I’ve been thinking lately about all this lumping together of Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Ben Carson. They supposedly represent a trend because they’re all “outsiders,” or “anti-party men,” as David Brooks recently put it. But it isn’t just Brooks of course; this is the cliché of the moment.
Journalists are always on the lookout for patterns, and we’re all taught in j-school that if we can just come up with three, bam, we’ve got not a mere coincidence but a verifiable social trend on our hands, and this gives us license to start waxing sociological. This is the famous Rule of Three, and I guess we all do it (actually, Brooks tossed in a fourth, British Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, whose fate will be known when leadership results are announced tomorrow, in case you’re interested), but the years have taught me to arch an eyebrow every time I see it invoked. And I’m arching one here in a big way. Because Bernie Sanders is nothing like Donald Trump or Ben Carson.
Yeah, yeah, he’s anti-establishment. But Sanders is anti a completely different establishment from the establishment that Trump and Carson are against. Trump and Carson are against the liberal establishment—Barack Obama, the Clintons, the liberal media, political correctness, and so on. It’s slightly more complicated in Trump’s case than Carson’s, since Trump does take a few heterodox positions like taxing the hedge-fund guys, while Carson is straight paleocon from top to bottom. But basically, these two are running against the liberal elite.
Sanders, in contrast, is running against the actual establishment: the moneyed class, Wall Street, the banks, the people who buy and sell the political class. He seeks a wholesale transfer of wealth and power from the top 1 percent to the 99. Trump is the 1 percent, and Carson reveres them. How can anybody possibility see the remotest similarity?
Here’s more: Sanders is far more substantive than either Trump or Carson. Off the top of my head, I can think of the following list of Sanders proposals: free college tuition, higher taxes on the rich, an increased minimum wage, infrastructure investments, and fairly specific actions on immigration and climate change and criminal justice and a whole range of issues. He is a person of substance on domestic policy. And even though foreign policy is not Sanders’s strong suit, I would wager that he knows the difference between the Quds Forces and the Kurds and has a pretty good idea of who Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is. Meanwhile, Trump has one specific policy, which is a ludicrous one (hire enough badges to round up and deport 11 million people), and Carson has no major interesting policy positions that I’m aware of.
OK, I’m sure he probably has some, but the fact that I don’t know them—and you probably don’t either—is telling, and it gets to the heart of why Sanders is not like Trump or Carson. It has to do not with differences among these three men, their character and qualities and whatnot; it has to do with the differences between anger on the left and anger on the right, and how both are manifested. People on the left are angry about economics—about inequality and the new Gilded Age, and they have rallied to Sanders because of his positions. People on the right are angry about liberals and moochers and society and culture, and they have rallied to Trump and Carson because of who they are (or aren’t).
You might say but Tomasky, they rallied to Trump because of his immigration position. No—they rallied to him because of the way he said it. Because he said rapists. Let’s be honest here. Do you really think that with exactly the same policy, but without the bombastic rhetoric, Trump would be at 30 percent? No chance. The deportation policy might get him to 15. But it’s the way he communicates his contempt for liberal pieties that got him to 30. That’s what conservatives love.
Carson is a different case. He’s mild-mannered and soft-spoken. Even I would say he seems like a nice gentleman, his 17th-century views and his willingness to say blatantly untrue things aside. But he, too, has elitist liberals and political correctness firmly in his gun sights. And he’s a good Christian man, his little devotional book peddled in Christian bookstores across the country for years now. And like Trump—this is the one obvious thing they have in common—he’s never been an elected official, isn’t part of the problem, isn’t Jeb!
In other words: For the angry right, it’s more about affect and style. Now granted, there’s a certain amount of affect and style in Sanders’s appeal, too; the way he shakes his fist, the way his jowls vibrate, the way that Noo Yawk accent reverberates. He sounds like he means business when he talks smack on Wall Street. I’m not saying here that people on the left are wholly substantive and people on the right are wholly superficial. It’s not that stark.
But I will say this: I think there is zero chance that a left-wing Trump or Carson would be blowing away the field in a Democratic primary contest. They’d be the marginal candidates that they deserve to be. In fact, a left-wing Trump probably wouldn’t even be running as a Democrat but as the Green Party candidate or something, because a left-wing Trump would think the Democrats were just as corrupt and hopeless as the Republicans, because that’s how left-wingers think. The fringe people on the right take part in the two-party system, while the fringe people on the left by and large don’t. So most of left-wing Trump’s voters wouldn’t even be participating in Democratic Party politics.
Sanders may or may not be a viable general-election nominee. But he’s a serious person with serious ideas, and he isn’t a reality TV candidate.