Trump, Sanders, Populism, and the 2016 Election

I’m glad I ran across this Salon article challenging the notion that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders appeal to similar populist constituencies.  Don’t both Trump and Sanders “confront ‘establishment’ hegemony and voice small-fry ‘populism,’ plus condemn bad trade agreements, job losses, and Washington insiders?”  No, Becker says:

Sanders is not like Trump or vice versa: despite surface parallels, they are at heart more like polar opposites. In the end this measure emerges: the unassuming Sanders presents people-oriented messages that widen debate and insight. Trump’s proto-fascist, wealth-driven demagoguery kills debate with deceptive, irresponsible war cries that deter thinking and enlightenment.

I guess I agree as far as it goes: the contrast between Sanders’ intellectual and Trump’s demagogic arguments are…wait for it…yuuuuge.  But I see a much more important difference: Donald Trump sells himself as the best player of the Capitalism game.  Bernie Sanders makes a case that the game itself is rigged, and the rules need to change.

Neither has explicitly pointed out the uncomfortable truth about today’s version of US Capitalism: that the American economy no longer needs a certain segment of the US population to function.  Part of the problem is technology – firms simply need fewer workers.  Free trade plays a role as well in that American workers now compete against lower wage workers in less-developed countries.  But our normative understandings about the importance of profit, corporate responsibility, the value of our fellow citizens and their quality of life, and the importance of work in placing value on human beings also play a role.  At the end of the day, the American economy generates enough wealth to allow those who work harder or create innovative products to capture a greater share of wealth while ensuring that we all have basic necessities.  But our shared understandings about how to distribute this wealth generate incentives to amass outrageous wealth while our fellow citizens suffer – and rules of the game that facilitate this kind of inequality.

Trump and Sanders both appeal to Americans who find themselves on the wrong end of the American Capitalism stick.  But the difference isn’t just that one offers demagogic fear-mongering where there other started an insightful discussion.  It’s far more specific and important.  Trump tells them the game is fine but American leaders just don’t know how to play it very well, and their lack of skill has allowed others to capture economic benefits that belong to them.  This is of course what a billionaire would say, since he has himself prospered from playing it.

Sanders on the other hand points out that American leaders play the game all too well, and they’ve rigged it to channel economic benefits to a select group of insiders who control capital and finance.  They’ve done this re-writing the rules of capitalism – and the shared social understandings about right and wrong they rest on – to eliminate social mobility.  So capital can freely cross borders while labor cannot.  Firms can consolidate, and the State prohibits few transactions, but labor cannot organize and the State intervenes to protect corporations from whistleblowers.  The rules allow firms to steal from individuals and communities through summary termination, unsafe working conditions, and environmental destruction while criminalizing investigative journalism and jailing workers for whistleblowing.  The State subsidizes capital investment and limits taxation on profits while funding government services and infrastructure with taxes on labor and consumption.  And all the while the education and training needed to capture economic gains costs too much for the non-wealthy to enter the game.

Bernie Sanders has started a discussion about the the skewed rules of the capitalism game, and forced Hillary Clinton to engage in it with him by pointing out that she has prospered from her seat at the table.  Donald Trump likes these rules just fine – he just wants the most fancy chair so he can run the game.  That’s the difference between the two.

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