It is, however, the similarities between Sanders and Trump that are most apparent these days. Both attempt to convince voters that they’ve been cheated, scammed and/or discriminated against. Both postulate a zero-sum game. For Sanders, rich people get rich by taking from poor people; for Trump, either illegal immigrants get the jobs or native-born Americans do. Neither understands that growing the pie for everyone is the way to go.
At the core of their message is the economic grievance game, assuring voters that they are victims of evil forces. (As Rothenberg puts it, “Whereas Trump maligns Mexicans, Muslims and members of the media, Sanders is equally demagogic when he talks about corporate America, Wall Street and his most frequent scapegoats, ‘millionaires and billionaires.’ “)
Both are intensely prickly, taking grave offense when their opponents fight back or when they are called out for ignorance. Predictably, they also have started decrying their own party’s political system, suggesting that they, too, are victims. Sanders denounces superdelegates, while Trump claims that the entire delegate selection process is unfair. The shared experience between candidate and voter — each side cheated by the “system” — binds them, or so the candidate hopes.
It is ironic that Trump has adopted the Democrats’ emphasis on victimhood (which is perhaps a carryover from all those years he supported Democrats), although in Trump’s mind less-educated whites — not minorities, women or gays — are the persecuted ones. Trump sounds a lot like stereotypical liberals (mocked by actual conservatives) who automatically absolve aggrieved Americans of individual responsibility for their condition. Trump would never say, “Listen, in a globalized world you shouldn’t expect to make a nice middle-class living if you did not go to college.” Instead, he insists that “China is killing us” and illegal immigrants are coming to murder, rape and steal our jobs. Sanders would never take a nuanced position to fighting poverty, acknowledging the role that family structure and incentives to work have for the poor. Instead, Wall Street is destroying the “fabric” of America, Sanders hollers. In playing this game, both candidates perpetuate public ignorance on critical issues and refuse to engage voters in grown-up discussions about hard choices and necessary compromises.
The consequences of Sanders/Trump victim talk and conspiracy theorizing are unfortunate. Such talk encourages resentment, polarization and divisiveness — disagreeable trends that we have seen worsen over time. Sanders and Trump pull us inward as individuals and as a country, pretending that there is an alternative to American economic international leadership. And they ultimately leave their followers more bitter and more despondent than when they found them, since their pie-in-the-sky plans will never be achieved and their own path to political success will narrow and eventually hit a dead end.
It would be disastrous for their respective parties and for the country if either managed to snare the nomination. But their defeat — and the anger unleashed — will leave a bitter taste in the mouths of many Americans, making it that much harder for the next president to govern. It is important, therefore, that Clinton and Cruz (or whoever wins the GOP nomination) defeat not just their opponents for the nomination but also the idea that our problems can be solved by victimization, hostility and magic solutions with no downside.