At first, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump don’t look at all like similar candidates. One has promised to provide “free healthcare and free college” for all Americans if elected president. The other has promised essentially no policies besides a Mexican wall, but has argued that the force of his personality as demonstrated by his massive wealth and lack of political correctness is evidence that he can “make America great again.” While it’s likely that if you are a fan of one you also abhor the other, it’s worth pointing out that both candidates have used similar campaigning tactics to make unexpected surges in the polls.
What one discovers, regardless of political opinion, is that Americans on both the left and the right are not nearly as skeptical of politics as they say they are. In fact, many prefer throwing their support at whoever best pulls at their heartstrings rather than their frontal lobe. The so-called “outsider” candidates in this election, so far, consist of a man who has been in the Senate for decades and a billionaire who proudly embodies a caricature of the one percent. While that in itself is not a reason to vote or not vote for one of them, the fact that they’ve been able to come off as rebels against the system is rather astounding. Both have also demonstrably proven that in modern US politics, it’s better to be brash than to be eloquent.
Trump’s comments about women, Hispanics, and really anyone that isn’t a rich white male have distanced him from many, but they have also made him the champion of others. Despite the fact that there is more than enough evidence to suggest that Trump isn’t just disregarding PC norms, but actually condoning racism and misogyny, people have reported in droves that they find his language refreshing. The very willingness to be outwardly offensive regarding one subject makes people trust the authenticity of his views about another.
He may have insane answers, but to be fair to Trump, he also doesn’t sheepishly dodge questions like Rick Santorum does. Many a liberal intellectual would dismiss his arguments as totally illogical, but that’s sort of the entire point. The people who are running Trump’s campaign are deliberately making an emotional appeal. They know the short attention span that many Americans have for policy details. They also know about how feuds that evoke a reality TV type of story arc are wildly appealing.
What about the billionaire thing? Republicans fear the issue of inequality just like Democrats do, but unlike Democrats, they don’t trust the government to provide a solution. Given that, massive success in the private sector (even if someone inherited hundreds of millions of dollars and a real estate business) is still a measurement of merit for many.
The fact that massive wealth also allows Trump to finance his own campaign makes him, in some ways, appear untethered to the agendas of others. During the first Republican debate, his greatest moment of leverage against his fellow candidates came when he outspokenly admitted to giving money to some of their campaigns in the past. To many, that message made one simple point: Rich guys like me run things in the background, so why should I not enter the foreground?
Given that Trump is still far more vetted as a pop culture icon than a politician, it remains to be seen if his macho guy message can even get him a Republican nomination, let alone the White House. But it has worked before. The ideologue/strong man message has done wonders for the approval ratings of figures like Vladimir Putin in Russia, among other world leaders. Even India’s PM Narendra Modi has had political successes from being rather boldly blinged out (he recently met with Barack Obama while wearing a suit with his name repeatedly sewn into the pinstripes).
More reserved candidates such as Bush and even Huckabee to some extent are struggling with their baggage, even as Trump seems to effortlessly shake his off. That isn’t because Trump has radically different policy ideas than either of them, or frankly any of the other Republican candidates (we actually don’t really know what Trump would do on most issues). It’s because Trump has succeeded in convincing voters on the right that he is a natural winner, making other republican candidates losers by default.
At the very least, Trump has validated the assumption that many Americans don’t care much for policy details, but instead are willing to trust a candidate who they perceive as bold, blunt, and boisterous. It appears that he has nothing to hide. Only time will tell if that’s actually true.
Feeling the Bern
Republicans don’t have a monopoly on straightforward, emotional declarations. Democrats love basic bluntness every bit as much. The brashly outspoken Joe Biden is the third most popular presidential candidate for the Democrats and he’s not even running. Still, it must be said that the most outspoken Democrat of the hour remains Bernie Sanders.
It’s vital to recognize that on the majority of issues, Sanders does have thought-out policy suggestions, coherent plans of action, and is overall much more respectful of women and people of color when compared to Trump. Granted, that is arguably not why he is having success in the polls right now.
Sanders has had the same opinions about government for decades, and has consistently advocated for them while in the Senate. But like Donald trump, it’s his brash, New Yorker tone that has rocketed up his ratings. Also like the Donald, that enthusiastic directness has helped him earn the trust of many Americans. It’s not as much what he says as it is how he’s saying it.
A recent Vox video on Sanders embodies how this has been a particular hit among the Internet-oriented millennial generation:
American liberals, often self-proclaimed as being more fact-oriented than their Republican counterparts, don’t seem to be responding to Bernie Sanders in a way that’s any more rational or less emotionally driven than Trump supporters on the right. People love Sanders’ enthusiastic attitude and his ability to boil down issues to simple sloganlike declarations. It’s popular to post videos of him accompanied by the memorable, if not rather juvenile, hashtag #feelthebern.
Although there is nothing inherently wrong with that, it does appear that the love of Sanders does in many ways come at the cost of supporting Hillary Clinton, or in some ways even President Barack Obama. Hillary, who encouraged many of the more left-oriented polices of her husband while he was in office, as well as herself likely possessing more White House experience than any of the other candidates, has lately been somewhat shunned as a political sellout. That could largely be due to a lack of panache on her part when compared to the candidness of Sanders. There isn’t much objective evidence that suggests she wouldn’t fight for most of the same things that Sanders supports, and possibly have a better shot at getting them through Congress.
Along with suffering mobbish jabs about her personal email account as well as a ballooned amount of Benghazi blame, Hillary at least does have a solid foreign policy record while serving the Obama administration. Meanwhile, Sanders has not been direct about foreign policy in the ways that he has been about domestic policy, something that actually should be a bit unsettling.
While there is an informed stigma that Hillary is too deeply entrenched in the politics of Washington, a veteran senator like Sanders is just as much in that world too. The concept of an outsider changing Washington is honestly more of a romanticized notion than a real one. Still, Democratic voters like the idea of a fresh face seizing the White House, and have supported it as recently as when a then 2-year senator Obama won the 2008 election. He was welcomed as a bringer of change that liberals were ecstatic to support. That is, until things got difficult.
What we saw during Obama’s presidency was that when an outsider, albeit an intelligent one, takes on Washington with few allies, the rate of reform is slow, and liberal voters are often too impatient to carry their grass roots enthusiasm into a second term, or even into the midterms. They will cheer on Bernie Sanders as he talks about issues like prison reform, utterly forgetting that the sitting president is in the process of pushing for prison reform right now.
Overall, given the vast amount of time that still exists between now and the 2016 election, the current waves of popularity being enjoyed by both Trump and Sanders are not likely to be a great way to predict what could happen in the future. But they are a frightening indicator of how Americans choose a candidate. It seems so far that the American people are not interested in being terribly informed as a whole about the issues that face their country. As a result they don’t take well to complicated answers to important questions, even when they’re merited. Eloquence is all too often seen as deceitfulness. But when you don’t take the rational road, you end up endorsing candidates based largely on their TV performances rather than their actual knowledge, capabilities, or even their agenda.
The examples of Sanders and Trump aside, the most telling thing about their campaigns so far have been that emotional logic is still too large a part of American politics. Americans want a character, or even a passionately audacious celebrity, more than they want an informed statesman or stateswoman.
Perhaps then, the notion that whoever wins the 2016 election might be debating Kanye West in 2020 isn’t so ridiculous after all.