Despite What You've Heard, Trump and Bernie Aren't Two Radical, Populist Peas in a Pod
You may have noticed a curious trend recently, usually exhibited by "moderate" progressive pundits, which involves comparing the candidacies of Donald Trump in 2016 and Bernie Sanders in 2020. The most recent I've seen is by Andrew Sullivan at New York Magazine, where he celebrates the Democratic establishment having consolidated power behind the embarrassingly senile Joe Biden, which effectively crippled Bernie's candidacy on Super Tuesday. "If only Trump's rivals had exercised that discipline in the GOP primaries four years ago," Sullivan playfully muses.
Like the Democrats in 2020, he argues, the Republicans in 2016 faced an "insistent and ascendant insurgency from its populist wing," but the GOP was "unable to winnow the field and coalesce behind a single opponent to Trump, then staggering backward into submission."
The purpose of such comparisons is painfully easy to discern. The suggestion is that Bernie, like Trump, is a "populist*" radical, an outsider who is out of touch with the American people, and a danger to the future of our nation and its institutions. A "functioning" political party would act in its own institutional "self-defense" to thwart those kinds of threats, Sullivan argues. The argument seems to be that the GOP failed to heed the sober admonitions of #NeverTrump by failing to strangle the Trump campaign in the cradle, but the Democrats aren't making that mistake with Bernie.
New York Magazine could have saved a lot of digital space with a simple plea by Andrew Sullivan for his readers to "Vote Biden," but I'm somewhat sympathetic to the argument being made. I was a Cruz-supporter in the 2016 primary, and at the time, I lamented that Trump's candidacy was bolstered by dilution of the vote among his many opponents. For example, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio both ran for Senate as Tea Party darlings, and while Marco Rubio had a crucial misstep in supporting a de facto amnesty bill in 2013, they were largely vying for the same bloc of voters in the primary.
Consider this. Trump won Arkansas and Tennessee with 33% and 39% of the vote, respectively, while Cruz and Rubio tallied a combined 56% and 46%. So maybe either candidate might have won if the vote hadn't been split. But what tells the tale of the 2016 primary isn't the results in red states. What tells the tale of 2016 is that Trump eked out a win in Virginia on Super Tuesday in a close race with Marco Rubio, barely took Vermont from notoriously left-leaning candidate John Kasich, and nearly won a majority in Massachusetts. These are all strong performances in blue states. It clearly signified Trump's crossover appeal early on and led to his demolishing the Blue Wall later that year.
Andrew Sullivan's argument, and others like it, is a house of cards, and these facts alone begin to make that abundantly clear.
It is true that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders ran for president as "outsiders" whose candidacies the two respective parties sought to derail. But the similarities begin and end there.
Before we delve into their fundamental political differences as candidates, we should notice that, as far what we've seen in early primary performance, you might say they're already polar opposites. It could be argued that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were competing for the same voting bloc of socialists, but even if Bernie had won every vote that Warren won (without even accounting for the votes for Joe Biden that were likely absorbed by Mike Bloomberg), Biden would have still won Alabama, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas.
The point here is simple. While Trump's early performance in 2016 signified crossover appeal for the Republican ticket, Bernie has shown no crossover appeal at all.
Andrew Sullivan and so many other Democrats know that, and that's why they are celebrating the Super Tuesday coup against Bernie. Bernie is unappealing in critical swing states because he's openly miles to the left of moderate Democrats and independent voters, and he's generally unappealing to most Americans because he's an ideological lunatic whose entire adult life has been devoted to thinking and talking about the magnificence of socialism. As such, the pillars of Bernie's presidential campaign are to nationalize health care and the energy industry, provide free college for anyone who wants it, and use taxpayer money to reconcile private debts, all of which will destroy commerce and spend untold amounts of wealth that the Treasury doesn't have. His promise to pay for it consists of higher income taxes and an unconstitutional wealth tax to finance the unfathomable amount of debt his proposals demand.
Trump, inversely, was not miles to the right of Republican moderates and independents, in 2016 or now. He's certainly never seemed an ideological zealot when it comes to political philosophy, probably because he, like most Americans, has been busy doing things in his adult life rather than thinking grand partisan thoughts.
And far from being out of touch with the American people, Trump seemed to have his finger firmly on the nation's pulse. Trump had two central pillars in his 2016 campaign: addressing illegal immigration and repealing Obamacare. Neither of his actual positions on these issues was unpopular or radical, despite his unconventional and blunt manner of speaking about them, as these positions were generally shared by the other conservative frontrunners. He shared many other conservative positions with them, too, such as unequivocally declaring himself to be pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, pro-military, and in favor of tax cuts. What made him different and appealing to voters in the Blue Wall, however, were also his positions that might be considered more traditionally to the left. He ran on his longstanding opposition to the Iraq War, protectionist trade policies to shield domestic manufacturing jobs from outsourcing (which earned him strong union support), relative protection of federal entitlement programs, and an unmistakable lack of emphasis on reductions to federal spending.
Bernie Sanders is a revolutionary whose ideas are radically socialistic and entirely un-American, and he doesn't seem to like this country much, either. Trump, on the other hand, is not on the political fringe, and there's certainly nothing un-American about him. His very visage hearkens back to the Reagan era, which many Americans fondly look back upon as a time of patriotic prosperity, where America waged and won a war against the ideology to which Bernie Sanders is devoted.
The men and their presidential campaigns couldn't be more different. Yet the left seems desperate to paint Trump as the radical conservative yin to Bernie Sanders's socialist yang and Joe Biden as the sensible, moderate option between them. Proving that to be a lie is remarkably easy, but if you've seen Biden's performance on the campaign trail, you might find it hard to blame them for the deceptive tactics. They're going to need to pull out all the stops, and employ all the subterfuge they can devise, to make the Democratic establishment's awkward and absentminded candidate even semi-palatable for American voters.
*Note: The term "populist" was employed with a negative connotation throughout the election year of 2016 to describe Donald Trump's campaign. It was only in early 2017 that the words "progressive populism" began being used with regularity on the left to describe Bernie's radical agenda. Progressive radicals co-opted the term and applied it to Bernie in response to Trump's newly successful "populist" presidential campaign, while "moderate" Democrats have revived the negative connotation in 2020 and are copiously applying it to smear both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, killing two birds with one stone.