COMMENTARY: Rhetoric of Trump, Sanders rooted in populism

This may be an unpopular headline, but bear with me.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are the same kind of politician with similar endgames. I know, this is a very unpopular statement, but don't leave. This is important.

Both gentlemen are populists vying for the same demographic: the white working class. Both gentlemen brand themselves as outsiders and owe their success hitherto to the growing anti-establishment fervor of the American public. In reality, both gentlemen are career insiders, spending the entirety of one's career in various levels of government or spending the entirety of one's career buying the right politicians is a difference only in what one perceives to be worse.

Trump and Sanders believe that if they are given the power, they will make things right. Their legions of supporters clearly believe this to be the case, as exit polls in Iowa showed a significant portion of Trump supporters would consider Sanders if Trump doesn't make it to the general election. Both ride high on the tide of their cult of personality: Trump as the avenging right-wing populist to return prosperity to the white working class, and Sanders as the noble left-wing populist who will steal from the rich and give to the poor.

Please consider the following excerpts from their New Hampshire speeches:

"It's special interest money. This is on both sides — the Democrat side, the Republican side. Money just pouring into commercials. These are special interests, folks. These are lobbyists. These are people that don't necessarily love our country. They don't have the best interests of our country at heart."

"Together we have sent the message that will echo from Wall Street to Washington, from Maine to California ... And that is that the government of our great country belongs to all of the people and not just a handful of wealthy contributors and their super PACs."

The first quote is Trump, the second is Sanders. Is there a difference?

Also consider that Trump and Sanders have carbon copies of each other’s views on trade as their policy platforms. Both view trade as a zero-sum game that America is losing. Sanders describes trade with China as “catastrophic,” while Trump himself said the following:

The one thing we (Sanders and Trump) very much agree on is trade. We both agree that we are getting ripped off by China, by Japan, by Mexico, everyone we do business with."

While Trump has made his strict anti-illegal immigration policy his campaign’s cornerstone, Sanders too has historically opposed mass immigration because it drives down American wages: “Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don't believe in that ... Real immigration reform puts the needs of working people first — not wealthy globe-trotting donors.” Work for $2 or $3 an hour? Sounds like Trump’s playbook.

The rise of the gentlemen from New York is largely an un-democratic reaction to the abuses — both legitimate and perceived — of the political system by the party elites. Trump and Sanders never discuss the proper role of government, but simply that if they are president, they will do whatever it takes to make America into what constitutes their versions of “great.” And we should all be wary of the dark side that right and left-wing populism brings to the table — see Germany in the 1930s and the Soviet Union in the 1920s for more information.

Another similarity is they both see the world through singular prisms. Trump sees America’s relationship with the rest of the world as a zero-sum game of total domination, while Sanders sees global capitalism as the enemy of free society, and more social control in all aspects will defeat this evil. Facts that are counter to these broad views are decried by their legions of supporters as heresy. For example, one only has to go to Twitter to see the vitriol flung at Megyn Kelley for simply pointing out that Trump the businessman proves Trump the candidate wrong on certain issues.

If American political discourse was not already so polarized, perhaps Trump and Sanders would not be so divisive. It is thus that the Republican and Democratic parties have given birth to the strongman in American politics. Nothing gets done due to the party establishments, so we need someone to go in there and burn it down. It is a shame that it has come to this. As Lincoln said, the American democracy will not be destroyed by a foreign enemy — it will be suicide. If either of these undemocratic candidates are elected, we are one step further down that path.

Steven Wynen is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in history, political science and Middle Eastern studies.


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