The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are making the same pitch

SALEM, N.H. — When I initially heard that some voters were trying to decide between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, I was baffled.

Apart from the superficial similarities — both often attract notice for their hair; both pronounce “huge” with a “y” — the two seemed to have little in common.

But if you listen to the part of their message that is resonating strongly with voters, there’s actually a considerable area of overlap.

If you think that the system is broken and the biggest issue facing us now is the Outsize Influence of Big Money and Special Interests on the political process, these actually are your two choices.

Sanders and Trump both insist strongly that they are not being held hostage by the standard flotilla of Special Interests who drive campaign seasons. Sanders often boasts that the average contribution to his campaign is just $27. Trump similarly touts his lack of contributions as a strength. “I don’t have any donors!” he bragged in Manchester, N.H., on Monday night.

Sinister Special Interests get consistent boos at Sanders and Trump rallies. “Our government belongs to all of us and not just a small number of wealthy people,” Sanders exclaimed in Portsmouth, N.H. “If we do not allow the Donald Trumps of this world to divide us up, we can defeat them.”

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Trump made a version of the same pitch a short drive away. He described the audience at the New Hampshire GOP debate as filled with wealthy donors. He wanted tickets, he said, but all of the big donors had them. (BOOOOO.) “Donors. That’s a nice word. But it’s not donors. It’s special interests. Lobbyists.” Trump knew this because he is even friends with many of them. (“Actually they do like me. I’m even friends.”) But there’s no quid pro quo with him. “If they ask me to do something I’m saying, ‘Bye-bye! I’m working for these people out here.”

Wild applause.

“Not great news,” Sanders said in Waterloo, Iowa. “Today in the United States if you run for president you need to raise an obscene amount of money. Sad but true … We were not going to have a super PAC. The reason for that is not complicated. We do not represent the interests of Wall Street. We don’t want their money.”

Here’s Trump in Manchester on the same topic: “All of the things that you can’t stand looking at, that you can’t believe is happening to our country, all of these horrible deals that you see being made, many of them being made because everybody on the stage with me and on the other side, they’re taken care of by special interests, they have their lobbyists, their special interests, they’re getting tremendous amounts of money.”

Both candidates have made the question of whom they’re accountable to relatively central to their pitches.

Here’s Steve Stepanek introducing Donald Trump in Manchester, N.H.: “He’s self-funding his campaign! He cannot be bought by special interest groups.”

Here’s Sanders in Waterloo, Iowa: “I may be an old-fashioned guy, but I believe democracy is one person, one vote, not billionaires buying elections.”

They make it clear that the reason other candidates make bad choices is not that they are stupid. To the contrary. “Is it because Republicans can’t read?” Sanders asks at a Portsmouth, N.H., rally. “They can read. I’m on committees with Republicans. They ask intelligent questions.” Instead, they make decisions because of the Koch brothers and the fossil fuel industry.

Trump says the same thing, but with a Trumpier syntax. “A lot of times you think that the politicians are doing horrible horrible deals. And they are horrible. And you think that they’re really, really not smart people. But they are actually smart people. But they’re working for themselves. They’re doing what their lobbyist who puts up millions and millions and millions of dollars every time they run — I’m just talking about the honest stuff. … We’re buying equipment and we’re buying things that our generals don’t even want. … We’re buying planes that they don’t want because that company has better lobbyists and they’re stronger!”

At a Sanders rally at the Pinkerton Academy in New Hampshire on Monday, Sanders volunteer David Zevallos expressed enthusiasm for Sanders’s throngs of small donors. “AND TRUMP!” Zevallos added. “Same populist revolution.” Sanders is run on “small contributions” while “Trump is funding his own.”

Of course, just because people see the similarity doesn’t mean they lack preferences.

“He doesn’t answer to anyone,” explained Brandon Gross, who had driven from Milwaukee to see Sanders speak in Waterloo, Iowa. “He represents the people who funded him. But we funded him.” In fact, Gross continued, “He’s the anti-Trump. Who funded him? Himself. He’s a narcissist. … He answers to himself.”

Trump would put it more diplomatically. “One big beautiful package,” Trump explains, in a video played at his rallies. “The package is called you, but maybe it’s in the form of me.”

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