Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders run on populist’s platforms that claim to be in favor of the people, but how can they have such different political stances? At their cores, both the Sanders and Trump campaigns attempt to polarize people, but focus on different political issues to target different demographics. According to Jan-Werner Müller in his book, “What is Populism?”, there are a number of characteristics that a candidate must exhibit before he or she can be a true populist. As Trump has already won one election and Sanders is a front-runner in the Democratic party, is it problematic that these two are the most likely candidates to lead our democracy and run on populist platforms? According to Müller, there are three main characteristics that indicate that someone is a populist:
- He or she is anti-elitist.
- He or she is anti-pluralist.
- He or she is the only candidate that represents the people.
By the end of this blog, it will be clear how both candidates fit this template of populism despite being on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
How many times have we heard Senator Sanders attack the “billionaire class” for not shouldering their share of the tax burden or how big bankers on Wall Street are constantly stealing from the poor to line their own pockets? The Senator paints a very clear picture of who his supporters should be concerned about fighting against and why the fight is so important.
On the other side of the same coin, there is President Trump. The President’s rhetoric purporting his distrust of the Washington political elite was a constant in his first campaign. Painting the current political establishment as the cause of the common people’s plight was a well-used tool in the President’s arsenal. Additionally, the president’s anti-immigration sentiments are still echoed to this day.
In both instances, there is a clear pattern of the candidate attempting to paint a group of people as the ones the common American should be concerned with as they were the ones responsible for whatever problem the people face. Müller tells us that being critical of the elite and championing the common people are traits of any true populist.
Another hallmark of populism is the unspoken doctrine of anyone who is not with the movement is part of the problem. In order to galvanize people, populists make their followers think that their particular way is the only way. Donald Trump has said time and again that the people against his way of thinking are “un-American” or the politicians who criticize him are bullies. This line of thinking creates the feeling to Trump’s followers that not only are the people who disagree with his views wrong, but there is something wrong with them as well. Bernie Sanders does much of the same thing, but with different targets. Anyone who does not support Senator Sanders or is critical of his views are in the pockets of the billionaire class. Much in the same way that a jockey puts blinders on a horse so that the horse can only focus on the track, Sanders and Trump lead people to believe that their way is the only way so that the voters will only focus on their respective messages.
When someone actually examines Senator Sanders’ and President Trump’s campaigns, that person would find that there is not as much that separates the two candidates as either would want you to believe. The fact that they both attempt to vilify groups of people in nearly the same manner is alarming. The only difference seems to be the intended targets.
Campaigning to a particular base in politics is not unheard of. There is nothing wrong with believing that one’s choice in candidates is the best; the point of democracy is that there are choices and the people should make them. However, when a candidate thinks that he or she is the only one who truly speaks for the people, there arises a problem. Populism, as a platform, is inherently at odds with democracy. Democracy attempts to give voice to all of the people while populism would hold that there is only one true voice to be heard. In respect to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, people can argue the issues that each stands for; a representative democracy should have candidates of differing opinions. The problem is that each candidate, despite using nearly identical tactics, believes the other to be truly “un-American”.
If one is to believe Senator Sanders and President Trump, the American political establishment is broken. This broken system is not representing the “true will” of the American public and is failing them. If this is true, how is it that one populist did not win the candidacy for the party he was running for and the other won the presidency, but not the popular vote?