Two radically different politicians appealing to radically different segments of the population, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders nonetheless are tugging at a common thread: a restless populism born of the public’s belief that feckless, incompetent leadership has rigged politics, government, and other social institutions against them.
Doug Sosnik, political director in the Clinton White House who co-authored a book about American leadership with me and former Bush adviser Matthew Dowd in 2006, wrote a memo to his fellow Democrat two years ago that warned of a populist movement. After a decade of wars, economic tumult, and technological revolution, he wrote, “Americans’ long-brewing discontent shows clear signs of reaching a boiling point.”
“And when it happens, the country will judge its politicians through a new filter—one that asks, ‘Which side of the barricade are you on?’ Is it the side of the out-of-touch political class that clings to the status quo by protecting those at the top and their own political agendas, or is it the side that is fighting for the kind of change that will make the government work for the people—all the people?”
Trump and Sanders have positioned themselves on the people’s side of the barricade—even as they mingle with different kinds of people. Their kinship shined Monday, when Trump and Sanders addressed massive rallies—the billionaire Republican in Dallas and the socialist Democrat in Virginia.
Consider how each man addressed the unfairness, arrogance, and incompetence of the American political system.
Trump: Illegal immigrants don’t play by the rules you do. “It’s disgusting what’s happening to our country,” he said, calling America “a dumping ground” for illegals. “You people are suffering. I’m in New York, but they’re in New York, too. They’re all over the place.”
Sanders: Rich people don’t play by the rules you do. “Brothers and sisters, our job is to end that rigged economy and create an economy that works for working people.”
Trump: You’re not only suffering; you’re not heard. You’re what Richard Nixon called the “Silent Majority.” “It’s back, and it’s not silent.”
Sanders: I won’t be silent about the plight of minorities. “I would hope and I believe that every person in this room today understands that it is unacceptable to judge people, to discriminate against people based on the color of their skin.”
Trump: Politicians cater to their wealthy donors and don’t care about you. “I’m not taking all this blood money,” he said, promising to finance his own campaign.
Sanders: Let me tell you about money in America… “And while the very, very rich become much richer, millions of families have no savings at all. Nothing in the bank. And they worry every single day that if their car breaks down, they cannot get to work, and if they cannot get to work, they lose their jobs.”
Trump: The rich should pay their fair share of taxes. “By the time I finish, he might not have much of a hedge fund left,” he said of a wealthy friend who bragged two years ago of paying no taxes. “We’ve got to lower taxes for a lot of people. Corporations paying far too much, far too much. Middle-income people are being decimated. They’re being decimated.”
Trump: Journalists, political professionals, and other pundits think they know better than us. “George Will is a disaster,” he said. “Another one, Karl Rove, he’s terrible. He’s still going around thinking Mitt Romney won.”
Sanders: Government doesn’t know better than women what to do with their bodies. “I do understand and I do believe that it is improper for the United States government to tell every woman in this country the very painful and difficult choice she has to make on that issue,” he said of abortion. “And I honestly, I don’t want to be too provocative here, but very often conservatives say: ‘Get the government out of my life. I don’t want the government telling me what to do.’”
Trump: They even lie about me. “They don’t want to say I’m surging.”
Sanders. I’d be humbled by your support. “I am not a theologian, I am not an expert on the bible, nor am I a Catholic. I am just a United States senator from the small state of Vermont.”
Trump: The elite think they can tell you what to say and what not to say. “I have to be careful what I say about coming out of somebody’s—I have to be careful,” he said, referring to his comments about FOX News’ Megyn Kelly in the first GOP debate. “Nose, ears, eyes—those are the only places I’m talking about.”
Sanders: Everybody else in politics thinks they know all the answers. I don’t. “I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse.”
Trump: I can fix what the elites won’t. “This is a movement that’s happening,” he said. “Now it’s time to really start, because this is going to happen, I’m telling you, I’m not going anywhere.”
Sanders: Political and business elites can’t or won’t fix the biggest issue of our times: income inequality. “Millions of people are working long hours for abysmally low wages of $7.25 an hour, of $8 an hour, of $9 an hour, working hard, but unable to bring in enough money to adequately feed their kids. And yet, at that same time, 58 percent of all new income generated is going to the top 1 percent. You have got to think about the morality of that, the justice of that, and whether or not that is what we want to see in our country.”
Trump: The establishment is lazy. I’m not: “I have tremendous energy. Tremendous. To a point where it’s almost ridiculous if you think about it.”
Trump: The establishment is stupid. I’m not. “I think [Karl Rove] is a total incompetent jerk.”