February 28, 2020

Trump and Sanders: Two Sides of the Same Thorn

by Hal Gershowitz

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The thorn, of course, is that sharp barb sticking in the side of the American body politic. It is the sense of widespread dissatisfaction, if not animus, tens of millions of Americans feel toward what (or who) they see as the ruling class. That thorn is also an irresistible opening for political opportunists

While polls tell us that many voters may feel the country is moving in the right direction, they don’t always attribute that reality to the politicians roosting in Congress or in the White House, nor should they. Politicians are often the beneficiaries of robust economies rather than the source of strong economies. By 2016 the Obama Administration reigned over an economy that saw unemployment decline from an inherited ten percent to under five percent, but that didn’t catapult Democrat Hillary Clinton to the White House. 

The economy felt good, but the voters didn’t–not enough of them, anyway. Tens of millions of voters felt (and feel) that their concerns and opinions no longer penetrate into the bastions of power in Washington. Some of the discontent they feel is entirely justified. Some of it is exaggerated—carefully exaggerated and weaponized by calculating politicians and scoundrels using supercharged social media and cable news outlets hungry for controversy. 

By almost every imaginable measure people should be pretty content, if not happy, in America. More people are working than ever before and unemployment is at historic lows. Nonetheless, the people really don’t seem that happy in America today. And why should they? 

Too many families are perilously close to personal bankruptcy were they to be faced with an unanticipated emergency, such as a bad diagnosis following a routine medical exam. Household debt is too high. Consumer debt currently hovers above $14 trillion. And while we don’t know exactly what to make of that, it’s a safe bet that many families are scared to death of an interruption to their income. Most families, unlike some businessmen and politicians, abhor the thought of bankruptcy.

Forty percent of Americans, nearly 130 million, live in coastal areas, and are warned daily that climate change can really wipe them out. While a butterfly flapping its wings in Panama probably can’t cause a typhoon in New York, someone sneezing in Wuhan China really is something about which to worry. Then there is that inconvenient reality that there were 417 mass shootings in the United States in 2019, thirty-one of which were mass murders, according to the Gun Violence Archive which tracks every mass shooting in the country. And there is the incessant, awful and predictable supercharged political barking and sniping that assaults the body politic nearly every hour of every day. 

Finally, most of us are wary of change. It’s human nature. And change is rapidly occurring all around us. We take comfort in what we are used to, and often grow distrustful of the new and different. We forget that progress and growth are historically the progeny of change. Nonetheless, change is often disquieting and unsettling. The employment market is rapidly morphing from manufacturing jobs to service jobs. Artificial intelligence threatens higher paid white-collar workers more than assembly-line blue collar workers, and the nation’s demography is rapidly changing as well. In another two decades, most Americans will no longer trace their ancestry to Europe. Yes, times are changing, and so has the mood of the country. We shouldn’t be surprised. Alvin Toffler wrote about it a half century ago in his best-selling, “Future Shock.” So did business guru Peter Drucker with his insightful, “Age of Discontinuity.”

So where are the people to turn for mature, well-reasoned reassurance. Certainly not to the White House where tweetstorms, schoolyard name calling, policy by whim, and purges of key government officials have become de rigueur. And certainly not to American Socialist and curmudgeon-in-chief, Bernie Sanders, who has made a career of complaining about, well, just about everything except the old Soviet Union, Castro’s Cuba, and the former Sandinistan Nicaragua. Tens of millions of Americans are no longer seeking mature, well-reasoned reassurance. Many are, understandably, frustrated and frustrated people often become angry people. And who better to appeal to angry people than angry politicians. 

Enter Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, both of whom have made political careers of haranguing. Trump by tearing down his opponents and detractors with childish monikers and personal, even vicious, attacks. He scapegoats immigrants, saying he wants only the best educated and most skilled immigrants such as those from Norway, but the best educated and most skilled immigrants don’t come from Norway. Actually, they come from Nigeria. We’ve yet to hear Trump plea for more immigrants from Nigeria. Sanders harangues incessently by seeing only the worst in the best economic system in history. Both Trump and Sanders enjoy feverishly loyal followings. “They tell it like it is,” most of their follower like to say, even though they often tell it like it isn’t.

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson summed up this week the unauthentic authenticity that both Trump and Sanders claim, but that neither possess. 

“Finally, it is dangerous to identify authenticity with being a disruptive outsider,” Gerson writes. “Trump’s lack of governing experience did not provide him with fresh perspective; it led to governing incompetence. His disrespect for institutions led to an assault on essential institutions, including the FBI, the Justice Department and the intelligence services. The promise by a politician to burn down the house is visceral and emotional. That does not make institutional arsonists more sincere or wise. It is possible to authentically love American institutions while seeking their renovation. In the upside-down world of American politics, Sanders and Trump are given credit by their followers for vices that corrupt democracy. Meanwhile, grace, careful rhetoric, learning and governing skill have few practitioners and few defenders.

There is a thorn in the side of our American body politic. Politicians like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders see the thorn and twist it to their advantage. They are two sides of the same thorn.

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