TACOMA, Wash. — About 17,000 people packed into a concert and sports arena at the center of this port city, pulsating with excitement and anger. They were there to see Bernie Sanders, whose rebellious presidential campaign has been bringing people in by the thousands for months.
Onstage, a city council member gave a speech urging a “powerful socialist movement to end all capitalist oppression.” An actor accused the news media of slanted coverage. In the crowd, one Sanders supporter hoisted a sign that read: “Obi-Wan Bernobi — He’s our only hope.” Another wore a jumpsuit festooned with pictures of Sanders. A third screamed the names of large corporations and declared, “You’re next!”
A few days later, thousands gathered at the convention center in Las Vegas to express their ardor for President Trump, waving signs, snapping photos and pumping their fists passionately as he took the stage. In return, he expressed his devotion to the Americans who helped elect him in 2016, the ones he claimed everyone else had forgotten.
“With your help,” Trump told them, “we’re going to defeat the radical socialist Democrats.” He called the crowd “amazing people” and declared, “Under my administration, we’re finally taking care of our own citizens first.”
Four years after Trump seized control of the Republican Party with a right-wing populist movement, a new populist crusade has risen on the left, fueled similarly by grievance and anxiety and powered by Sanders’s remarkable drive to dispatch Trump from the White House.
Each is powered by a disdain for elites they perceive as having flourished while other Americans suffered, a rejection of the establishment and the figures who have controlled it, and a contempt for the institutions that over the decades have blunted, as they see it, the success of efforts like theirs.
Their collision in November would be unprecedented in modern American politics, a signal not only of the persuasive powers of the two men at the center of the movements but also of economic and cultural forces that have bent the American political landscape to their benefit.
“At a time when there’s no real dominant ideology which can unite people,” historian Michael Kazin said, “it’s not surprising that people sort of go into their separate camps and find solace and comfort.”
Trump’s and Sanders’s movements reflect a broader shift across Western democracies toward a politics rooted in passionate emotion and grievance — one that has pushed the Brexit movement in the United Kingdom from little-regarded sideshow to official British policy under the aegis of a prime minister whose public appeal is similar to Trump’s. In Germany, a far-right movement has gained influence in government.
Meanwhile, left-wing populism and self-described democratic socialists are gaining power throughout Europe and the Americas, at times replacing an older guard of liberals who embraced globalization.
“Populism is the future of American politics,” said Stephen K. Bannon, a former top Trump adviser who labored for years to connect Trumpism to global ultraconservative populism. “The question is whether it’s right or left — the deconstruction of the administrative state or democratic socialism.”
As he tried to envision a Sanders-Trump matchup, Kazin said he could recall no parallels in U.S. history. It’s a product of a moment in which there is no binding political philosophy, said the author of “The Populist Persuasion.”
There are critical distinctions between the Trump populism that has remade the Republican Party and the Sanders populism that is seeking to replicate that victory among Democrats.
For Sanders, whose movement is based in economic inequality, the culprits are the financial elite, billionaires and chief executives who have succeeded while workers have either been laid off or watched their wages stagnate in an economy where costs are otherwise rising. His events are infused with laments of shell-shocked Americans who talk of their struggles to keep up.
The tenets of the Sanders platform follow suit: enacting a Medicare-for-all government health-care system, steep new taxes on “the billionaire class,” free college for all Americans and sharp cutbacks in U.S. military interventions overseas — a fundamental expansion of the role of government in the United States.
For Trump, whose movement is based on cultural resentments and who has been accused by critics of stoking white nationalism, the culprits have been immigrants, women and others seen as displacing those who traditionally benefited from the economy’s boom times, a group mostly white and male that reflects the president’s most avid backers. His supporters speak of their dislocation as job losses have mounted in the upper Midwest and their fear of crime at the hands of the undocumented, even when statistics suggest that those concerns are unfounded.
Trump’s solutions have focused on reversing decades of cultural change, including his efforts to ban Muslims from entering the country, build a border wall and pass restrictive immigration policies, and curb the environmental protections that have grown for the past half-century — a vast downsizing of the role of the federal government. (His signature tax plan benefited the economic elites that he has inveighed against, but he has lost little ground among his supporters who don’t fit neatly into that category.)
If the policy proposals and malefactors defined by Trump and Sanders differ, some similarities have been striking — from their riffs about trade policies hurting workers and their boasts about crowd size to their taunts against the mainstream wings of their parties. Sanders’s current ascent in a Democratic primary riddled with divisions takes after Trump’s 2016 triumph in a fractured Republican field, with each securing victories because of loyal, if limited, bases of support.
On both sides those appeals have honed a sense of shared affliction, even fury. At a recent Sanders rally in Myrtle Beach, S.C., a “Lock him up!” chant rose among some in the crowd, one that echoed the signature crowd chant at Trump rallies aimed at his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton.
The fervor of Sanders supporters has come most sharply into focus at his largest events, which are reminiscent of the mega-rallies Trump held four years ago and has continued to stage as he seeks a second term. No other candidates have demonstrated an ability to fill arenas for rowdy gatherings that feel more like rock concerts than political set pieces.
At the Tacoma rally on Feb. 17, Sanders’s enemies were Republicans, Wall Street and most audibly, the top brass of the party Sanders is seeking to lead as a candidate for president.
“The Democratic establishment is getting nervous!” Sanders bellowed after listing other adversaries he said were fretting over his rise. The crowd roared louder than ever, as if the home team just scored a game-winning touchdown. “You know what? They should be getting nervous.”
His devotees share his contempt for the Democratic Party. Misty Lopez showed up four hours early to snag a first-row seat at Sanders’s rally. The 42-year-old nurse was eager for an “extreme makeover” in the United States that she felt only Sanders could deliver — if top Democrats didn’t thwart him first.
“It’s nice to be surrounded by people with your same values for a little while,” Lopez said. She really liked his heath-care proposal — “I’ve seen people die because they don’t have health insurance” — but worried that the Democratic National Committee would try to prevent Sanders from winning the nomination.
“Hopefully, the DNC doesn’t try to keep blocking that,” she said. (Many of Sanders’s supporters blame the DNC for his loss in 2016, although Clinton won more votes and delegates.)
In recent days, Sanders has dropped his usual taunt from his stump speech and instead decries the “establishment” more generally — a sign of what some top aides say is his new focus on Democratic unity, following early wins that have vaulted him into the top position.
At the same time, he has stoked disputes with other Democrats. And his remarks about the Democratic establishment fearing his rise bear echoes of Trump, who also relished the nervousness he caused among traditional Republicans.
“The establishment can’t believe it. Because they’ve never seen it happen before,” Trump said proudly in Iowa late in 2015, as he was romping over a field of more conventional Republicans en route to winning the party’s nomination.
Among the shared targets of Sanders, Trump and their surrogates is the news media — one of the institutions they blame for maintaining a status quo they deride.
As a candidate in 2016, Trump routinely accused television camera operators of refusing to show his large crowds. He lambasted reporters from the podium, often by name. He regularly flings insults at reporters via Twitter, his favorite communications vehicle. Trump has reprised these tactics in his reelection bid.
“You fake news people,” he said in Las Vegas, pointing at reporters.
Sanders also regularly accuses the “corporate media” of unfair coverage, often as he is lauding other workers in stressed occupations. In Tacoma, actor Tim Robbins gestured to the press area after a loud “Bernie beats Trump!” chant erupted as he spoke. “Now maybe the people behind those cameras will start listening to you,” he said.
Some Trump allies see a recognizable foe in Sanders.
“Sanders and Trump have both cultivated cults of personality around themselves with a fanatic base of supporters. Both are angry old white guys who you either love or hate. There’s no in between,” said Dan Eberhart, a prominent Trump donor. “Americans love entertainment. And that’s what Trump and Bernie deliver.”
But many Sanders supporters reject comparisons with Trump and cast the president as a “fake” populist who uses the mantle to cover up his support for the interests of corporate donors and GOP leaders. They also say Sanders, with his calls for justice, is the opposite of Trump on matters of race, immigration and climate change.
Indeed, the racially charged atmosphere of Trump rallies is absent from Sanders’s events. Nor has Sanders called for violence against protesters and reporters, as Trump has.
“If Bernie got on that stage [and] talked about murdering families, committing war crimes, punching people in the face, I would leave,” said Lopez, the nurse.
While they have criticized each other in blunt terms, Sanders and Trump are also making subtle entreaties to each other’s voters, calculating that there are discontented crossovers they can pick up.
Sanders has often called Trump a “fraud” who failed to make good on his vows to deliver relief to working-class Americans. Sanders argues that unlike Trump, he will actually help them. The subtext: Trump fooled you once. Don’t let him fool you again.
“He is a sellout to the working families of this country that he promised to defend,” Sanders has said repeatedly. He contrasted his policies with Trump’s, particularly his push for a Medicare-for-all health-care system and Trump’s attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Last spring, Sanders made a campaign swing through the upper Midwestern states that were key to Trump’s win. His tour culminated in a televised town hall on the preferred network of Trump and his supporters: Fox News Channel.
Trump, meanwhile, has consistently accused Democrats, without evidence, of rigging the election against Sanders — presenting himself as a sympathetic figure to Sanders backers upset with the Democratic establishment.
“The Democrats are treating Bernie Sanders very unfairly,” he told reporters on Feb. 23, the day after Sanders won the Nevada caucuses. “They don’t want Bernie Sanders to represent them. It sounds like it’s ‘16 all over again for Bernie Sanders. And he won. He had a great victory yesterday.”
Two days earlier, Trump tweeted that the “Do Nothing Democrats” were seeking to block Sanders’s nomination. “It’s all rigged, again, against Crazy Bernie Sanders!” he said, mixing avowed sympathy with name-calling.
Story by Sean Sullivan and Robert Costa; photos by Salwan Georges; photo editing by Natalia Jimenez; design by Cece Pascual; copy editing by Paula Kelso.