Donald Trump is rocking. Polls show him consolidating his lead over Republican presidential rivals and closing in hypothetical run-offs with Hillary Clinton. He crows about crowds bigger and more raucous than his rivals can draw. He dominates the news in the dog days of August. When Trump released a racist, fantastical immigration posture, his rival scrambled to embrace one or more of its noxious elements – the wall, the armed border, the stripping of birthright citizenship.
The Republican conservative establishment, sensibly concerned that Trump’s excesses will besmirch their “brand,” is weighing in against him. After the ambush by Fox News in the first debate failed, conservative pundits lined up to read him out of the party. George Will dubbed him an “interloper” who should be “excommunicated” from future debates. Charles Krauthammer scorned his “barstool eruptions.” Former Bush speech writer, Michael Gerson urges “establishment Republicans” to dismiss him as “beyond the boundaries of serious and civil discourse.” Commentary’s Peter Wehner scorned him as “populist” not a conservative.
The latter theme has taken hold. Trump is painted as the right’s equivalent of Bernie Sanders, each leading an insurgent movement against party establishments. Forget their glaring contrasts: Sanders calls for a political revolution against the “billionaire class;” Trump is one. Sanders is an internationalist; Trump a nationalist. Sanders is most comfortable delivering a professorial lecture; Trump with a one line counter-punch. Sanders is a livelong champion of civil rights; Trump is a racist, misogynist divider. Sanders opposes America’s bellicose interventionism; Trump brags "I am the most militaristic person ever.” Sanders shows how big money and corporate interests have rigged the rules; Trump blames “stupid” and “incompetent” leaders. Despite this, they are lumped together as populist challengers to a besieged center.
Why then are the two equated as populists? Two elements support the label.
The Uncorrupted People’s Champions
Most Americans believe our politics is corrupted by big money. Both Sanders and Trump agree. Sanders’ independence is established by funding his campaign from small donations, largely raised on-line. Trump uses his great wealth to trumpet his independence by self-funding his campaign.
Sanders argues, correctly, that those who say, like Hillary Clinton, that you can’t “unilaterally disarm,” will inevitably be compromised by the very process of spending their time raising big bucks from deep pockets.
Trump argues that he knows the game better than anyone, and that “Jeb and the others” are “puppets” to their big donors. “These are not people that are doing it because they like the color of his hair, believe me. These are highly sophisticated killers. And when they give $5 million or $2 million or $1 million to Jeb, they have him just like a puppet. He’ll do whatever they want. He’s their puppet, believe me.”
Challenging Centrist Shibboleths
Americans understand that this economy does not work for them. They increasingly fear their children will fare worse than they have. They fear a country that is in decline, even as Washington tries to sell a “recovery” that never seems to reach them. They strongly believe that the political class has failed them.
Both Sanders and Trump speak directly to those fears. And both challenge core elements of the failed bipartisan consensus that exploded in the Great Recession. Both feature a muscular economic policy. Both indict a failed trade policy that has racked up trillions in deficits, shipping good jobs abroad and lowering wages. And that trade policy is at the center of the elite consensus. Republicans just joined with Obama and the corporate lobby to pass fast track trade authority through the Congress, while Hillary Clinton carefully ducked taking a position.
Sanders, of course, is far bolder and clearer in his indictment. His focus is on the corrupting power of big money and the corporations – the “billionaire class.” He calls for breaking up the big banks, and levying a tax on speculation. He’d raise taxes on the rich and corporations and use that money to rebuild the country’s decrepit infrastructure. He calls for expanding Social Security and moving to a national health care plan like Medicare for All. He’d make college free for all. He challenges the US to lead the green industrial revolution and meet the challenge of climate change. He favors a living wage, and empowering workers to capture a fair share of the profits they help generate.
Trump’s economics is far more sketchy. But he promises that “I will bring the jobs back.” That, he argues, will provide the resources to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and he scorns Republican rivals: "Every Republican wants to do a big number on Social Security, they want to do it on Medicare, they want to do it on Medicaid. And it's not fair to the people that have been paying in for years and now all of the sudden they want to be cut." He made clear, "I'm not gonna do that!"
On foreign policy, both Sanders and Trump opposed the invasion of Iraq, while their rivals supported it. This is still a big deal. The invasion not only cost trillions and thousands of lives, it destabilized the Middle East, sinking us into the mess we now face. Hillary's support of the war cost her dearly in 2008 against Obama. And as the debate goes forward, this catastrophic debacle will burden those who got it wrong, from Clinton to Jeb Bush who Trump mocks for bumbling the issue
Needless to say, Sanders and Trump are diametrically opposed about what comes next. Sanders, like Obama, would seek to get the US out of the mess. Trump seems intent on sending troops in to “get the oil.” Sanders supports the agreement with Iran; Trump mocks it, but is unclear about what he’d do. Sanders would reduce the military budget; Trump would inflate it.
The Fundamental Difference: The Populist and the Demagogue
The stark differences between Sanders and Trump mock the effort to lump them both into a populist category. Sanders is seeking a political revolution. He can win only by building a popular movement that challenges and transforms our corrupted politics. His campaign depends upon volunteers; his financing depends on small donations. He challenges his audiences to act, to mobilize and to get engaged. He argues explicitly that he cannot do this alone, that it is only a mobilized people that can save our democracy and bring our country back. And his target is clear: the entrenched corporate interests and big money that rig the rules against the vast majority.
Trump, in contrast, thinks America only needs a “great leader” – himself of course -- to make the country great again. Incompetent leaders are the problem; he is the answer: “Now, our country needs — our country needs a truly great leader, and we need a truly great leader now. We need a leader that wrote “The Art of the Deal.” We need a leader that can bring back our jobs, can bring back our manufacturing, can bring back our military…And we also need a cheerleader. We need someone who can take the brand of the United States and make it great again. We need — we need somebody — we need somebody that literally will take this country and make it great again. We can do that.”
To build a movement, Sanders lays out his agenda, details his critique, and seeks to educate his audiences to rouse them to act. To gain his mandate, Trump says he needs flexibility to make deals, doesn’t want to be wedded to any program, and seeks to entertain his audiences and sell his brand – worth billions he tells us – as our salvation.
Sanders seeks to bring Americans together. He’s made the economy – and the need to challenge the ways the rules are rigged - the centerpiece of his campaign. On immigration, he argues we must bring millions out of the shadow economy, give them a path to citizenship to stop them from being exploited by employers and used to drive down wages. He opposes an open border, but trumpets America’s strength as an immigrant nation.
Trump in contrast is happy to play on racial fears to elevate the need for a strong man. He’s made immigration a centerpiece of his campaign. He labels the undocumented as rapists and drug dealers. He touts his wall: “I will build a wall and Mexico's going to pay for it.” Or rather he'd impound remittances that the undocumented send back to their families to pay for. Trump wields a sledgehammer pound on the race bait politics that Republicans prefer to insert with a stiletto.
Dubbing both Sanders and Trump populists is a slur on both Sanders and populism. Trump isn’t leading a people’s movement; he’s selling a brand. Sanders is building a movement to revive democracy; Trump is seeking a mandate for a demagogue.