The media cannot help comparing Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders. And the comparison is not altogether wrong. Both candidates appeal to their respective bases. Both are challenging their party’s establishment choices. And both are drawing massive crowds while surging in national polls.
The left (understandably) cringes at such comparisons. Bernie Sanders, whatever you think of him, is a serious person with real ideas. He’s been a public servant since 1981, when he was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont. He’s now the longest-serving independent in the history of Congress. And his bid for the presidency, while a long shot, is clearly earnest.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, is a clown – a pompous, spray-tanned clown. More important, he’s not actually running for president. His candidacy is a piece of performance art, a self-promoting circus. No one paying attention believes he wants to be president – I suspect he wouldn’t run at all if this were a real possibility. Trump is campaigning because he can, because it bolsters his brand, and because people are dumb enough to listen to him talk about things he doesn’t understand. If anything, Trump’s campaign, much like Sarah Palin’s, is a reminder of just how broken and stupid our political system has become.
However wrong it feels, Democrats ought to embrace the juxtaposition of Trump and Sanders for at least two reasons. First, it’s accurate. Both candidates are indeed authentic representations of their party’s base. Trump is a near-perfect distillation of the modern American right: The bravado, the bigotry, the raging idiocy, the false confidence, and the lack of ideas – it's all there in one gloriously manicured body.
It’s not simply that Trump has bad ideas; it’s that he doesn’t have any ideas at all. And he’s quite explicit about this. His announcement speech was essentially a stream-of-consciousness rant, totally bereft of anything resembling a policy proposal. His entire platform consists of him telling you a) how rich and smart he is and b) how stupid and broke everyone else is. That’s it. If Trump were laughed out of conservative town halls, that’d be one thing. But he’s not. He’s embraced. According to this recent CNN poll, Trump is second only to Jeb Bush among national conservatives. This means Trump’s fevered ramblings are resonating with the Republican base, even if Trump himself doesn’t actually believe anything he says.
Bernie Sanders may well represent the “extreme” left of the Democratic Party, but he has real ideas; arguments can be made against them, of course, but the point is that he offers something substantive against which to argue. Unlike Trump, he has an actual platform, spelling out what he wants to do and how he intends to do it. From infrastructural decay to climate change to tax reform to higher education, Sanders is proposing solutions. Conservatives may not like those solutions, but they at least have to be reckoned with. This is a fundamental distinction between Trump and Sanders, one the GOP would prefer to ignore. Which leads me to the second reason why liberals should embrace Trump-Sanders comparisons.
To the extent that Trump and Sanders reflect the views of the right and left wings of their parties, they vividly clarify just how different the two parties are. It says something significant about the Republican Party that there’s space for someone like Trump or Sarah Palin or even Herman Cain in it. These people aren’t credible candidates; they’re product-pushing brands looking to capitalize on conservative credulity. I don’t believe the same can be said of Democratic candidates, no matter how wrong-headed you find their policy ideas.
Republican operatives know all of this to be true, which is why they’ll do everything they can to equate Sanders and Trump. But they’ll spin a false narrative. They’ll argue, as John Gibson on FoxNews.com does, that Democrats should be “embarrassed” by Sanders for the same reasons Republicans should be embarrassed by Trump. Nobody, especially Democrats, should fall for this.
There are crucial differences between Trump and Sanders, some of which are cited above. But the most important difference here is between the two parties. Trump’s circus act isn’t possible in the Democratic Party. There are no celebrity candidates on the left – and certainly none capable of polling at the level Trump does. Democrats have had their share of bad candidates over the years, but they’re bad for different (and less offensive) reasons than GOP candidates. They’re bad for reasons related to their ideas or campaign platform or something politically relevant.
Only in the Republican Party do unserious candidates emerge as contenders. Only in the Republican Party are half-baked celebrities allowed to hijack the process to promote their private careers. Only among conservative Republicans are hucksters like Trump embraced. Democrats can’t point these truths out enough.
The Republican Party created the Frankenstein that is Donald Trump. They’ve cultivated the idiocy he represents in their ranks for years. If Trump appeals to their base – and he obviously does – that tells you everything you need to know about who they are and what they stand for.
It also tells you how little respect the GOP has for the political process. There ought to be no place for Trump at this level of politics – in either party. But there is, and it’s telling that it’s permitted only in one party.