Sanders the populist, Trump the fascist:
The truth about comparing two unlikely presidential contenders

While both Sanders and Trump have seized on populist groundswells, Trump's success has more sinister connotations

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published August 26, 2015 11:58AM (EDT)

  (AP/Mary Schwalm/Charlie Riedel)
(AP/Mary Schwalm/Charlie Riedel)

Comparisons between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are often lazy and sloppy—a point Chris Hayes humorously underscored recently by demonstrating how both men pronounce “huge” the same distinctive way—but there is an element of truth involved: they represent two different forms of a worldwide populist phenomena that's become much more prominent since the Great Recession hit in 2008, promoting a dramatic rise in discontent with national and global elites, whose basic competence is severely in doubt.

The University of Kentucky Press says regarding populism in its blurb for the book "The Promise and Perils of Populism: Global Perspectives":

From the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the Tea Party in the United States to the campaign to elect indigenous leader Evo Morales in Bolivia, modern populist movements command international attention and compel political and social change. When citizens demand “power to the people,” they evoke corrupt politicians, imperialists, or oligarchies that have appropriated power from its legitimate owners. These stereotypical narratives belie the vague and often contradictory definitions of the concept of “the people” and the many motives of those who use populism as a political tool.

While it's certainly too simplistic to argue that the left/right dichotomy alone can illuminate, clarify, and resolve all the vagueness and contradiction involved, it's vastly more simplistic to ignore how the right/left dichotomy can shed light on distinctive differences, which elite commentators routinely ignore, and which just happen to go to the heart of some of the most pressing issues of our age—not to mention the 2016 election cycle.

The quote above cited the Tea Party as an example of populism. But their demand for power—though cloaked in terms of anti-elitism—is actually aimed at dis-empowering an increasingly diverse electorate with a much more inclusive sense of who “the people” are. This can be seen most vividly in the Tea Party's embrace of Birtherism, as well as the myth of rampant voter fraud, in addition to their hostility to immigration, and it goes to the heart of the left/right distinction in terms of populist thought: rightwing populism is more driven by imaginary fears, whereas leftwing populism is more driven by concrete hopes.

As I reported here last year, cognitive scientists now believe that “conservatives differ from liberals by having stronger, more intense reactions to negative aspects of the environment — such as physical threats, or potential sources of disease — which are ultimately physiological.” And I cited “conservative fears of nonexistent or overblown boogeymen — Saddam’s WMD, Shariah law, voter fraud, Obama’s radical anti-colonial mind-set, Benghazi, etc. — ” as evidence of prudent risk avoidance having “morphed into a state of near permanent paranoia, especially fueled by recurrent 'moral panics,' a sociological phenomenon in which a group of 'social entrepreneurs' whips up hysterical fears over a group of relatively powerless 'folk devils' who are supposedly threatening the whole social order.”

Such is the setting for rightwing populism in America today, but it bears little resemblance to what's happening on the left. Specific empirically-informed demands, such as strengthening Social Security, which Bernie Sanders has built his campaign on, can straight-forwardly contribute to building a better, fairer world, in which ordinary people can thrive. Although framed in terms of challenging a corrupt system, they go far beyond simplistically assigning blame, informed with significant concrete evidentiary support.

In sharp contrast, Trump's shadowboxing with mythic phobias—Obama's birth certificate last cycle, immigrant rapists this time around—is much more of a cathartic performance, aimed only at a select part of the electorate, Sarah Palin's “real Americans.” Digging down into the details, greater overlap between the two appears on some issues—both oppose cutting Social Security and Medicare, for example—but not on others: Sanders supports raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, while Trump recently said, "I think having a low minimum wage is not a bad thing for this country."

We'll return to the overlap in a moment. But what's most significant is the profound difference in the very nature of their thinking. Sanders' no-nonsense thinking is deeply informed by his engagement with reality—both the reality of decades working with constituents to help solve their problems, and the reality of how other countries have created better lives for their own citizens—universal healthcare, paid sick leave and family leave, etc. Trump's thinking, in sharp contrast, is soaked in fantasies, both those shared with GOP base voters, and his own personal set of narcissistic fantasies expressed in trumpeting his own self-importance.

Clinical psychologist Joseph Burgo has written that Trump is an extreme narcissist who relies on “a characteristic set of defenses to evade painful truths about themselves and to shore up that inflated sense of self: righteous indignation, blame, and contempt.” He adds that “For voters who may feel small and helpless in the face of rapid change...Trump models a simplistic way to vanquish self-doubt and defend oneself against existential anxiety. The rise of Donald Trump thus marks the fusion of populism and narcissism.”

Burgo's use of the term “populism” follows common practice in elite discourse, which fails to distinguish between left and right populism, as well as ignoring ways populism has developed sophisticated analyses, policies and practices. But he's spot on in connecting Trump's narcissistic mindset with broader cultural tensions that come to a head on the populist right. While full-blown narcissism is relatively rare (the figure of 1% frequency is common), it neatly fits together with broader tendencies such as rigthwing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation, whose ideological connections have been studied for decades.

The quintessential expression of this fusion is when Trump speaks of his unique ability to “make America great again,” a promise that carries with it the whiff of fascism, whose mythic core, in Roger Griffin's influential formulation, is “a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism,” or, less densely, “the vision of the nation being capable of imminent phoenix-like rebirth from the prevailing crisis and decadence in a revolutionary new political and cultural order embracing all the ‘true’ members of the national community.”

One way to highlight the differences between left- and right-wing populism is through examples from history. At its height, the populist movement of a century ago, although born in the very white prairie states, reached into the South, forging a powerful biracial coalition, which even briefly gained statewide power in North Carolina, but soon fell apart, typified by the trajectory of Tom Watson, who shifted from supporting black voting rights and condemning lynching in the 1890s to identifying as a white supremacist when became the Populist Party's presidential nominee in 1908, as its popularity fell sharply.

Half a century after Watson, George Wallace followed a similar ark. He began as a populist, whose relative racial fairness got him endorsed by the NAACP in his first failed run for governor, against an opponent, John Patterson, endorsed by the KKK, after which he declared, “I was outniggered by John Patterson. And I'll tell you here and now, I will never be outn*****ed again.”

Neither Watson nor Wallace were necessarily tools of conservative elites, but as they turned from left-wing to right-wing populism, they picked up the tools that conservative elites favored. Wallace explained his change of focus to one questioning supporter four years after his first run, “You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor.”

From Wallace, through Nixon's “Southern Strategy,” through Ronald Reagan, the maniupulation of rightwing populist resentments became increasingly refined. Yet, despite what conservative elites wanted, the rightwing masses still wanted their Social Security and Medicare as much as anyone else—well, almost. As I noted here at Salon back in November, 2013, when asked by the General Social Survey, from 2000 to 2012, if we were spending “too little” rather than “too much” on Social Security and “improving and protecting the nation’s health,” liberal Democrats said “too little” rather than “too much” on one or both by a ratio of 36-1 (87.1% to 2.4%), while conservative Republicans agreed by a ratio of 4.5-to-1 (59.2% 13.1%). So, when Obama and Democrats in Congress have tried to be “responsible” and “bipartisan” in “controlling spending” on Medicare and Social Security, they've not only alienated their own base, they've opened themselves up for attacks in campaign ads appealing to just about everyone.

In short, slashing the welfare state is popular with elites, but not with ordinary Americans—an observation that fits in well with points raised by Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein in articles this summer that (even with his obvious racism, and other problems) Trump makes a much better fit with average American's political views than the GOP party elites do—and this says a lot about his staying power that should not be ignored.

In mid-July, Yglesias wrote “Trumpism would be the perfect ideology for a third party,” in which he argued:

Trumpism is what a third party would have to sound like to get traction in America — a grab bag of issue positions that appeal to a substantial minority of the electorate but that neither party wants to wholeheartedly embrace because the ideas are too toxic in the elite circles that fund campaigns. But a Trump-like figure can run a national campaign on a Trump-like agenda since he's rich enough to fund himself.

It would be, a subhead said, “Like Unity '08, but the opposite.” Instead of “an agenda cherry-picked from the establishment wings of both parties — an agenda that adds up to a globalization-oriented, business-friendly platform watered down with light dollops of concern for the indigent, the global poor, and the environment,” exemplified by Michael Bloomberg, the Simpson-Bowles Commission, “No Labels” and others of like ilk, Trumpism proposes the opposite: a combination of economic nationalism and support for the welfare state, at least where it matters most for white voters:

Trump is nominally positioned as a kind of conservative Republican, but as a recent Republican leadership summit in New Hampshire, Trump criticized other Republicans —including Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush — who want to "do a big number" on Social Security and Medicare. Trump objected to cutting those programs, saying, "It’s not fair to the people that have been paying in for years."

Trump instead suggests that by minimizing outsourcing and increasing the number of American jobs, the budget issue with Medicare would "take care of itself."

As already noted, Trump falls in line with the rest of the GOP in opposing a higher minimum wage—a very unpopular view. But that's just another reminder that left and right populism really are two quite different creatures, however much they might share in common.

A month later, Klein wrote, “Donald Trump is the perfect 'moderate'," quoting from this earlier piece, then adding:

Trump's ideas are sometimes very liberal, sometimes very conservative, and sometimes completely incoherent. And that's true for a lot of voters, too.

This speaks to the problem with Washington's fetishization of moderate voters, which is more often a projection of what political elites wish nonaffiliated voters wanted than a serious engagement with what people ill-served by the two parties actually want.

On "All In With Chris Hayes" (video & Salon overview/transcript), Klein tied together two key points: first, that Trump's mix of issue positions, specifically on Medicare, Social Security and free trade, “match with the Republican base with ways Republican politicians rarely do,” and second that “he's operating in the cleavage between the Republican Party establishment and the Republican Party base,” which ordinary politicians simply cannot do, because the GOP has mechanisms to control them:

It can take away their money. It can take away their media access. It can take away their power in Congress. But nothing like that is working on Trump. Everything they do to destroy him only makes him stronger and that gives him this freedom to take these other positions that normal Republicans simply don`t have.

And in the long term, when you are going to have a lot of scrutiny on his policy, on his actual policies, you're going to have a lot of people listening up and thinking, actually, I agree with him more than I agree with Ted Cruz. I agree with him more than I agree with Chris Christie, who wants to raise the retirement age on Social Security.

Ironically, though Trump would deny it, this sort of ideologically heterodox mix of issues was similarly embodied by Ross Perot, who drew equally from Democrats and Republicans, as Rachel Maddow exhaustively explained last month. Trump mistakenly portrayed him as drawing all his support from Republicans: “I think every single vote that went to Ross Perot came from [George H.W.] Bush…Virtually every one of his 19 percentage points came from the Republicans. If Ross Perot didn't run, you have never heard of Bill Clinton.” This wasn't true for Perot, but it's closer to the truth for Trump, because he injects specifically rightwing populist elements, such as his attacks on Mexican immigrants as rapists, which distinctively skew his appeal.

The point here is that two seemingly contradictory things are true at once: On the one hand, Trump embraces a heterodox issue mix that doesn't fit neatly into any orthodox ideological slot, and thus potentially has bipartisan appeal, yet Trump also highlights a distinctive rightwing cluster of views, which can have the effect of pulling the entire political spectrum sharply to the right, suddenly getting us talking about getting rid of birthright citizenship, a principle of English common law dating back to circa 1600, centuries before the 14th Amendment, as if that weren't enough. Thus, while Yglesias points out that “Tump speaks for the nearly 40 percent of people who tell pollsters there are too many immigrants in America,” Gallup also shows far more opposition among Republicans, and there's clearly quite a difference between “dissatisfaction,” which Gallup asked about, and and hysteria, which Trump has played to with his fact-free incendiary rhetoric. All other things being equal, this should severely limit his cross-partisan appeal.

But Trump is a long-time TV personality, who knows more about self-presentation in the medium than all 17 of his GOP rivals combined. In the medium of reality TV (which is what the GOP race has turned into) a great many sins can be forgiven, ignored, or—more powerfully—represented as virtues instead. The rules in that medium are simply not the same. It is a form of virtual reality, though one so familiar we would never label it as such. It is also Donald Trump's home turf, and so long as he's able to keep fighting on that turf, he's like to keep winning, and defying people's expectations.

Real-world truth is never an issue in reality TV. Pretending that immigration is up, rather than down, since the Great Recession, or that illegal immigrants are more law-breaking, rather than less, compared to native-born Americans—these false claims that underly Trump's candidacy are not checkable matters of fact in his reality TV campaign world, they are both article of faith and psychological bonds he strikes with his angry and frustrated voter base, and there is no clear limit to how far right these bonds can shift the debate, given that contradictory facts only intensify those bonds.

This recalls a basic truth articulated by Roger Griffin in the paper linked to above:

Both the fascist imagining of the organic, heroic nation and the archetypal image of rebirth are equally projections of human mythopoeia. They combine in Fascism to generate an intrinsically utopian form of politics in which the reality principle is constantly overridden by the mythic imperative, producing a growing dislocation between wishful thinking and brute facts, between rhetoric and the objective truth which inevitably leads to disaster.

This isn't to say that Trump is a fascist—but the commonalities are impossible to ignore.

Bernie Sanders is the opposite extreme, grounded in a practice of genuinely working politics, focused on fixing problems you can touch, taste, feel and see. He got his start as a politician—not just a candidate—not quite as a small town mayor, but close—a small city one. He dug deep roots into working through problems with diverse sectors of the community, as well as devoting himself zealously to constituent services, so there was nothing abstract about the idea of government working to help solve people's problems.

Since moving to the House and then the Senate, he's consistently done well in the most conservative part of the state, the Northeast Kingdom, as an NPR story from 2014 explained. He listens to everyone and fights for those who need it most, regardless of what others might expect. A sharp critic of costly, ill-conceived wars, he's a fierce advocate for veterans, seeing their needs as one of wars' heaviest costs of all. And then there's his relationships with small business owners:

Randy Meade, a dairy farmer, is a gun owner, thinks gay marriage is immoral and says the government should spend a lot less. But he has always voted for Sanders because he says Sanders protects small farmers like him against the larger dairy farms. When milk prices dropped a few years ago, the senator led the push for more government assistance so family farms wouldn't go out of business.

"He's not intimidated by large money," Meade says. "He's not intimidated by well-dressed people with, you know, $2-, $3,000 suits. That's not Bernie. And that's not us either."

Sanders doesn't hold back in criticizing the super-wealthy, big banks or corporations, but he's consistently criticizing actions, behavior, policy, ideas—not other politicians. In all of this he is the very antithesis of Donald Trump. Here's what he said in his campaign announcement speech:

Let’s be clear. This campaign is not about Bernie Sanders. It is not about Hillary Clinton. It is not about Jeb Bush or anyone else. This campaign is about the needs of the American people, and the ideas and proposals that effectively address those needs. As someone who has never run a negative political ad in his life, my campaign will be driven by issues and serious debate; not political gossip, not reckless personal attacks or character assassination. This is what I believe the American people want and deserve. I hope other candidates agree, and I hope the media allows that to happen. Politics in a democratic society should not be treated like a baseball game, a game show or a soap opera. The times are too serious for that.

This focus on issues plays to his strengths, as shown by a January 2015 poll by the Progressive Change Institute, which shows strong support for the kinds of issues Sanders is focused on. For example:

  • 78% support giving students the same low interest rates as big banks
  • 77% support universal pre-kindergarten
  • 75% support fair trade that protects workers, the environment, and jobs
  • 74% support end tax loopholes for corporations that ship jobs overseas
  • 71% support debt-free college at all public universities
  • 71% support infrastructure jobs program of $400 billion / year
  • 71% support Medicare buy-in for all
  • 70% support green new deal -- millions of clean-energy jobs
  • 70% support expand social security benefits
  • 67% support end tax deductions for wall street fines
  • 67% support retrain coal miners and oil workers for clean energy jobs
  • 64% support full minimum wage for tipped workers
  • 63% support free community college
  • 59% support a minimum guaranteed income
  • 59% support taxing the rich at a 50% rate

With numbers like these, it's no surprise Ann Coulter has expressed some alarm about Sanders recently. As seen in other countries, such as Spain and Greece, left populism can have a strong nationalist component, but that need not turn toxic, as right populism invariably does. After all, as Benjamin Barber pointed out in "Jihad vs. McWorld," national social democracies had a multi-generation record of producing a more viable third alternative, and more localized versions hold renewed promise for the future. At root, left populism is basically a reaffirmation and expansion of social democracy—and the list of of issues just cited above shows just how popular it remains.

Is it any wonder, then, that elite media loves Donald Trump? His clownish sort of rightwing populism is much more to their liking than Bernie Sanders and his sober leftwing populist facts.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

MORE FROM Paul Rosenberg