“I like Bernie, but I like Trump too,” the woman says, with more than a little irritation, before slamming her phone down on the receiver. (Ah, the lost joys of landlines.) She is the twentieth, or the twenty-first, or the twenty-second (?) Iowan I have called in the last hour. I am “phone banking” for Bernie Sanders, which is a polite way of saying “political telemarketing.” Like all telemarketers, I am greeted with a well-deserved contempt; most people hang up on me before I can finish my first sentence. This particular woman was in fact abnormally courteous. She at least said something to me before terminating the conversation. A rather paradoxical something.
How can my Iowan interlocutor be torn between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump? The two men could not, at first glance, be less alike. Donald Trump is a rapacious, Muslim-baiting, immigrant-hating, boisterous, billionaire vulgarian with a bad haircut; Bernie Sanders is a somewhat awkward, “This Land is Your Land”-singing, (imperfectly) anti-racist, Jewish Vermonter socialist with a bad haircut. Donald Trump’s earliest encounter with the press is a 1973 New York Times article discussing allegations that he refused to rent apartments to African Americans; Bernie Sanders’ first foray into political activism was organizing civil rights sit-ins at the University of Chicago. These are men whose personal, political, and moral histories have almost nothing in common. Yet this woman’s indecision remains. Is she just an outlier, too politically uninformed to distinguish between the rhetoric of these two old, angry white men? Was she just trying to confuse a stranger so rude as to call her at dinner time? Or is there something deeper at work here, something worth investigating in her divided loyalties?
Sanders and Trump both belong to the tradition of American populism. As populists, they both tap into a powerful and perilous source of energy: popular resentment and anxiety. For the better part of a decade, the American political system has suffered from a crisis of legitimacy. Americans of all persuasions have become convinced that something is rotten in the District of Columbia. What that something is, of course, is a matter of considerable contention; talk to ten Americans and you’ll hear twenty explanations for this rot – rising inequality? government overreach? militarized racism? ISIS terrorism? big money in politics? Barack Obama’s birth certificate? Large parts of the nation have been worked into a near-revolutionary fervor, while lacking anything resembling a revolutionary program. Enter the populists, stage right. Their role is to shape the resentment and anxiety, giving it definitive form. They not only tell the public the nature of the problems facing the nation; more crucially, they tell the public who is at fault. Most dangerous of all, they convince the public that their explanation is simply common sense, that the public really had the answer all along.
Trump’s racist and misogynistic rhetoric has earned him comparisons to the fascist leaders of the 20th century. This comparison is not entirely apt. Trump’s brand of thuggish conservatism lacks the ideological and political apparatuses that made 20th century fascism viable. He cannot appeal to a respected racial science to justify his bigotry, nor does he have anything like a paramilitary force at his disposal. At best, we can call his politics a form of postmodern fascism. Postmodern fascism is fascism that cannot fully assert itself as fascism. It thrives on plausible deniability. When Hitler talked about Jews, he knew them to be the enemy of Germany. There was no equivocation; they were a parasite that had to be excised mercilessly. Trump, when he attacks Hispanics, Muslims, and African Americans, does not allow himself that level of confidence. Recall how he phrased his proposal to ban Muslims from the country: they had to be kept out until we can figure out “what the hell is going on.” He does not purport to have all the answers, nor does he purport to know anything about what Muslims are essentially. Indeed, he insists that Muslims, African Americans, and Hispanics love him. In one of the most bizarre examples of tokenism on record, Trump insists that his supposed Muslim friends (perhaps he is referring to Mike Tyson, convicted rapist and known ear-biter?) approve of his plan to surveil, register, and ban their communities from participation in American life. In a bizarre inversion of the fascist leader principle, Trump rarely takes full responsibility for what he says. Everyone was saying it, he’ll often claim. He didn’t want to take a particular action, but his hand was forced because people were telling him to do it.
In attributing the origin of his thoughts and deeds to the masses, Trump—Wharton-educated, real-estate Mogul, reality TV star Donald J. Trump—becomes the average American. He may insist on his own genius, but admiration of his genius is not what draws his followers to him. Rather, it is his willingness to say what the average American supposedly wants to say but can’t; he says the nasty, the obscene, the un-PC. He is the blowhard that they all wish they could be, the straight-talking, no-nonsense asshole. He is not merely the average man; he is the perfect average American. Never mind, of course, that the Trump’s average American persona is of his own making. That the thoughts he pretends everyone is thinking are really his own. He is a master manipulator, able to shape popular resentment according to his will. He is to be feared and despised.
Like Trump, Sanders appeals to popular resentment. But his is a tempered, class-based resentment. Instead of blaming minorities for the decline of American greatness (and make no mistake, Sanders is nostalgic for an American greatness that never truly existed), he focuses on the greed of the so-called billionaire class: Wall Street bankers, corporate CEOs, real estate moguls with bad haircuts, etc. This populist emphasis on the moral failings of the haute bourgeoisie undercuts his socialist credentials; in his rhetoric, he sometimes seems to attribute the ills of American capitalism merely to individual wrongdoing, ignoring the incentives of the system itself. In making his moral argument against the billionaire class, Sanders adopts a straight-talking, average American persona. But Sanders’ average American has little in common with Trump’s. Trump is the drunk uncle who won’t shut up at Thanksgiving dinner; Sanders is the older Jewish man at a New York delicatessen who has had enough bullshit for the day and just wants his goddamn potato salad. Sanders thrives on humility; notice his campaign’s embrace of his unassuming first name: “Bernie.”
But the biggest difference between Trump and Sanders isn’t to be found in their temperaments. Trump’s populism is ultimately nihilistic; it accrues more and more forms of resentments, names more and more enemies. It cannot afford to attempt to address the national malaise; if it could solve anything, it would be immediately robbed of its power. Sanders, on the other hand, offers a positive, redemptive vision for the future of the country, one in which the economic and political power of the common citizen is restored. Regardless of the practical merits of Sanders’ individual proposals, the man actually believes in something.
Let no one underestimate the danger of populism. It relies on irrationalism, making an appeal to our troubled hearts, not our skeptical brains. But at times of crisis, when the popular legitimacy of the government is disintegrating, we can’t live without it. If the Left wants to credibly challenge the Right for the hearts and minds of the country, it cannot rely on the old, stodgy formulas of liberal politics. It needs to be willing to use the power of populism. But it needs to be in awe of that power; it needs to be guided by a leader who will use that power with moderation and responsibility. That leader is Bernie Sanders.