Different sides, same coin
On Your Right
What do Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have in common?
The question might seem a little odd — these two don’t move in similar circles; their home planets might not even be the same. Their versions of reality couldn’t be more different. Yet, both are expressions of one of the oldest chestnuts in the practice of American-style politics: Populism.
Both exploit a sense of grievance and alienation.
Sanders continues Barack Obama’s meme of class warfare, positing an America divided between good, honest, hardworking shmoes who are oppressed by the money men of Wall Street — a division at least as old as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton’s dispute over the first Bank of the United States.
Trump’s division is at least as old — that between good, honest, hardworking shmoes and the upper class of power brokers who rule their every move. Ask James Madison or John Adams about “professional politicians,” and one might get an answer much like The Donald’s.
To a degree, both men are anti-politician and anti-Washington: A good trick, since Mr. Sanders has served the better part of his working life in Washington, and Mr. Trump has showered money on powerful members of the political class to buy influence. At least he’s not claiming to be both a non-politician friend of the little guy and poor. That would provoke even more hysterical laughter than it does when Hillary Clinton says it.
The power of Populism is obvious: In several recent polls, Bernie Sanders is giving the Democrats’ heir apparent a run for her money similar to what Eugene McCarthy did to LBJ in 1968. His economic nostrums are old, proven failures — boiled down, he proposes to take all the money from those who make it and give it to those who don’t — but they are popular because they have the scent of reform even as they drift more and more toward formalism and totalitarian confiscation. Mr. Sanders proposes a prohibitive tax on all fossil fuels — go green even at the cost of destroying the national economy. It’s “for the good of the planet.” The “owners” — those who invest in evil fossil fuels — will be the only ones hurt in the world according to Bernie, save for anyone holding energy company positions in their 401Ks. Which, if not everyone, is close. He also demands the government set a $15-per-hour minimum wage, airily dismissing the question “What happens to the worker who cannot produce $15 in added value an hour?”
Mr. Trump plays the nativist card in his populism. Agreeing with some of his open-border opponents that nuance is for sissies, he regularly goes wild on immigration, claiming conspiracies by the Mexican government and collusion by Washington. This is a disservice to the policy changes he claims to support since any productive discussion of the topic has to move forward from the “shoot ‘em all and throw ‘em back across” fire-eating statements that have fueled controversy over his candidacy to date.
In his favor, Mr. Trump is one of the most entertaining Populists in the past eighty or so years; maybe not since Huey Long has there been such a character. Certainly not Ross Perot, who was far too buttoned-down and not the various Democrat faction candidates such as Strom Thurmond or Robert Byrd, who smelled too much of brimstone and bedsheets to be the slightest bit funny.
These two men, whose appeal is mostly to the further reaches of their respective parties, will pull other candidates to extremes; the polarization regularly decried by our chattering classes is likely to get worse.
So, why are they doing so well?
The answer is simple: Give the people what they want, and they will beat a path to one’s door. For many election cycles, we have been subjected to candidates who swear up and down they will go to Washington to “set things right.” Whatever the wrong, they are the cure. But, when elected, a curious torpor begins. It is usually diagnosed as “Potomac fever”: The victim quickly forgets the campaign and accommodates to the Washington power equations, seeking re-election and permanent office-holding instead of fulfilling promises. The electorate feels betrayed and seeks another who is not a pastel shade of his or her opponent. The process of vetting, and betrayal begins again.
This is the secret of the success of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump: They have tapped into a profound sense of alienation and betrayal on both ends of the political spectrum. And, unless politicians of both major parties come to understand that it is themselves — and the back-slapping, favor-trading, one-hand-washing-the-other system they have created — who are really being put to a vote in this primary season, the success and long life of our current politics cannot be guaranteed.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News.
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