Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are two different sides of the very same coin. Their success and appeal has surprised most of us. Neither may win their respective party’s nomination, but both have, albeit with very different messages, touched a similar nerve. Both are drawing big crowds; both have enthusiastic supporters. Both depart (Bernie less so) from what we have come to see as the political norm. It is in doing so that they strike a common cord — a wish for something different than the status quo, some direction other than the one in which we are heading. Perhaps most significantly, much of their early success derives from the weaknesses of other candidates in the field. For The Donald it is sixteen relatively undifferentiated wannabes, perhaps especially the lackluster assumed frontrunner Jeb Bush. For Bernie it is a growing unease with the presumptive nominee symbolized by her unconventional use of a private email in public office. It’s the real or perceived at-the-edge “Clinton way”, with potential unpleasant surprises still to come.
But focusing on weak or potentially flawed competitors would be to miss the import of the Sanders/Trump phenomenon. It is that they are both striking a palpable cord of discontent — two sides of the same coin. That should command our attention. For sure, these two men could not be more different in personality or in message.
The Vermont senator is an unabashed deep-rooted progressive. Like Trump his weapon is candor, but his seemingly unbending and longstanding convictions are authentic and never in doubt. His approach to politics has always been unorthodox tokened by his proudly wearing the badge of democratic Socialism. His many victories in Vermont have been built on a foundation of integrity and probably the courage to align with an ideology — even worse than the “L” word — that has long been dismissed, even derided, by the political mainstream. It has also been built, the present campaign shows, on much greater political skill than he was assumed to have.
The New York business tycoon/performer is a relentless self-promoter and, looking at his record, a man of flexible ideology. Conservatives point to his past support Democrats and progressive positions. Some will say this bespeaks an independent mind, but I’d hazard that it reflects more a deft salesman attuned to the particular market in which he happens to be playing at any one time. Real estate in New York may be very different than in Florida or around the world — different consumers, different sales pitch. In the current marketing context, Trump’s pitch is to a conservative primary electorate, especially to their discomfort with the present and assumed future — specifically with the rise of “the other”. For them, immigration is the hot button and symbolic issue.
Sanders’ message is rooted on income inequality and the extraordinary power of the business class. It’s a power that’s beyond rising. His natural message as a socialist, expressed or implied, is that capitalism as we know it has run amok. The American dream is slipping away in the wake of an increasingly two class system: the super rich and everyone else. It is a time when the idea of middleclass is just that: an idea. Even worse, it’s an idea that is becoming more myth that reality or even a possibility. Despite is age, Bernie is attracting many young people to his rallies. That is not surprising since they are the generation who, if things continue in their current path, are unlikely to achieve the dream’s promise of doing better than their parents. Beyond that, there is an air of disappointment that the hopes and dreams of 2008 failed to be achieved. History will judge whether blame lies with the president on whom those hopes were pinned or on the overwhelming system that made fulfilling them unrealistic in the first place. I think more, or at the very least equally, the latter.
Trump speaks to something that I have written about in earlier posts. His Republican audience — his 25% of potential primary voters — is largely white and skews older. They see the America in which they grew up and upon which they relied not merely slipping away but being overtaken by an alien usurper. The changing demographic to which political scientists point academically is their nightmare reality. In the past they were faced only with the challenge of a growing, but certainly not dominant, African American population. Now they must contend with the rise of Latino and Asian Americans who, together with Blacks, are headed for majority status. White supremacy in the sense of being the dominant population is fading. Add to that, the rise of LGBT rights, a group that has emerged from the “closet” commanding a proud place at the table. So suddenly a significant portion of the population are opening engaging and celebration what their religion had long taught was sinful. Marriage equality particularly represents and underscores the kind of change that they fear most. An African American — to some quarters an “N” — in the White House of all things has been driving them crazy for years.
Sanders is attracting crowds, but still hasn’t much of much following among “the others” who Trump’s people fear. He can’t win the Democratic nomination without them, and likely won’t. Trump is “riding high” in both media attention and in the polls, but the reality remains that 75% of potential Republican primary voters don’t buy his candidacy. By the way, while some believe that Trump is an media invention or kept alive by the media, I don’t buy it. He uses the media, but what has made him more than a momentary flash in the pan, is that he has touched the nerve discussed in this post. The convention is a year off. The freshness of his approach may not have that long a shelf life. Regardless, whoever the nominees — Democratic and Republican — will do well to consider the audiences of both men. More important, a future president who does not take their anxiety to account does so at her or his own peril. Capitalism out of balance is a tinderbox waiting to alight. It has the potential of making the current wide fires out west look like kids play. The fear of disenfranchisement is no fantasy. It’s real. The ramifications of demographic change, particularly what it means for immediate loss of influence or power may be overblown. But there will be consequences.
What may be most significant is that the fears and concerns that drive Democrats to Sanders and drive Republicans to Trump are shared by many Americans and indeed some of the specifics are even shared by the very different audiences that these men attract. Income inequality touches the vast majority of us. The loss of white dominance, the rise of a new immigrant class and the recognition that a significant percentage of us have different, and natural, sex drives suggests a societal change that will touch everyone. We are living at the beginning of a new social order. However each of us may perceive that new order, positively or negatively, it still represents change and the need for adjustment. We may be unnerved by Bernie or repulsed by Donald, but when it comes to what has made them possible, “attention must be paid”.