Hatred of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). A ravenous and uncouth fan base. A belief that an entire swath of the United States population shouldn’t exist. Government spending funneled to the politician’s strongest voting bloc. These are all, of course, President Donald Trump’s positions, and they clearly show off his populist tendencies.
Populism has several definitions, none of which are exhaustive, but it broadly entails uniting a band of “common folk” against a smaller group. Think Trump and his “drain the swamp” attack against the Washington establishment, or his executive orders trying to punish those living in the United States without proper documentation. Even logical consistency is no match for the power of the majority ruling for the sake of the majority: Just look at the Republican Senate’s approval of the $28 billion handout to farmers from the party famous for opposing government welfare, or when Trump said “Who the hell cares about the budget?” after saying he would eliminate the nation’s $19 trillion debt in eight years (Reason, “Trump Has Fully Embraced the Idea That Deficits Don’t Matter,” 01.31.2020). This lack of principles is built into the system of a populist candidate: People are fickle, so wherever the people’s mood takes them, so goes their leader.
This would be uncontroversial among the left if Senator Bernard Sanders was any different. Sadly, however, Sanders is a populist, one who plays by the very same playbook laid out by Trump.
Take this quote, for example: “43,000 Michiganders lost their jobs due to NAFTA. I opposed that bad deal, [Hillary Clinton] did not.” Compare it to this one: “NAFTA has led to the loss of nearly 700,000 jobs. [Permanent Normal Trade Relations] with China has led to the loss of 2.7 million jobs.” Can you tell which one is Trump and which one is Sanders? Both take aim at an “elite” that they perceive to be taking advantage of U.S. trade policy (so-called globalists, in the case of Trump; multinational corporations in the case of Sanders), but the important thing is that they are interchangeable, America-First, protectionist politicians working to please their base by sticking it to the man and dismantling hard fought diplomatic victories for quick political clout. You expect to see xenophobic opposition to trade in Trump, but Sanders’ fearmongering of the industrial sector has the same result. And in case you were wondering which quote belongs to whom, both quotes are from Sanders (Twitter, @[BernieSanders], 03.03.2016); (Huffington Post, “The TPP Must Be Defeated,” 05.21.2015).
The opposition to free trade that characterizes Trump’s and Sanders’ brand of populism is not the hallmark of a populist in and of itself. More evidence is needed to stake the claim that Trump and Sanders share common ground.
Anyone who has heard of Trump has also obviously heard “Make America Great Again (MAGA).” The campaign slogan appeared across every object the then-candidate Trump could afford. Noted for their brutishness, unwavering support and low level of education, the MAGA crowd is known throughout the cultural lexicon as unpleasant, to be avoided. Bernie Sanders’ analog is already quite clear for anyone who has followed his campaigns in 2016 or 2020, or for anyone who has tried to walk a distance greater than 30 feet without encountering a “We stan an activist” flyer. Bernie Bros, as they are nicknamed, are famous for their stubbornness and zealotry. No candidate has a higher number of voters who would stay home if another nominee won the primary (Newsweek, “Yang, Sanders supporters least likely to support any other Democratic presidential nominee, poll says,” 02.01.2020). Not by percentage, nor by raw numbers. People can absolve Sanders of blame for having voters with a Bernie-or-nothing mentality, but the truth is that Sanders’ populist campaigning style relies on forging a cult of personality that causes his supporters to be absolute in their faith. Sure, every candidate has a band of supporters like this, but Trump and Sanders are both famous for attracting those who want to tear down the system, and who will trample any “cuckservative” or “moderate coward” who gets in their way.
But Trump and Sanders also present a clear enemy to their followers. In the case of Trump, it’s the shadowy idea of the “deep state,” the swampy Washington establishment or oppressed people crossing the border for a safer life. Sanders crusades against corporations, big pharma and the 1 percent. While the harms of income and wealth inequality in the United States are well known and Sanders is arguably justified to rail against those he believes are crushing the lower class, remember that Trump was right when he said how corrupt the U.S. Congress was. After almost three years of the Trump presidency and a near party-line removal vote in the Senate, is anybody really questioning whether Congress is corrupt and willing to allow any behavior so long as it gets the members a result they like? No.
Trump and Sanders have both pounced on legitimate flaws, but their rhetoric and rallies instead focus on punishing the perceived enemy. When Sanders says, “I don’t think that billionaires should exist,” this is not a statement that explores how his plans will raise taxes for new social programs or allow people on the lowest rung of the economic ladder to be financially secure. Instead, it’s a term of exclusion, that the rich have no place in the country he wants to shape. In the eyes of his supporters, it becomes less about helping others than harming those who oppose you.
Populism would be incomplete without rewarding your own followers. So long as you take from a politically unpopular group, there is plenty of opportunity to strip some wealth from them and redistribute it to your base without major repercussions. Trump did it by giving $28 billion dollars away to farmers, with a disproportionate amount to southern states that gave him more support (New York Times, “U.S. Watchdog to Investigate Trump’s Farm Bailout Program,” 02.14.2020). Bernie Sanders wants to do the same thing, just with a more privileged group.
Consider college graduates: They are probably white, have higher than average incomes and are well educated by definition (The Hill, “Census: More Americans have college degrees than ever before,” 04.03.2017). They are also generally young, healthy and considered skilled laborers. Such young people are basically the face of the Sanders campaign, and Sanders wants to reward them with a $2.2 trillion dollar payout (Vox, “Bernie Sanders’s free college proposal just got a whole lot bigger,” 06.23.2019). By canceling the student loan debt of every person in the United States, Sanders supercharges his own base. In a vacuum, student loan debt forgiveness is clearly a positive, but think of all the better ways to spend $2.2 trillion dollars. Think of how many homeless shelters, methadone clinics, prisoner rehabilitation programs and vaccines could be created with $2.2 trillion dollars. But instead the populist streak will take over and the upper-middle class will benefit at the expense of those who are not the fervent supporters.
Certainly, the moralities of each politicians’ policies aren’t directly comparable—Trump’s locking down of the southern border is not comparable to Sanders nationalizing health care, or vice versa. In spite of this distinction, we should still be worried about the Democratic party becoming subservient to one thought leader, or worse, Sanders’ base becoming the lodestar for the country as a whole.
Everyone has already seen how the populist instinct can lead to a small but cohesive group taking out its rage on smaller groups. Sanders’ base already assumes that the time of moderates and moderation is over. By refusing to vote for anyone but Sanders, his followers imply that anyone to the right of Sanders is as bad as Trump. These are not just the people Sanders attracts, but the ones possibly laying the groundwork for future policy.
Trump’s and Sanders’ policies are not the same. But understand that the distinction between them is solely their targets, and not their approach. The question then becomes, what happens when Sanders or his fans choose a new target? How strong will Sanders be in the face of his base turning on him? The populist mob has no loyalty, except to inflict pain on its enemies.
Even with the best intentions, Senator Bernard Sanders has created a mob. What he does with it, or it does with him, remains to be seen.