Populism Redux: the Case for Sanders and Trump


In many ways, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are polar opposites on almost every issue. But they are very much of the same cloth in one vital respect, their populism. This election cycle has seen the return of the populist dynamic to American politics in a way unseen perhaps since the days of Eugene V. Debs and William Jennings Bryan.

It is worth emphasizing that the Populist era, while certainly a type of genuine protest against the ravages of Gilded Age capitalism, was prone to many flaws, including racism and colonialism in some sectors. In this sense we can see that the political spectrum this year should not be described as a contest between Left and Right but Up and Down, the Elitists (Bush and Clinton) opposed to the Populists (Trump and Sanders). Like Teddy Roosevelt and William Bryan, they are far from perfect but are also barometers of where American voters are today ideologically and politically. The recent comment by Ted Cruz about Trump’s “New York values” is another indicator, it demonstrates that Americans are tired of the leadership by enlightened metropolitan philosopher-kings that have expensive degrees from schools of government at Brown or Harvard. Instead, they want leaders who speak with street accents and talk in language that is light on polysyllables and heavy on working class verbiage.

For a moment, let us consider the political labels applied to Sanders and Trumps, socialist and fascist, and consider the implications of their politics that gets behind the hype.

I highly respect Paul Street, who wrote back in July about the long-standing arrangement between the Vermont Democratic Party and Sanders , and Garry Leech, who laid out the case of why Sanders is not going to be our first socialist president even if he is elected. But both have failed to grasp a key fact about the Democratic Socialists of America, the party of Michael Harrington, Irving Howe, and Cornel Young that has a technical position as heir to the old Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas. Since its founding in the 1970’s, the DSA has never run presidential candidates, instead it has served as a kind of Leftist caucus giving critical support to the Democrats. In this sense, they should not be seen as strictly revisionist socialists or social democrats and instead be called Democratic socialists, with a heavy, capitalized emphasis on the D. To critique them for a rejection of the Marxist-Leninist or anarcho-syndicalist critique of capitalism is to to miss the point, that they never had any interest in creating a genuine third party and instead thought they could use the Old Left boring in strategy to turn the Democrats away from the neoliberal policies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and towards the economic policies of the Scandinavian Union or Israel under the Labor governments. That both examples have deep-seated issues in their respective societies with race and racism is demonstrative of the flaws inherent to anti-Communist/anti-anarchist social democracy.

Now consider the claim that Trump is a fascist. Is his rhetoric vile and inspiring racist violence? Yes. But can we see him as a vulgarized Nietzsche-inspired demagogue with a radical militia intending to fundamentally and dramatically destroy and remake the state as an ethnocratic project that is based on exclusion of the Other using the auspices of martial law? Can we anticipate a destruction of labor unions and Left wing political parties as the prelude to a greater genocide towards various minority groups at home (as in the case of Germany) and abroad (such as when Italy invaded Ethiopia)? I think not. As Dylan Matthews explained in Vox last month, “he’s a right-wing populist, or perhaps an “apartheid liberal””. And as others have noted previously, Trump is in fact to the Left of Clinton and Obama on several issues, such as supporting single-payer healthcare and opposing both the North American Free Trade Act and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

In speaking with reporters who cover economics recently, several have noted that Wall Street is in fact terrified of both Trump and Sanders. Sanders is a hardcore Keynesian who harkens back to the nicer moments of the New Deal and Great Society platforms while Trump is bankrolled by only one billionaire, himself.

The actions of the professional media and non-profits is instructive to how the power structure reacts to the populist upsurge. CNN is critical of or ignores Sanders, making clear they are indeed the Clinton News Network. Fox recently hosted a debate wherein Glen Beck squared off with Bill O’Reilly and argued that Trump is one of his mythical boogieman progressives, a sure indicator of the angst within some wings of the GOP. The liberal media demonization of Trump has less to do with anti-racism and much more to do with anxiety within the investment banks over potential regulations. On January 16, one could read on Twitter about NARAL Pro-Choice making the rounds in Iowa and knocking on doors for Clinton. That a pro-choice organization would show support for a woman who has previously demonized abortion care and sold poor women out with the defenestration of Welfare, the Hillary-care debacle, and the rejection of single-payer healthcare in the name of the HMO/Big Pharma bail-out called the Affordable Care Act is a tenable explanation for why a woman’s right to choose is under such threat today in America. And again we find that Trump is Left of Clinton and probably just doing lip-service to the cameras by saying he is now anti-choice, for decades he has been vocal about support for choice.

Of course, the important lesson to take away from the populism of the last century is how it was co-opted. The Republicans and Democrats both co-opted the verbiage and ethos of the nascent labor, feminist, and African American rights movements and attached them to the candidacies of their candidates, creating the electoral successes of Teddy Roosevelt as opposed to Eugene V. Debs. Whether history will repeat itself here remains to be seen.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.