Yesterday, I appeared on MSNBC to discuss Bernie Sanders' strong showing among Democratic voters. In new polls, he's actually ahead of Hillary Clinton in states such as New Hampshire.
Sanders' appeal, I argued, is predicated upon anger and frustration and reflects a populist, even demagogic, appeal to fears that America is simultaneously being overrun by cheap labor from Mexico and cheap goods from China and being hollowed out by corporate fat cats who are outsourcing jobs to those same places.
Which is to say, Bernie Sanders sounds a lot like Donald Trump, who is currently leading the Republican pack while articulating (read: barking) many of the same complaints. Trump throws in an appetite for bombing overseas countries and arm-wrestling Vladimir Putin too in his bid to "Make America Great Again."
As I note in a piece for The Daily Beast, Trump and Sanders may seem like an odd couple—one's a billionaire anti-socialist! one's a socialist anti-billionaire!—they are tugging at the same strings in their followers' hearts:
Perhaps, like Austin Powers and Dr. Evil, they're not so different after all. Indeed, the unanticipated appeal of Trump and Sanders to Republican and Democratic primary voters comes from the same psychological wellspring. They represent, in the words of Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Salena Zito, "populism born of frustration." They are angry candidates, bitching and moaning about the sorry shape of the United States and they are unabashedly protectionist. Each identifies immigrants and overseas competition as the root cause of most if not all of our problems. They both believe that if only we can wall off the country—literally in The Donald's case and figuratively in Sanders'—we could "Make America Great Again!" (as Trump puts it in his campaign slogan).
Trump notoriously looks at Mexicans sneaking across the border and sees crime lords, drug dealers, and rapists, though he has magnamiously granted that "some, I assume, are good people." Sanders, for his part, at the same hard cases and sees a reserve army of future wages slaves for the Koch brothers.
On MSNBC, I suggested that neither of these guys has staying power in terms of the 2016 election. Part of that is because they are not even full members of the parties they seek to represent, which means that apparatchiks will see to it they don't get very far. But a bigger reason is simply that they aren't really offering solutions as much as airing grievances. The real challenge for the other characters hoping to win the White House is to come up with an agenda that either rebuts the idea that America is somehow in need of saving or offers a positive vision of a future that doesn't simply denounce plutocrats, Mexicans, and free trade.