Six months ago, if someone had offered a wager that in late August the two leading presidential candidates would be Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders; I would have probably borrowed heavily to bet against it.
Yes, the breakout stars of 2015 are two old white guys from the outer boroughs of New York. In the summer of America’s discontent, Sanders and Trump have tapped into a deep vein of anti-Washington voter frustration to capture a quarter of their (adopted) parties’ voters and taken the country by surprise. Much to the chagrin of both parties, they continue to gain traction with people. If either or both are nominated, it will prove that the knowledge of virtually all political consultants and operatives, relative to presidential elections, is wrong.
“He can’t possibly win the nomination” is the phrase often heard when Washington insiders mention either Trump or Sanders. Yet as enthusiasm for the bombastic billionaire and the socialist senior continues to build within each party, the political establishment is mystified.
On the left, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is unapologetic about his socialist views. He offers a searing indictment of modern capitalism and vows to “transform” the country.
On the right, Donald Trump is equally unapologetic about everything; but in particular his nationalism. He boasts that he is “the most militaristic person” in the world. His favorite national-security idea is to build a wall, and to punitively make Mexico pay for it. His second-favorite idea is to use the U.S. military to take Middle Eastern oil at gunpoint.
Trump’s power is in his straight-talk and appearance as a leader, while Sanders appears to serve as a rallying point for a mass movement that promises to save the country through specific reforms and to which he, as the leader, is almost incidental.
Trump taps into anger and resentment, especially among white men and the uneducated, and he provides a voice for the people who see their world crumbling and are looking for someone to blame. He speaks what many Republicans are thinking; he is just honest in actually saying it. Perhaps when party leaders are faced with the honesty of their own rhetoric, they cringe over what they have unleashed.
Aside from some similar-sounding populist rhetoric on trade and campaign finance, the two men’s views are in direct opposition.
Both are tapping into anti-establishment, pro-outsider sentiment that is emerging as a potent force early in the campaign cycle. Years of dissatisfaction with Washington leaders, along with a thirst for authenticity in politics, is leading voters to at least contemplate something dramatically different this year.
It can certainly be argued that America’s two parties are corrupted by lobbyists and donors, cling to government institutions that work for party interests rather than for a people buffeted by change, and have worn out their welcome. There is an increasing perception among “base voters” that they are being taken for granted.
Whether right or wrong, more people now believe that politicians care only about their careers.
Republicans, who promised to end the gravy train of government benefits, or at a minimum slow it down, have not reduced the spending spree.
Democrats have not reduced poverty or elevated the middle class, despite record amounts of spending on anti-poverty programs and promises to support those who exist somewhere between wealth and poverty.
Perhaps both Trump and Sanders have hit on the same populist sentiment: spineless elites have left the rest of the country at the mercy of global economic anarchy, and then seek to employ incompatible solutions.
Neither candidate belongs to the party of the nomination sought. Trump said he identified “more as a Democrat” in 2004, declined to affiliate with the party in 2012, and up until that election had given significantly more money to Democrats. Sanders, proudly is an Independent. He describes himself as a “democratic socialist” and boasted earlier this year that he is “outside of the two-party system, defeating Democrats and Republicans.”
Neither feels the need to play ball according to party rules, because they weren’t reared in their parties. Both men can honestly say “I don’t particularly support any party because no party particularly supports me.”
But all of this has not appeared to frighten the major party leaders.
The Republican Party establishment would love to tell Donald Trump “You’re fired” but they can’t. He does not need them. But that certainly does not mean he is a shoe-in to win the party nomination or presidency.
Similarly, the Democratic establishment views Sanders as an impediment to their inevitable candidate, Hillary Clinton.
Is an oligarchy that has controlled American politics for generations still firmly in control, despite the illusion of change? Do the puppet masters behind the political facade have absolutely no fear of a Donald Trump or a Bernie Sanders, and believe that both are part of a traveling sideshow on the road to the primaries and the November 2016 presidential election?
Will Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton sit in the White House come January 2017; and everything between now and then is little more than pure political theater?
Both are viewed as experienced hands who know how the game of politics and government is supposed to be played. But that is precisely what many or most of the voters hate. They are fed up with the status quo. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome, many voters see a Bush-Clinton match as simply insane.
A fact of these “dynasty candidates” is that a member of their families has been on the presidential ticket for seven of the last nine elections.
But, how honest are the current actions and apparent preferences of the voters?
If Donald Trump runs against Bernie Sanders in the general election next year, Americans would have a real choice between an unabashed capitalist and an enthusiastic socialist. One candidate would rail against the power of the “billionaire class,” while the other once said that “part of the beauty of me is that I am very rich.”
Both are true outsiders. If nominated, Trump would be the first Republican candidate to have never held elective office since Eisenhower. Sanders, if nominated and elected, would be the first socialist president and complete the dream of Eugene V. Debs, the early 20th century socialist presidential candidate who received nearly a million votes in 1920.
Yes, many Americans declare that they are fed up with our political system and politicians in general. Will they revolt against the status quo to nominate and elect a different type? It would be refreshing to see what happens if a true outsider is introduced into the gridlock that is Washington, D.C.
Or, will they revert to the two political establishment candidates, whose combined families have held the presidency for twenty of the past twenty-seven years? If so, the system will likely remain very much the same as now and has probably been since Ronald Reagan.