Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Donald & The Bern

The Extraordinary Similarities between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders

[Partial Disclosure:  This piece offers no value judgements on the policies or fitness for office of either Trump or Sanders.  It's merely a commentary on the similarities and historical importance of their campaigns.  The full disclosure, my actual opinion of these two candidates, is at the bottom.]

For most of human history it was widely believed that democracy could not possibly work as a form of government.

Sure, the Romans had some modest success with a Republic, but its republican form of government was violently wrenched into civil war and empire by Julius Caesar.  Before that, ancient Greece had some early forms of democracy, but it was only successful in small city-states - until the Peloponnesian War divided and weakened  Greece, leading to the rise of Macedon and Alexander the Great.

The problem with democracy was the demos - the common people - who couldn't possibly be expected to rule wisely.   Thus, the Caesars, the emperors of China, the czars of Russia, and the absolute monarchies of medieval and Renaissance Europe.

And then, along came the United States of America.

The birth of our nation was watched closely by the Kings and Queens of Europe.  Surely it would fail.  Surely, a nation's people* - especially a people as primitive, uneducated, and uncouth as the Americans - couldn't rule a nation as geographically large as the U.S.  

* or to be precise: men who owned property

Well, we all know what followed.  The fledgling nation defeated Britain in two wars, the heads of the French monarchs rolled, a great Civil War killed 600,000 people and ended slavery, Anastasia screamed in vain, and the world's democracies - and one desperate tyrant - joined forces to defeat the most evil dictator in world history.  Suffrage extended to non-property owners, former slaves, and women.  Today, roughly half the world's countries have a full or flawed democracy. 

But very few of these countries are truly democracies.  They are republics.  And in successful republics, candidates representing political parties run for office, are elected by the people, and lead the country.

Which brings me, finally, to Donald J. Trump and Bernard Sanders.


Trump and Sanders have a lot of obvious similarities.

They were born within a few years and a few miles of each other - Trump in Brooklyn in 1946, Sanders in Queens in 1941.  They can both be reasonably described as loudmouth New Yorkers. They both have hair we have never seen on Presidential candidates.

They have each run what might be called a campaign consultant's nightmare.  They say what they want, when they want, and to whom they want - focus groups be damned.  Party leaders be damned. Media elites be damned.   In-state ground campaigns be damned.  Endorsements be damned.

They have gone directly over the heads of the gatekeepers - over the media, over the party elites - to speak directly to the people, to the demos.

And the messages they are sending to the demos have remarkable similarities:

America is screwed up.

As a result, your life is screwed up.  

It's not your fault your life is screwed up.  

It's somebody else's fault.

I'm going to fix it.

There are dramatic differences in their message, of course.  Who the "somebody else" is, for one.  For Sanders, its millionaires and billionaires and the big banks.  For Trump, it's government, immigrants and political correctness.

And they have very different solutions.  Sanders is going to break up the banks and raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires.  And Trump is going to build a wall and, well, just be Donald Trump.

Problems solved.


But the most remarkable similarity between the two of them, one that has gone too often unremarked upon, one that may change the course of Presidential politics for decades - is that each of these men has been shockingly successful in their quest for the nomination of a party that neither is, in any meaningful way, a member.

Think about that:  Bernard Sanders is 74 years old, and joined the Democratic party for the first time last year! Yes, he has caucused with the Democrats in Congress but was not a member of the party whose ticket he wants to head.

Trump, meanwhile, has changed party affiliations 5 times since 1987.  He spent the entire George W. Bush years as a member of the Democratic party, and only re-registered as a Republican in 2012.  He has endorsed a whole host of opinions - from support for single-payer healthcare and abortion rights to opposition of the Iraq War - that are bedrock beliefs of the 21st century Democratic party.

Much has been written about the crackup of the Republican party, about Trump the Outsider's hijacking of the party.  But Sanders, by some measures, has been nearly as successful at hijacking his party.

Trump has won a string of primaries and is now the favorite for his party's nomination. Sanders has a lost a string, and Hillary Clinton seems the presumptive nominee.  The Democrats, in effect, have successfully beat off their challenger.

But that's not because the Democratic party has any more control of its voters than Republicans - it's because the huge Republican field vs. the tiny Democratic field - and the ridiculous, undemocratic bylaws of the Dem primaries - gave Hillary Clinton an easier path to nomination than the army of approved GOP candidates.

Sanders has won a majority of votes in 1/3 of the 15 states he's competed in.  Trump has yet to crack 50% in any.  Sanders has inspired bigger, more passionate crowds than Clinton.  He continues to raise millions of dollars from an engaged and inspired base.  


What does all this mean?  In the short term, maybe not much.  Bernie Sanders is a huge long shot to become President, and Trump is still an underdog.  One of the establishment candidates will likely occupy the White House in November.

But make no mistake:  this election year isn't about a billionaire reality show host or an elderly socialist.  And it's not just the Republican party that has lost control of its constituents.   (In fact, liberal America may in the end be more enraged at the Clinton Restoration, since they feel cheated during the primaries).

For the first time since the slavery crisis of antebellum America - which killed the Whig party, sectionalized the Democratic party, and created the Republican party - the 2-party system of the United States is at risk.  This might warm the hearts of an enraged electorate, but this system has provided stability to our nation for 150 years.

Hold on to your hats in 2020.  Or throw it in the ring - I can assure you, many non-politicians will be doing the same.


[Full Disclosure:  I think Donald Trump is a dangerous buffoon and Bernie Sanders' understanding of economics is that of a precocious but incorrigible kindergartener.]

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