To quote Stephen Colbert, the difference between Bernie and Trump “is not so YUUUUGE.” Both of them are exploiting anger among their bases. The Republicans are upset that their leaders aren’t ideologically pure, are in the pockets of big business, and can’t seem to stop Obama. Democrats are upset because Obama the change maker turned out to be Obama the pragmatist. He has not been as progressive as many on the Left had hoped, and many liberals are worried that Hillary will turn out to be even less progressive than Obama. Enter Bernie and The Donald. They have both painted themselves as a solution to the problems that plague their respective parties. They promise to escape corporate control through self-funding and breaking the “billionaire class.” They claim to be looking out for the disenfranchised and are responding to the view that both parties are simply made up of elitists who don’t care about average Americans. In fact, their messages are so similar that Trump once mistook a Sander’s campaign message as his own.
There is one crucial difference between Bernie and Trump, though, and that is that Trump is winning and Bernie is not. Why is this the case? Ultimately, I think it comes down to the past eight years. The Democrats have been in power for almost a decade now, and despite Republican obstinance, they have managed to actually accomplish some of their agenda. From implementing Keynesian measures to passing Obamacare, Democrats have a record to point to when their base gets antsy. Moreover, because the Democrats have been in power for so long, they have had to be realistic in their goals and aspirations, and they have passed this message down to their base. As Kircheimer notes, parties out of power often become more radical because they feel marginalized and mistreated. Party leaders promise anything and everything in order to rally the base and sweep into office. However, once parties ascend to political power, they realize that most of their promises are unfulfillable and moderate their message to conform to the realities of governing. Because the Democrats have been in power, they have been forced to temper their base’s beliefs. Therefore, even with all the frustration on the far left, there isn’t the same amount of populist anger and distrust as on the Right. This effectively caps Bernie’s support because there just aren’t enough Democrats willing to support such an extremist candidate.
The Republicans are a completely different story. Ever since the Democrats assumed the White House, the Republicans have been peddling myths and conspiracy theories left and right. From the claim that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. to the argument that Obama is un-American and intentionally trying to destroy the country, the Right has become a breeding ground for complete nonsense. This climate wasn’t helped by the Tea Party, a movement fully endorsed by right-leaning media like Fox News, which argued that any compromise with the other side was treason against the party. This group promised the world. They would repeal Obamacare, they would invest trillions into the military, and they would eliminate the deficit even if it meant shutting down the government. However, by promising things they could never deliver, they further undermined trust in the Republican establishment. After all, if even the purist Tea Party was forced to compromise with Democrats, who could the Republican base trust? Trump is the natural answer, and he has exploited the climate of paranoia and hatred that the Republicans have been so carefully cultivating for the past eight years. The Republicans have trained their base well, and now it is coming back to bite them.
The fundamental difference is in the philosophy of their respective parties. Ultimately, I believe that this is the variable that explains the difference in Bernie and Trump’s levels of success. In all other respects, Bernie and Trump are strikingly similar: they are populist candidates who are catering to those in their party who are frustrated with politics as usual. What is interesting is where the parties go from here. Does Bernie’s run trigger a liberal Tea Party movement? Do the Republicans stop their strategy of enabling bigotry and conspiracy theories? More bizarrely, might the Republican elite support Hillary or run a third party candidate against Trump? I’m really not sure. Evan is far more well-versed in domestic campaign politics than I am, so I am interested to hear his opinion. One thing I am sure about, though, is that Trump is a phenomenon created entirely by the Republicans, and he represents a fundamental problem that the party will have to figure out how to address. If the establishment isn’t swift and decisive, we might witness the end of the Republican Party as we know it.