The New York Times ended its Apprentice-like endorsement special titled “The Choice” with a twist befitting a reality TV show spectacle. The editorial board gave a rose to both Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren. Despite being in a dead heat for first, Bernie Sanders wound up at the bottom of the pile, with only one vote from the 15-member panel. In explaining why the Vermont senator didn’t get the nod, the Times sang a familiar refrain: “Three years into the Trump administration, we see little advantage to exchanging one over-promising, divisive figure in Washington for another.”
So according to the Times, Sanders is basically another Trump.
A criminal slumlord is just like a dedicated public servant.
A cynical opportunist who changes his mind every other day is the spitting image of a person who has been fighting for the same set of convictions his whole life.
A crass bully who mocks his opponents is virtually indistinguishable from a a person whose collegiality and kindness has never been questioned by even his worst political enemies.
The comparison is absurd on its face, but for some reason Sanders’ critics keep going back to the well. Even the best iteration of this argument written by a nationally syndicated writer comes across as extraordinarily facile.
In a column titled “Bernie Sanders is the left’s Trump,” Dana Milbank described Sanders and Trump as two “angry old white guys with crazy hair, New York accents and flair for demagoguery.”
Lest you think him shallow, Milbank explains that the similarities aren’t just superficial:
Sanders isn’t Trump in the race-baiting, lender-cheating, fact-avoiding, porn-actress-paying, Putin-loving sense. But their styles are similar: shouting and unsmiling, anti-establishment and anti-media, absolutely convinced of their own correctness, attacking bogeyman (the “1 percent” and CEOs in Sanders’ case, instead of immigrants and minorities), offering impractical promises with vague details, lacking nuance and nostalgic for the past.
Milbank addresses the obvious objections to the analogy, but the case he makes for their similarity is no less ridiculous.
It’s less hateful, perhaps, to blame billionaires than immigrants or “globalists” for America’s troubles, but the scapegoating is similar.
But billionaires actually are to blame for the nation’s problems in a way that immigrants are not. It’s hardly “scapegoating” to point out that the concentration of wealth gives the few power over the many—or that they pursue their own interests at the expense of everyone else’s.
There’s a direct relationship between Walmart workers’ poverty and the Walton family’s labor practices. The country’s permanent state of war is inextricably linked to the strength of the defense lobby. It’s not “Trumpian” to suggest that the wealthiest man alive—someone who tried to buy municipal elections in his company’s home city—might also try to influence the coverage of one his most vocal critics in a paper he owns.
If we don’t blame the the ones with all the power, then who is to blame?
Like most of these arguments against Sanders, it’s hard to tell if it’s just a cynical smear or if those making it sincerely believe what they’re saying.
In Milbank’s case, it’s probably a little bit of both.
Though he’s known for his trollish contrarianism, there’s a logical explanation for why Milbank might genuinely view these “angry old white guys with crazy hair” as being one and the same. When Trump demonizes immigrants it may be more “hateful,” but when Sanders goes after the elites, it hits a little closer to home for a former member of Skull and Bones.
While Trump vilifies marginalized groups with whom Milbank has little in common — refugees, Muslims, black people and the poor— Sanders directs his ire toward people who may, like Milbank, have had the shared experience of masturbating in a coffin while reciting their sexual histories.
And that brings us to the other basis for comparing Trump and Sanders: They’re both “populist.” The idea that a politician might appeal to the interests of the vast majority of people is absolutely loathsome to Never-Trump conservatives and Ivy League liberals alike. The two political wings of the ruling class are united by an anti-democratic hostility to any sort of mass politics.
Milbank’s contempt for “demagogues” pandering to the rabble by “offering impractical promises with vague details” is echoed by conservatives like Jonah Goldberg, who characterized Trump and Sanders as “two populist peas in a pod.”
The specific political content of platforms is disregarded. Populism is flattened and portrayed as a singular harmful political impulse, so that someone like Jair Bolsonaro is no different from Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Farange’s UKIP and Corbyn’s Momentum are two sides of the same coin.
However, historian of the Populist movement Charles Postel correctly notes that the core of the original populist movement was a critique of Gilded Age inequality:
By the measure of this historical legacy, Bernie Sanders looks very much like a populist for the “Second Gilded Age,” both in his diagnosis of and solutions to society’s ills. By the same historical measure, Donald Trump, with his gold-plated jets and mansions, looks very much like the type of plutocrat the Populists held responsible for the injustices and inequities of their time.
Postel acknowledges that the Populist movement included its share of racists and antisemites, but at the same time, he adds that the “great majority of former Populist leaders, activists, and supporters went to their graves committed to their ideals of social justice.”
Painting populism with a broad brush is sloppy historical practice at best or breathtaking dishonesty at worst. Martin Luther King founded the Poor People’s Campaign, a cross-racial populist movement. What would he think if he were alive to hear his name invoked in a speech denouncing the “dangers of populism?”
Bishop Geno Baroni, a co-organizer of King’s March on Washington, called for a new type of “civic populism.” Sanders formed his ideas in the same milieu and carries the torch for this worldview
It’s shameful for bad actors in the commentariat to conflate populism with fascism in order to discredit a politician whose broad, multiracial coalition of working people that is unprecedented in recent American political history.
Analogies based on personal style or “crazy hair” are easily dismissed, but what about areas of policy, like trade, where Trump and Sanders actually do intersect? Liberals have gotten into the habit of just defining their politics in opposition to Trump’s—just look how quickly James Comey transformed from villain to hero once he became the object of Trump’s scorn—but there is such a thing as being right for the wrong reasons.
NAFTA and the TPP have both been opposed by grassroots popular movements on the left for good reason, whereas Trump’s understanding of free trade agreements is mind-numbingly simple: They’re bad deals, and he, the master dealmaker, can get America a better one.
Sanders’ analysis is based on a clear-eyed view of how capital operates. NAFTA hasn’t been a bad deal (for American multinationals), but it has accelerated the global race to the bottom, as highly mobile corporations scour the globe for ever-cheaper sources of labor.
The daylight between the two can be clearly seen in Sanders recent statement on why he opposes Trump’s USMCA, which he dubs “NAFTA 2.0.” In addition to calling out the agreement’s weakness in terms of environmental issues, Sanders says that it does “virtually nothing to stop the outsourcing of jobs to Mexico” and that we need to do more than just “tinker around the edges.”
Other areas, like foreign policy, offer some fertile ground for weak analogies. Some have described both Sanders and Trump as “isolationists,” but only one truly has demonstrated a lifelong commitment to opposing war. Sanders is an internationalist who believes foreign policy should center human rights. Trump’s philosophy is America uber Alles and he only opposes war insofar as it hurts the national interest or his personal image.
This contrast is nowhere more stark than in their respective approaches to the Middle East.
Trump has turned a blind eye to human rights violations committed by traditional US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia while Sanders led the push to cut US aid for the Saudis over their genocidal war in Yemen and harshly condemned Israel for turning Gaza into the “world’s largest open-air prison.”
There are two things that Trump and Sanders actually do share: Outsider status and a message that resonates with their respective bases. For many voters, Clinton’s tepid incrementalism seemed like more of the same. Trump was able to take real problems that average people are concerned about, like offshoring jobs and the opioid crisis, then filter them through a racist and xenophobic lens—Mexican drug gangs, China is “raping us,” etc.
Tapping into mass resentment isn’t a bad thing if it’s pointed in the right direction. There’s a difference between blaming all immigrants for drug trafficking and recognizing that the corrupt business practices of a single billionaire family are responsible for getting millions hooked on OxyContin. It’s only scapegoating if the target of the anger doesn’t deserve it.
For different reasons, Trump and Sanders make people feel heard. Among the liberal pundit class, there’s an all-consuming obsession with flipping swing voters. Conventional wisdom says that the way to go about this is to hew toward the political center, with a moderate like Joe Biden who is adjacent to Republicans on culture war flashpoints, such as abortion.
But despite his folksy anecdotes that some older voters might find relatable, Biden still offers the faux-pragmatic economic solutions of an establishment Democrat (ex. suggesting laid-off miners “learn to code.”)
There’s a good counterargument to be made that Sanders is best positioned to win over the Trump voters who are winnable with the same populist appeal that is so distasteful to the Ivy League-educated editorial board of the Times.
Back in 2015, The Atlantic profiled a group of lifelong Republicans who switched to Sanders, and their responses were telling. Some were drawn to his fighting personality and authenticity, but what they found most appealing was his focus on economic issues.
A 38-year-old registered Republican in the battleground state of Florida had this to say:
When I think of true conservative values I think of Teddy Roosevelt who earned a reputation as a trust-buster. Now look at Bernie. He’s the only one willing to stand up to the big banks. The big banks control an obscene amount of wealth in this country and he wants to go after them.
Here’s a tip for Sanders’ critics: If you want to make the case that he’s not a good candidate, don’t compare him to the guy who won last time.