Team Crazy Wins the Sane State

Trump and Bernie won big in supposedly centrist New Hampshire. But their populist protest candidacies will only deepen Washington’s division and dysfunction.

02.10.16 7:26 AM ET

Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu is fond of saying “Iowa picks corn and New Hampshire picks presidents.” Let’s hope that he’s wrong this time, or America is headed for an apocalyptic “choice, not an echo” election.

Celebrity demagogue Donald Trump and democratic socialist Bernie Sanders won massive victories Tuesday, sweeping virtually every voter group in the Granite State. It was a night for pitchfork populism, with the politics of cultural and economic resentment hitting overdrive.

What’s truly troubling is that New Hampshire traditionally serves as a speed-bump in the crowded primary calendar, calming hyperpartisan passions and pandering. Unlike the low-turnout Iowa caucuses and play-to-the-base South Carolina, the “Live Free or Die” state offers an electorate that reflects the independent centrist sensibility of the American general electorate.

Forty-four percent of New Hampshire voters are registered independents, essentially mirroring national self-identification numbers. It’s an open primary, increasing competition and voter participation. And it’s a swing state, one of only seven that is considered up for grabs in a presidential election.

For Republicans, New Hampshire is a rare state where the party is evenly divided between conservatives and moderates. Libertarians have a strong presence and perhaps not coincidentally it’s the least religious state in the nation. Social-conservative litmus tests have limited appeal here. For example, New Hampshire became the first state to legalize marriage equality via the legislature in 2009. While the state isn’t exactly a bastion of racial diversity, New Hampshire has ideological diversity and a proud live-and-let-live culture. In the last two presidential primary cycles New Hampshire backed John McCain and Mitt Romney after the Iowa caucuses elevated Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. Earlier in the cycle, it seemed like one of the strong center-right governors—Chris Christie, John Kasich, or Jeb Bush—would be primed to repeat the pattern.

So much for that streak. The record will now show that Donald Trump romped to victory in 2016 with a nativist campaign. He updated the conservative populism of Pat Buchanan, the right-wing pundit who narrowly won the state in 1996 with an anti-immigrant, anti-trade, and anti-establishment agenda. Trump’s proudly anti-PC appeals defined deviancy down in this campaign, delighting in the attention that outrageously ugly “us against them” rhetoric can bring. His Teflon comes from being a reality-TV star with a reputation for ruthless business success. Fame and fury more than compensate for a lack of conservative philosophy to those folks who just want an anti-Obama in the White House. Trump’s victory cut across all age, income, and ideological groups, according to CNN’s exit polls—though the more educated and wealthy a voter is, the less likely they are to buy his B.S.

The prospect of a billionaire populist should be enough to make your head explode. But for the earnest liberal activists who clustered around Bernie Sanders’s insurgent campaign, the idea must be particularly insulting. 

After all, the energy behind Bernie’s campaign comes from righteous anger at income inequality that has only deepened in the wake of the Great Recession, making millennials more receptive to a democratic socialist agenda than at any time since post-war Progressive Party members insisted that “Uncle Joe” Stalin was simply misunderstood.

Sanders’s campaign has so far succeeded in making “moderate” a dirty word in the Democratic primary—a mirror image of what the dynamic Republicans have been wrestling with for decades. Whatever the ultimate impact, we are witnessing the birth of a left-wing Tea Party that may divide the Democratic Party—with predictable results—for decades to come.

No doubt Bernie’s big win was boosted by his status as a senator from Vermont. New Hampshire has traditionally rewarded neighboring state elected officials, from Paul Tsongas to John Kerry. But his campaign also became a crusade against the governing establishment represented by Hillary Clinton. In the psychology of support, it is cool to like Bernie now. And according to CNN’s exit polls, he won almost every voter cohort—including, somewhat surreally, moderate voters. Only non-white voters, senior citizens, and those who made over $200K supported Clinton in New Hampshire. 

It’s worth noting that these two opposite-in-everything men share two broad policy positions: a distrust of free-trade deals and a belief that big-money super PACs are trying to buy elections.

But while Bernie also rode a wave of populism to his victory, buoyed by his unscripted authenticity—any parallels to Trump stop there. While The Donald glories in incivility, Bernie refuses to go negative during the campaign. While Trump’s policies are all bumper-sticker bluster, Bernie glories in a five-year plan with detailed bullet points.

Perhaps the most relevant difference is that Trump has a positive primary calendar ahead of him—he leads the polls in the upcoming conservative states throughout the South. Bernie has a much tougher road ahead in states that are both more conservative and more diverse. Democratic socialists from Vermont via Brooklyn don’t expect a friendly reception in the South.

Adrenaline is surging for Trump and Sanders supporters after their lopsided wins in a centrist state. But there is something nihilistic behind the anti-establishment anger that drove them to the polls. Because polarization doesn’t solve problems—it compounds them. 

The authoritarian-tinged appeal of a strongman or the promise of ideological purity makes true-believers feel invincible—until they collide with reality in a constitutional democracy. Victory in presidential elections requires reaching out beyond the base and winning over the reasonable edge of the opposition. Effective presidential leadership requires working with Congress in a spirit of principled compromise, defining common ground, and achieving common goals. 

The frustration that many folks feel with Washington stems from its current division and dysfunction, the sense that special interests are ignoring the national interest. They’re right. But the populist protest candidacies of Trump and Sanders will only deepen Washington’s division and dysfunction because they don’t offer any practical bipartisan solutions as a matter of pride. Banning Muslim immigration or single-payer health care may have their constituencies but they aren’t going to pass Congress. Insults and ideological purity are only a recipe for further polarization, creating a feedback loop of frustration and alienation. Their prescriptions double-down on the disease.

Some hard-core partisan supporters no doubt love the idea of a Trump-Sanders general election, effectively forcing America to choose between two extreme visions. But despite their current popularity with the partisan base, neither man represents the vast majority of Americans. And here’s a proof-point to keep the moderate majority from fearing the future: Less than 0.3 percent of Americans have voted so far in the 2016 primaries. We’ve still got some time for sanity to catch up with all the crazy talk.