Today Mitt Romney is set to call out Donald Trump as a phony, and urged Republicans to grab this “moment of choosing” to shift the party back to the path of traditional Republican ideals. Meanwhile Bernie Sanders, stung on super Tuesday, continues to excite young Millennials who often show as much disdain for Hillary Clinton as they do for Donald Trump. This political cycle is not playing out as people predicted, confusing and alarming the political class. Journalists and comedians, however, have hit pay dirt!
So what’s going on, America? Why do things seem so topsy-turvy in politico-land? There’s been a lot on Trump, so let’s start with Sanders. I remember hearing about him back in 1990 as he ran for Congress in Vermont strongly opposing the build up to the Iraq War. As his career continued he was talked about as a “socialist” or “leftist” who reflected ideas outside the political mainstream – a maverick. The idea he would be a serious contender for the Presidency never entered my mind, he was too far out there.
So why has he captured the hearts and minds of not only Millennials, but many Democrats who fear that the establishment has sold out to big money? Perhaps foremost is the belief that wealth is increasingly flowing disproportionately too the very wealthy, weakening the middle class. Though the “occupy Wall Street” movement fizzled, the arguments, statistics and frustration that gave rise to it have not gone away. There is reason to be skeptical of a system whose greed brought the global economy to its knees in 2008 – with both the Clinton and Bush administrations taking deregulating Wall Street in a way that made that possible.
With the Cold War over, fear of socialism is obsolete. The label doesn’t conjure up visions of communist parades. Indeed, Sanders views are mainstream in Europe. He’d be a center-left politician in Germany, a country that is an economic powerhouse with the Socialists sharing power in government. His views aren’t dangerous, even if one doesn’t consider them feasible. Beyond that, Hillary’s been around a long time, has been constantly attacked by the GOP, and seems to represent the politics of the past rather than of the future. Sanders may be five years older than she is, but his message is fresh.
Yet it’s more: Sanders supporters often have a kind of messianic zeal to their cause, including a real dislike of Hillary. Many say they’d never support Clinton, some believing that Trump would be better than Hillary because he’d at least break with old practices.
Trump supporters, on the other hand, are driven more by nationalism, and a sense of loss – that the America they remember isn’t the America they experience now. They want a strong leader who can cut through special interests and entrenched elites to bring fundamental change – to make America great again, as he puts it. He speaks to those alienated by the cultural and demographic changes in past decades, who think America is broken and need a Bonapartist figure to put things right.
Just as Clinton cannot count on Sanders supporters to swing to her camp, Trump’s fans are not likely to support anyone else from the GOP, especially if it comes from an establishment coup meant to wrestle power away from primary voters intro the hands of the those behind closed doors.
I think both movements reflect something fundamental: politics is not what it used to be. Barack Obama’s rise, challenging Hillary and then easily beating once popular John McCain was the first sign of this change. The election of a black man named Barack Hussein Obama would have been unthinkable thirty years ago; it would not have happened if the demographics of the country were the same now as they were in the 1980s.
Then came the tea party – a reaction to the “strangeness” of Obama that swept conservatives into power in Congress in 2010, and whose stalwarts often now make up the Trump base. They weren’t so much ideologically conservative as culturally alienated. From gay marriage to Rudy Guiliani being appalled by Beyonce’s performance at half time at the Super Bowl, they feel that nefarious forces are turning the country into something different, something strange.
So Sanders supporters represent the new, progressive, 21st Century objection to the politics of old, while Trumps’s reflect the nostalgic embrace of fading cultural values. Each see the political elite as the enemy, out of touch with reality playing their own power games.
I believe this is a watershed year. The Republicans see that their approach of the last decade has failed; they need a new message to connect with voters. Democrats need to recognize that the support Bill Clinton got from Wall Street in the 90s – which at that time made him appear a responsible Democrat – now gets associated with an economy that increasingly favors the already rich and powerful. Both parties are dragging twentieth century ideas into a very different twenty first century. Trump and Sanders are making that painfully obvious to party leaders.