What’s with the comparisons between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump?

If you had told a Very Serious Journalist a year ago that, in July 2015, democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and honey roasted wingnut Donald Trump would be in second place in their respective parties’ presidential primaries, they wouldn’t have even bothered to laugh.

Today, Very Serious Journalists, seeing those two men in second place in their respective parties’ presidential primaries, are writing Very Serious Articles suggesting that the two are equal and opposite flavors of radical. It’s the only way they can make sense of the phenomenon.

They all go something like this:

Bernie Sanders is an uncompromising and avowed socialist who hates the market and your freedom; Donald Trump is an uncompromising and avowed racist who hates Mexicans and their freedom. Both are the distilled essence of their parties’ core ideologies, so the two represent equal and opposite poles on our ideological spectrum. Both have gained momentum by appealing to the frustrations each party’s most radical wings have with their respective establishments. Therefore, Sanders is the Left’s Trump.

As Antonin Scalia would say, that argument is pure applesauce. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s similarities start and end with their position in the polls.

Those who make the comparison between Sanders and Trump can only do so by suggesting that Sanders’s views are radical so as to be out of step with the Democratic Party and the country as a whole. As I’ve noted before, Sanders was as liberal as David Vitter was conservative in the last Congress. His proposals for an infrastructure bank, free college tuition paid for by a speculation tax, single payer health care and an income tax increase for those making more than $600,000 per year are progressive, yes, but let’s be clear: They don’t come close to being the ideological analogs of the ideas being thrown around in the Republican primaries.

Rand Paul wants to implement a flat tax. Scott Walker thinks the minimum wage is a “lame idea.” Multiple mid-to-top-tier candidates are on record supporting a constitutional marriage amendment. Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal want to change or eliminate the Supreme Court. For his part, Donald Trump wants to build a Great Wall of America and have Mexico pay for it, which, by the way, is the only thing distinguishing him from his opponents.

Bernie Sanders, via AFGE / Flickr

Bernie Sanders, via AFGE / Flickr

One need only look to see how each candidates’ parties are reacting to them to see the difference. Hillary Clinton has already begun deploying surrogates to cast Sanders as a radical — a Ron Paul figure whose large crowds are themselves indicative of support that runs deep but not broad. The Republican Party, for their part, can’t cast Trump as a radical because of how little separation there is between him and the mainstream GOP — and how popular his racist rhetoric is within their party.

Sanders’s support is a measure of the substantive ideological differences between himself and Hillary Clinton. Trump’s support is a measure of the rhetorical amplification he has given to what the Republican field was already saying. As Ana Marie Cox wrote in The Daily Beast, in an article confusingly titled “Bernie Sanders is the Left’s Trump”:

When Democratic base voters flock to Sanders, they are expressing dissatisfaction what current Democratic policies. When Republican base voters flock to Trump, they are expressing dissatisfaction with Republican rhetoric.


Put another way, Bernie Sanders’s support is about Bernie Sanders. Donald Trump’s support is about everyone else.

That makes them different, not similar.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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12 Responses to “What’s with the comparisons between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump?”

  1. I think the article and the comments so far miss the real point. What is admired about Bernie is that (1) he is not Hillary — the hereditary presumptive queen — and (2) he is honest, candid, straight-forward. The fact that he is an avowed socialist in what is a covert socialist society is, however, probably a barrier to success. Still, he is not Hillary.

    Trump is admired because (1) he is not J.E.B. — the hereditary presumptive king — and (2) he is honest, candid, straight-forward. The fact that he appears to be an idiot is, however, probably a barrier to success. Still, he is not J.E.B.

    Bernie is smart — a political science graduate of the elite University of Chicago who made it and did brilliantly in politics. Donald is smart — an economics and anthropology graduate of the #1 business school in the country, Wharton, at the Ivy League elite University of Pennsylvania, and made billions in business.

    Hillary is a graduate of the elite Yale University School of Law, and failed the D.C. bar exam. She had an undistinguished record as a lawyer and has been riding on Bill Clinton’s coattails for her entire adult life. “Jeb” Bush graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Texas in Latin American Studies and went on to a reasonably successful career in real estate development and politics. Unlike his brother George, who couldn’t get into the University of Texas Law School, he did not fail in business and get picked up with family connections — although family connections is probably the reason he has had most of his success.

    I like Bernie and Trump. Neither would be my choice, but both are better than the hereditary political dynasts.

  2. White&Blue says:

    “For his part, Donald Trump wants to build a Great Wall of America and have Mexico pay for it” Wait,what? Is old Trumpie losing the last of his sanity like his hair? I know I’m not supposed to be surprised about the loonies, but this is something I never imagined one of them saying. Then again, Jon’s article about the Trump upping the stakes makes even more sense now.

  3. The_Fixer says:

    If Republicans were smart…

    That’s just the problem with them, they aren’t. In every election cycle, they’ve been trying the same thing – appealing to the most ridiculously extreme wing of the party. They’ve had occasional success with it, and now they can’t let go. They’re persistent, but that makes no difference if the American public is looking for something else, and they are. The fact that Bernie Sanders is drawing sizable crowds is a pretty good indicator that the Republican plan, such as it is, does not resonate with the public at all.

  4. Houndentenor says:

    Because despite Sanders reputation as the far left, he’s actually just talking about common sense proposals that would benefit the vast majority of working Americans. If Republicans were smart they’d be addressing these issues with proposals of their own.

  5. Houndentenor says:

    Trump is saying things that idiots want to hear but that are an embarrassment to the party and will harm them next November. Sanders is saying things that Americans care about (even people on the right are reluctantly admitting people need to be talking about especially talking about how bad things suck for the middle class). Sanders ideas will have to at least be countered by everyone running if they have any hope of winning, that includes the Republicans. Everyone in politics should be talking about things that will make the economy work better for the vast majority of Americans. That they aren’t tells you that they aren’t listening to voters but to a small number of very rich donors and that’s an embarrassment to both parties at all levels.

  6. ComradeRutherford says:

    There simply is no equivalent on The Left for any ONE Republican extremist.

    As this article points out Paul, Walker, Cruise, Jindal and Trump each have insane, anti-American plans for if they get elected to fundamentally alter the basic functions of the nation. Who on the left is demanding the mass roundup of 11 Million people’? Who on the left is demanding the undermining or outright elimination of one of the three branches of government?

    The anti-American extremists are the Conservatives, not the Liberals.

  7. GeorgeMokray says:

    “On the one hand and on the other” lazy analysis. Our culture likes duality and opposition so the narrative framework we use sets up diametrically opposed opposites, whatever the reality on the ground actually is. To expect a deep issue discussion from the horse race journalism of any US Presidential election is foolishness. To expect deeply convention journalists and pundits to understand or even try to understand an independent politician with core values that equate to the democratic Socialism of EV Debs, somebody few of them even know existed, is even more foolish.

  8. Indigo says:

    Sanders is intelligent. Trump is shrewd.
    Sanders is coherent. Trump rants.
    Sanders is a Social Democrat (Euro-conservative). Trump is beyond Tea Party.
    Sanders is sensible. Trump is an echo chamber of ignorance.

    Not much comparison there beyond the obvious:
    Both are speaking clearly on behalf of the party they seek to represent.
    Sanders represents progressive politics. Trump represents the Wild West.

  9. 2karmanot says:

    The difference is that Bernie has a brain and the Trumpster has a hair ball.

  10. MyrddinWilt says:

    The similarity is that they both stand out from the crowd of contenders. The difference is that on the Democratic side, the other contender is Hilary and on the right we have the other 16 clowns trying to drive the car.

    I never got disillusioned by Obama because I was never such a great fan. He turned out pretty much as I expected and the results are certainly vastly better than any of the available alternatives except possibly Hilary. And I expect the same from Hilary. My preference would have been to have Hilary with Obama as veep as I didn’t expect very much from the last six years apart from picking up the mess created by George W.

    The other similarity is that they are both unknown quantities. I am pretty sure what we will get from Hilary and I don’t think there will be any surprises. Sanders will try to achieve much but he could end up delivering much less. What Trump would do in office is beyond any rational prediction. He could even turn out to be the Democratic mole trying to destroy the GOP some Republicans are suggesting.

  11. I actually would argue in a few other ways they are similar, neither mince words and both appeal to underlying issues for some people. The difference is that Bernie Sanders uses straightforward language to be clear on his issues and his message resonates with a lot of people, including some conservatives. Donald Trump is just a moron who doesn’t know when to shut his mouth and appeals to the most racist, and arrogant aspects of society.

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