The writer is a US-based author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Home Free: An American Road Trip, among other books.

I’m writing this in the wake of the Pakistani elections, and it looks as though Imran Khan will head a weak and/or unstable coalition government. As always in chronically hyper-politicized Pakistan, especially during political seasons, there has been much recrimination and gnashing of teeth on all sides, along with hope springing eternal for good governance and for the consolidation of civilian-led democracy.

I wish only the best for Pakistan and all its people. I love Pakistan so much that I wrote a whole fond and optimistic book titled Alive and Well in Pakistan, published in 2004. But one thing that has allowed me to maintain my fondness and optimism, ever since my first visit there in 1995, is that I’ve been able to compartmentalize the people of Pakistan and the country’s political life in, well, separate mental compartments. That’s an artificial and contradictory thing to do, of course, since a country’s political life is (ostensibly at least) all about its people, but I have found it helpful.

It is true that citizens must take responsibility for their country’s political life, in theory and, when necessary, in practice – sometimes in the messy and dangerous forms of mass demonstrations and even uprisings – but it’s also true that political establishments have their own institutional inertia and arrogance, whose effect is to alienate ordinary people from what we glibly dub “the political process.”

All of which is a roundabout way of getting around to saying that I’ve been watching Pakistani politics too long now to be very impressed by the predictable outraged protestations about vote-rigging and such, and the high-minded claims to the moral high ground, from either the Pakistan People’s Party or the Muslim League-Nawaz. The brazenly dynastic aspect of both parties’ leaderships is also discouraging and, frankly, depressing. How seriously are we really supposed to take all that hot air about the will of the people and the well-being of the common man, when apparently no one not named Sharif or Bhutto will ever be allowed to lead either party?

So far, so familiar to any Pakistani reader. But what does any of it have to do with America, which is where I live and what this column is supposed to be about? Only that Pakistan was where I learned some early and important things about how the world works, and the world works the same everywhere, including in America. It has taken my entire adult life for this truth to become glaringly obvious to all but the most stubbornly self-deluding Americans (though there remain a great many of those still out there, unfortunately), but at this point there is no denying that America is every bit as dysfunctional as Pakistan ever was.

Trump is a horrible human being, and a dangerous person to allow anywhere near the levers of power, but the sobering truth is that he has been able to cause so much damage and disruption only because the American body politic was in a severely weakened state before he ever came along. It got that way thanks to decades of mendacity and power hunger on the part of the Republican Party, from Richard Nixon through Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich to George W. Bush. It’s absolutely true, as Hillary Clinton claimed during her husband’s presidential tenure in the 1990s, that a “vast right-wing conspiracy” was determined to bring down Bill Clinton and destroy progressive politics in America.

But it’s unfortunately also true that Bill Clinton did a great deal of damage all by himself, with his sex scandals to be sure, but even more with his centrist triangulation and his intellectual and political brilliance wedded to moral squalor. Don’t get me started on all the damage Clinton did to Haiti, a small country I know well and love. Knowing what I know about Clinton’s policies and actions toward Haiti during his presidency, intellectual honesty compels me to extrapolate to subjects I know less about, and the unavoidable conclusion is that he was one of the worst presidents of the United States in my lifetime. And, as a Canadian friend in Bangkok memorably predicted at the time, “Clinton sets the stage for even worse presidents to follow.”

So Clinton – the Clintons plural, in truth – essentially took over the Democratic Party as their personal fiefdom and handed it off to Al Gore in 2000, who fumbled at the goal line, to use an apt metaphor from American football. The Republicans stole that election by way of a blatantly politicized Supreme Court decision, thus inflicting eight long and immensely damaging years of Bush and Cheney on America and the world. Then Obama came along, and he was suave and convincing to many of us, and he was black, which is indeed historic, but in truth he was a lightweight and will be remembered not as someone who did or represented anything fresh or new, but as the last of the American old guard. The best thing Obama did was keep the lid on for eight years. But then, in 2016, the lid blew.

Hillary Clinton that year was not only a bad candidate; she was a dynastic candidate, which is worse than being merely bad. In 2016 America needed something fresh or at least different, a candidate who would expose and challenge the rot deep within all institutions of the political establishment. What it got, to state the obvious, was Donald Trump: personified proof that a country gets the leaders that it deserves.

I’m not comparing Imran Khan to Donald Trump. I think Imran is genuinely patriotic, and at least sporadically principled and intelligent. He might end up serving Pakistan well in the leadership role he’s coveted for decades. But perhaps the truest thing about his victory is that it exposes the moral and political bankruptcy of both of Pakistan’s longstanding mainstream parties, just as Trump’s victory exposed the rot here in America. •