It is very difficult to find analysis of the American presidential race not premised on a false analogy between the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns. Seeking to make sense of the “populist phenomenon”, pundits, commentators and political analysts have almost unanimously landed on the “rejection” analysis: beaten down, disempowered Americans, cheated by the political establishment, are saying no. The problem with this simplistic analysis is it is complete bollocks.
There are of course more and less offensive renditions of the same formulation. One of the most bizarre depictions of Trump and Sanders as equivalent political nightmares was from Stephen Marche, reporting on his trip to Iowa to attend the Trump rally in Burlington and the Sanders rally in Davenport. For Marche, the Sanders’ rally was “the precise opposite of the Donald Trump rally” and “yet precisely the same in every detail”:
“The same spectre of angry white people haunts Sanders’s rally, the same sense of longing for a country that was, the country that has been taken away.”
This thesis is now ubiquitous: Americans are turning to Trump (steaming ahead towards the nomination) and Sanders (unable to secure enough votes on Super Tuesday), outsiders, radical voices on the fringes, extremists, promising to make America great again.
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The equivalence is neither new nor exclusively American. Since the GFC, it has been peddled in Europe as parties like Syriza and Golden Dawn are routinely presented as two sides of the same coin — both “anti-elite”, populist movements tapping into the resentment and fear of a disenfranchised polity. The analysis is now echoing across the Atlantic.
To make such a comparison requires a wilful ignorance of the political content of the two campaigns. The tone and language of the analysis is near-hysterical: centrist parties are being “hijacked” by radical extremists, and we must return to democracy. But why is the punditry so profoundly disturbed by what it claims to be a growing anti-democratic populism?
Trump and Sanders appear to threaten the deadlock of a post-political economic consensus that marginalises and silences many more people than its rhetoric of liberal tolerance might suggest. The success of both can, of course, be explained in part by voter disenchantment with a broken political promise and genuine economic fear. The problem of American exceptionalism — for Trump supporters, its decline, for Sanders’ supporters, its abject futility — also plays a role. Voters are now facing a new world in which America is losing its place as the all-powerful hegemon. It’s conceivable that Sanders shares Trump’s view that “the American dream is dead” — what political ideology gave it power in the first place, how it died and what will replace it is what separates them. In the face of economic and cultural decline, the two campaigns reflect two radically different responses.
That Sanders’ contemporary rendition of the New Deal is now characterised as a vision for revolutionary socialist transformation is perhaps a sign of how entrenched we are in the neoliberal economic consensus. Sanders, a self-professed democratic socialist, is not in fact calling for a radical restructuring of the American economic and political system: “‘When I talk about political revolution, what I’m talking about is how we create millions of decent-paying jobs, how we reduce youth unemployment, how we join the rest of the world, major countries, in having paid family and sick leave.”
To pay for his program, including the introduction of universal healthcare, Sanders looks to the big end of town: taxing all corporate profits safely stored offshore, taxing Wall Street speculators, lifting the cap on taxable income above $250,000, ending corporate welfare and closing tax loopholes. This form of redistributive justice is about making the system fairer, not upending it. The idea that the free market needs regulation, that workers should be ensured a living wage, that jobs can be created and communities improved through investment in infrastructure, schools and healthcare hardly seems radical. If you watch Sanders’ rallies there is, despite the recriminations levelled at corporate malfeasance, a palpable sense of optimism, explicable, in part, by the overwhelming numbers of young people in the crowd.
Trump’s rallies, by contrast, seem to be increasingly dark places. His repeated invocations to violence are met with enthusiastic applause. When Trump announced his candidacy in June last year he began with a promise to erect a 2000-mile wall to prevent Mexico “dumping” people “with lots of problems” on America: “They’re bringing drugs, They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” he declared, before sensibly adding, “and some, I assume, are good people.” His campaign has been underpinned by similar vitriolic and xenophobic rhetoric, including a call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. His nativist vision to rebuild the crumbling walls of Fortress America could not be further from Sanders’ desire to reach out to the rest of the world.
To refuse to discern the difference between right-wing demagoguery and what are, for the most part, movements for social democracy (advocating a progressive vision that includes the democratisation of economic and political institutions, labour rights, sustainable development and environmental protection) is to enter a very unsettling political reality.
Trump is feeding the baying crowds, lusting for an enemy, yearning for political violence and the reconstitution of a bellicose America. Trump is no fascist, as some have already observed, despite recent indications. He has offered no coherent remedy for the social illness and, despite declining American cultural and economic dominance, the historical circumstances that might make political fascism possible are absent. There are nevertheless echoes. It’s hard not to see parallels with Hannah Arendt’s characterisation of fascism as based on “the intoxication of destruction as an actual experience” and “the stupid dream of producing the void”. Trump’s rallies evoke fascism’s tribalism, its transcendental longing, its hatred of an indeterminate concept of the “elite” and its yearning for violent obliteration.
Of course, if Trump does make it to the White House, it is unlikely that his motley band of supporters will be goose-stepping along the streets of Washington D.C. Trump himself admits the demagoguery is a facade: “I play to people’s fantasies,” he wrote in his memoir. And more recently he has admitted he “would be a much different person” as president. It will be business as usual once Trump no longer needs to animate the dark fears and bitter resentment of supporters to get him over the line.
Those for whom Trump’s brand of right-wing populism is indistinguishable from Sanders’ social democratic vision are, in the end, the most dangerous extremists of all.