Donald Trump has taken the low road and turned “populist” anger upside down. He’s the super-rich guy ridiculing “stupid” people who run the government, while he tattles on fellow billionaires and how they buy politicians to get free stuff from Washington.
The news media fell in love with the Donald’s wicked tongue. He is spicing up dull old democracy for them. His nasty and reactionary wisecracks are often funny, if aimed at stuffed shirts in high places. Not funny but ugly-mean when he targets immigrants, women, racial minorities.
Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, is on the high road, plowing similar furrows of dissent in a far more serious and substantive way, but with a lot less media play. Bernie doesn’t do cat fights and personalized insults. Instead, he’s describing an agenda for governing—left-liberal reforms to block “corporate greed” and restore economic security for low-wage workers and middle-class families.
Neither seems likely to become president. Even so, Trump and Sanders are, in very different ways, threatening to the old order. Both are shining bright lights, in contrast to shallow, stalemated two-party politics. Donald and Bernie, separately or together, possess serious potential to alter the landscape of two-party politics by redefining constituencies and convictions, transforming the content and character of one or both parties.
The ingredients are present for some kind of crackup. Which voters are the real Republicans? What does the Democratic Party actually believe? And does it even matter? People know that one party or the other had something to do with wrecking America. Lots of voters are ready to try something else.
The essence of what Trump is peddling is rancid nostalgia—a random medley of regrets and resentments about how things used to be in “the good old days,” when America was great. When the nation didn’t hesitate to run over bad guys if they got in the way. When smart-tough people knew how to make things work. Trump says he still does. He talks like a can-do chief executive who sprinkles his rants with gutter-talk prejudices. The shock of his blatant incorrectness draws nervous laughter.
Sanders is selling universal hope and inclusiveness. Earnestly explaining what government must do to restore economic equity and security, Sanders talks concretely about who’s to blame: the One Percent at the top, who got all the money. Some of his proposals are broad intentions, others are precisely focused on how oligarchs looted Washington. In every event, Bernie is pumping up his crowds with optimism and energy. No time for cynics or despair.
Hope versus nostalgia. Bitter “frankness” from the Donald, or Bernie’s “happy warrior” vision of what Americans want the country to become? The contrast poses a challenging test for voters of all hues and persuasions. Trump and Sanders are not running against each other, of course. But they are effectively competing for overlapping pools of discontented voters from both parties.