Populist Presidencies: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders

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By Pete Barell
Managing Editor

At a glance, politics during the current election cycle appears to be a clash of extremes. The field has been flooded with outsiders fighting against insiders cozy with their party establishment. A billionaire businessman-turned-reality-star surges in the polls. A retired, sleepy-eyed black neurosurgeon talks about grain in the pyramids. Two Latino right wingers contest who is tougher on immigration. A first-lady-turned-senator-turned-secretary-of-state takes her second, expected bid for the White House. A self-described democratic socialist Jew wins a New Hampshire primary by 21 percent — the first non-christian to ever do so.

Ileana Lado, a senior psychology major, shows support for Bernie Sanders. Photo: Maxime Devillaz
Ileana Lado, a senior psychology major, shows support for Bernie Sanders.
Photo: Maxime Devillaz

One may wonder how the selection process would work, sorting among these views when the decision comes at the ballot. Moreover, why would someone want a reality star? Why a man who calls himself a socialist?

The last two are, as you may have gathered, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders — two populists who have strong messages of fundamental change in politics. In full disclosure, let it be known that this writer is a supporter of Sanders. However, I do not wish to discuss my support, but instead the reasons and similarities of reasoning involved in why people would support one of these two candidates; these two who have shaken up the election in a way that may determine the future of both the DNC and GOP.

Trump “speaks the mind of the people” and “is the businessman we need” as any random supporter may say. The main argument, from what I have observed, is that his outsider perspective, tough charisma and business savvy is a way to revitalize our politics. He is not beholden to big money donors – he’s already rich! He’s tough on Mexico – they’ll build a wall on the border! He’s tough on terrorism – he’ll put a ban on all Muslims coming into the country until we figure out what is going on!

While these talking points may seem wacky, it’s important to consider where we are at in politics, particularly with the GOP. Voters seem to be fed up with establishment politics — Democrats and Republicans — and when it comes down to choosing someone like Marco Rubio, who was lambasted for nervously repeating the same canned talking point during a recent debate, or someone like Trump who speaks their mind and is outwardly humorous (just as many people laugh with him than at him) it is not hard to see the appeal.

More, it may be argued that Trump truly appeals to voters who glorify President Ronald Reagan — a man who was also a charismatic entertainer. Trump has the ability to rile up emotions and a peek at one of his rallies, almost always on TV drawing through-the-roof ratings, is clear proof of evidence.

Sanders speaks up from the left in a similar fashion against establishment politics and economics. He, too, does not take money from large interest groups, other than some unions. His vivacious grassroots and social media campaign has pulled in a continual stream of donations, out-raising his democratic competitor Hillary Clinton in January. A long-running independent mayor, congressman and then senator, Sanders’ politics align with European Social Democracy, proposing changes to our system, like Universal Single Payer Healthcare, which have been a staple in most other top world powers for years.

Some argue that Sanders’ FDR-like proposals are too big, expensive and liberal to pass through our Republican-held congress. However, Sanders and his campaign have been churning up many thousands to his rallies, with record new and youth voters throwing him their support — the plan being to gather a populist movement to elect new democratic presidency. High voter turnout primary and caucusing states that have already cast their vote demonstrate that this notion is not as much of a pipe dream as it may have seemed but a few months ago.

While both Sanders and Trump were skeptical contenders several months ago, there is more than solid proof that they are in it for the long haul. The latter has been firmly set as the GOP polling frontrunner for the majority of the race and while he did come second to Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucus last month, his win in New Hampshire shows he is not a toothless carnival barker.

The republican establishment, who have largely denounced Trump up until recent endorsements by figures like Sarah Palin, appear to have a choice to make: fall in line behind Trump or pile all endorsements and support behind a candidate like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz or even John Kasich, who has received endorsement from the New York Times and came second to Trump in the New Hampshire primary.

The clock is ticking, furiously, as the Nevada caucus has crept by, Trump winning by over 20 points, South Carolina is less than a week away, and the cavalcade of states voting on Super Tuesday next month will be the turning point for many campaigns. If Trump’s commanding national lead holds (up 20 points over Rubio, in second, according to 538’s Feb 18 aggregate) his competition will be hard pressed to keep up if he does not lose his significant lead by the time March rolls around.

The same pressure applies to Sanders’ campaign, albeit from the point of surging underdog. The close results in Nevada, where Sanders trailed by 5 percent, have demonstrated that Sanders has the capacity to make an impact in states that are more ethnically and racially diverse than New Hampshire, where he won the primary last month, and states like Massachusetts and his home of Vermont, where he leads Clinton by even larger margins. One of the most significant roadblocks for Sanders is overcoming his lack of name recognition, particularly with African Americans in southern states. The Sanders campaign has made progress, drawing support from several black activists and politicians, including Cornell West, rapper Killer Mike, filmmaker Spike Lee and former NAACP Chair Ben Jealous.

Still, polls have been trending upwards all around for Sanders, Fox News’ Feb. 15-17 poll showing a 47-44 Sanders national lead, where Ipsos/ Reuters Feb.13-17 showing Clinton up 45-42. Polls are not always accurate, as the extremely close 50-50 tie in the Iowa Caucus surprised many. It is important to consider that Sanders has only made up ground the entire race thus far, closing gaps and rising over up to 50 percent.

After the results in Nevada, we may very well see even more of a boost for Sanders going into South Carolina, where Clinton still holds a lead of at least 10 points and as high as 30 according to some polls. The fact that Sanders has been able to perform in a dead heat with Clinton demonstrates that this race is far from over. If he comes within ten points in South Carolina, I anticipate more momentum and a long slugfest going into Super Tuesday and beyond. Regardless of the results on the democratic and republican camps, Sanders and Trump have pushed the political conversation in wild, refreshing directions that could have major implications for the future of the country.

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