Day 6

Surging Trump and Sanders fuelled by similar fears and anxieties

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are world's apart politically. But a surprising number of voters find them both appealing. New Republic writer Elizabeth Bruenig explains how two very different mavericks might ride the same sets of fears and anxieties all the way to their party's nomination.

There are just nine days until the Iowa caucus...the first event in the long march to the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations. And this week belonged to the mavericks. On the Republican side, former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin endorsed Donald Trump. While Democrats watched Bernie Sanders close in on Hilary Clinton in Iowa and pull well ahead in New Hampshire. Both men are giving their parties fits. And a surprising number of Americans find them both appealing. New Republic Staff Writer Elizabeth Bruenig explains why that is and why two men with such different politics are fuelled by very similar fears and anxieties.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Brent Bambury: We just heard from a voter who says he sympathizes with both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders and he could see himself voting for either one of them. What's up with that guy?

Elizabeth Bruenig: It seems really strange because the way that we tend to think about politics is lining up candidates in terms of similarities of policies. You know, what their solutions are for the country's problems. What's interesting about Bernie and Donald is that people seem to be identifying them as similar on the basis of them coming up with similar problems to focus on. The problems that they identify, the problems they're taking aim at are very similar. 

BB: There are people who have tried to argue that there are actually policy similarities between Trump and Sanders. What do you think of that argument?

EB: I think it's very hard to try to establish policy similarities between Sanders and Trump for two reasons. Number one, when you actually sit down and look at their policies, they are usually worlds apart. The ones that they are similar on -- opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership for example -- a lot of candidates are similar on. So yes, both Donald and Bernie were against the TPP. Hilary also came out against TPP. So did a lot of the other GOP politicians in the field. It's just not unique and you're not coming upon anything revealing when you say both of them are against TPP for example. So I think the majority of their policies are different and the ones that are similar are just kind of similar for typical reasons. And then I think the other reason people point out a similarity between Sanders and Trump is because  Trump has a long history of being extraordinarily vague. So he doesn't really have policies. He'll just say 'We're going to to great on that.' Or 'We're going to do good on that. We're going to beat that. We're going to win.' And Sanders will also say we're going to take care of the American people vis-a-vis single-payer health care or something like that. And when you look at them side-by-side and Trump says everyone will be taken care of and Sanders says we're going to cover everyone under national health insurance, they can look very similar. But you actually don't know what you're getting with Trump. And when you press him, he usually will come out and say his policy is similar to kind of a Republican establishment one typically. 

BB: But it still is very difficult to get your head around this because Bernie Sanders is on the far-left of the Democratic Party. Donald Trump is on the far-right. How could they both be plausible candidates to the same voter?

EB: Well, one of the things that kind of muddles the scheme a little bit is that in the United States, we tend to think of ourselves as having a pretty simple right-left spectrum. And Donald's way on the right and Bernie's way on the left. And that's not exactly how they're lined up. What Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both have is this narrative of American decline. Donald Trump, you can see it in his campaign slogan -- Make America Great Again. With the idea being that America has fallen from a period of former greatness. And Bernie similarly says we need to recover our democracy, we take our government back from big money, we need to get jobs back to the failing middle class. And so I think that what voters are identifying is that both of them see especially a white, working class decline. And that has become a major focus of each of their campaigns. 

BB: And what does that tell you about the things people are thinking about as they look for a candidate? What is it about their anxieties that isn't being addressed by other candidates?

EB: You know it tells me that it's pretty typical to run on the right when you're running in a situation where you've had a Democratic Presidency to say here's all the things this Democratic President has done wrong and we The Republicans are going to fix it in sort of classically Republican ways. And then on the left, if you look at Hilary, she's sort of the heir-apparent to Obama. And she's basically saying I'm going to protect and continue what Obama has done. But neither narrative is really inclusive of the worldview of a population that's been through the recession that we've been through. And that has seen the declines that we've seen in terms of manufacturing jobs and the rise of white, working class alienation especially among men. We've seen studies that have shown suicide going up among white working class men. So  there's a real alienation and bitterness there that comes out of the recession and in part just out of the way that the economy has changed over the past 8 years. And I think that Bernie and Donald have tapped into that anxiety in a way that's not common for Presidential campaigns. 

BB: Are they doing something that makes their articulation of that stand out? Because American politicians are often reluctant to suggest that there is something wrong with the country or that it might not be what it used to be. How are these two managing to get around that? 

EB: Well, I think it all comes down to making sure that you exonerate the American people. So neither Donald or Bernie is blaming the average American. Donald Trump is blaming foreign people. China, Hispanic immigrants to the United States and Muslim refugees. He's blaming all of those people. Sanders is pointing to big money, Wall Street, establishment politicians who are taking basically bribes from lobbyists. So in both cases, you don't direct guilt at the American people. And so in that way, it doesn't look like you're impugning the real America, quote unquote. You're going after people who are either interlopers in the American dream or stealing from real Americans. 

BB: And you're sending out the message that it's not your fault that things are bad. That's one of the messages that  you're sending to the voter. But this other idea that America's problems are deep enough or they're complex enough that they can no longer be addressed by the establishment, do you think that is a message the establishment is going to start responding to?

EB: I think it's difficult for them to respond to that message because they would have to acknowledge that they are the establishment and we live in this weird climate in the United States where because being an outsider or a maverick or going rogue is always superior to being a crusty old guy just because of the kind of country we are, the way that we were founded. No candidate wants to stand up and say, Yes I am the old guard. I am the established power. I am the power elite. Everyone wants to be the grassroots populist man of the people type candidate. And I don't think voters are going to believe that. Hilary Clinton has been Secretary of State. There's no way you can identify her as an outsider when she's inside the current administration. But I  think that's going to be a real challenge. 

BB: But voters who believe that the middle class is under fire, who believe that the country is in some kind of decline and that other political solutions haven't spoken to them, they're not buying the establishment message right now. So isn't there anxiety among the other candidates that this other message from Sanders and Trump is cutting through?

EB: Yeah, absolutely. I  think the real sweat you're starting to see, and you've seen it all along on the Republican side with the rise of Trump and you're starting to see it now as we get closer to the Iowa caucuses with Democrats, is what are we going to do about the fact that so many of our voters, such a big portion of our base are responding to this message that there's something really, really wrong and you kind of need an insurgent candidate to fix it. Because the establishment candidates,  they just don't have a good answer as to why that would be them. 

BB: Trump and Sanders have tapped into a powerful idea that is resonating. How far can they ride that idea?

EB: All the way to the nomination. There's no reason to think, especially in Trump's case where the GOP field is as fractured as it is, that he couldn't actually win the nomination. It's very possible. Sanders has definitely gotten a lot further than anyone thought he would. The idea that he's not ejectable compared to Hilary might hold him back. But at this point it's looking quite possible that Sanders could take Iowa and New Hampshire. 

BB: Elizabeth Bruenig thank you very much for talking to us. 

EB: Thanks very much for having me on.