Authentic Populist vs. Bulls**t Artist: Why Bernie Sanders Is So Popular and Donald Trump Isn’t
More than four months after Donald Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million, yet managed to win the election as a result of the archaic and undemocratic Electoral College, one thing has remained predictable in this highly unpredictable age of Trump: the president’s unprecedented unpopularity. According to Gallup, the most reputable polling company in the country, Trump’s approval rating has remained in the negatives throughout his first two months in office, and last weekend it dropped to a new low of 37 percent (with 58 percent of Americans disapproving).
President Trump is well on his way to becoming the most disliked president in modern history — and in record time too. By comparison, historically unpopular presidents Richard Nixon and George W. Bush didn’t see their ratings fall this low until their second terms, and only after Watergate and the Iraq War came to haunt their respective presidencies.
In addition to Trump’s abysmal approval ratings, public polling has revealed another constant in this populist era of ours: the steadfast popularity of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. According to a Fox News poll released last week, the majority of Americans continue to have a favorable opinion of the self-described democratic socialist, who has a net favorability rating of 29 (61 percent favorable, 32 unfavorable), along with an even higher net favorable rating of 41 among independents. Since becoming a nationally recognized figure during his presidential campaign last year, Sanders has only grown in popularity, and the senator is now one of the strongest critics of Trump and his reactionary agenda.
While pundits have long compared Sanders and Trump — labeling them both “populist” and “anti-establishment” — the two politicians couldn’t be more different, and Sanders is the antithesis of Trump as both a human being and a politician. Sanders is an honest and principled man, while Trump is a perpetual liar without a moral compass. Sanders has deep-seated political and moral beliefs, while Trump has no ideology apart from his own narcissism. Sanders is a self-professed democratic socialist who grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Brooklyn, while Trump is an exploitative billionaire who grew up in a wealthy and privileged family in a then-exclusive and all-white neighborhood of Queens.
If anyone can be called the “anti-Trump,” it is Bernie Sanders.
The most consequential difference between Trump and Sanders, of course, is their clashing political agendas. Though Trump doesn’t have any real political ideology, extreme right-wingers and Christian fundamentalists have taken over his administration, and thus the president is advancing a thoroughly reactionary agenda (whether he personally believes in it is irrelevant). By contrast, Sanders has consistently espoused a progressive and social democratic vision over the past 50 years that is essentially the mirror opposite of the Trump administration’s major policies (except perhaps on trade).
When considering why Sanders remains so popular (and Trump so unpopular) with the American people, all of the different factors above are no doubt important, and one cannot underestimate the power of personality in American politics. To the American public, personality has always been an important determinant in politics, and while Sanders is widely seen as a decent and authentic man who speaks truth to power, Trump is seen as a vulgar and obnoxious bully. Recent polls have indicated that the president’s temperament is a large reason for his terrible favorability ratings.
At the same time, however, actual policies and political beliefs have had a clear impact on this chasm in popularity between the two so-called “populists.” Simply put, Americans tend to agree with Sanders. Consider health care, a major issue in the news right now because of the Republican plan to repeal Obamacare and replace it with the American Health Care Act. The AHCA would give a massive tax break to the rich and cause more than 20 million people to lose their health insurance over the next decade, while increasing premiums for working people and the elderly.
On the other hand, Sanders has long advocated a “Medicare for all” plan that would cut out the middleman insurance companies (thus slashing administrative costs) and create a universal health care system comparable to those in other developed countries. Last year, a Gallup survey found that almost six in 10 Americans supported replacing Obamacare with a Sanders-stye universal health care system, while only 22 percent supported repealing Obamacare without a federally funded replacement, as Trump and congressional Republicans are advocating.
Americans tend to side with Sanders on many other major issues as well, from increasing taxes on corporations and the rich to raising the minimum wage to addressing climate change to limiting the role of money in politics. The majority of Americans agree with Sanders that wealth distribution in America is unfair, that marijuana should be legalized and our our prison population reduced, that systemic racism is a serious problem and that Wall Street must be more tightly regulated.
There are a few areas where the majority of Americans tend to agree with Trump — e.g., on renegotiating trade deals and rebuilding our infrastructure — and those are exactly the areas where Trump and Sanders have some agreement, even if they have different ways of addressing these issues. On Trump’s famous campaign promise to build a “big beautiful wall” on the Mexican border, about 60 percent of Americans oppose the president.
It seems as though Bernie Sanders is enduringly popular, then, because he has advocated a genuinely populist agenda that he truly believes in and supports; he is, one might say, authentically populist. Trump, in contrast, ran as a populist — and won, in large part, because Hillary Clinton was seen as personifying the hated establishment. But his agenda was never truly populist, and this is now becoming fully apparent. One might say that Trump was — and still is — authentically full of crap.
An obvious example of Trump’s populist nonsense is health care. As noted above, Trumpcare would throw more 20 million people off of their health insurance plans, and potentially leave 50 million Americans uninsured in a decade. But when Trump was in faux-populist mode, he repeatedly promised that his plan would provide “insurance for everybody.” He once said that the government would pay for it if necessary. Perhaps Trump never thought he would actually win the election and have to make good on his bullshit. But here we are, with President Trump’s approval rating in the gutter and Bernie Sanders standing as the righteous symbol of our collective indignation.