxically, Sanders appeals to some of the same people, because he also represents a radical break with business as usual. Anecdotal evidence suggests that for many people whose first choice is Trump, their second choice is Sanders. But most of Sanders's support comes from people who are not so much angry as despairing.
In the new documentary Dream On, comedian John Fugelsang sums up what has driven them farther left than they ever imagined they would go. "America has become a reality show," he said. "Food, Medicine, Rent: Pick two." Median U.S. household income in constant dollars is still $4,000 a year lower than it was in 2000, and the "American Dream" is dying if not dead.
So it's a horserace that anybody could win, unless Hillary Clinton gets the Democratic nomination, in which case she would be the odds-on favourite to win. She even promised last Sunday to "relieve" Michael Bloomberg of the obligation to run by winning the nomination herself.
But if she does win, of course, nothing will really change, including an unreformed financial system that is setting us all up for a rerun of the 2008 crash.Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.