As soon as Donald Trump announced himself as a presidential candidate, the media labeled his candidacy a waste of time and dismissed him as a clown. Such characterizations are hard to argue with and, indeed, Trump repeatedly confirms them. But in the early stages of the 2016 campaign, amid a Republican lineup with no obvious standouts, this petulant personification of the right-wing lizard brain has emerged as the early GOP frontrunner.
His appeal lies in a simple maxim: In America, if you’re not winning, you’re losing. And through bankruptcies, divorces and lots of foot-in-mouth controversy, Trump has always managed to portray himself as a winner – even if his preferred method of doing so is simply calling everyone else losers.
When he calls Mexicans rapists it’s not a racist statement; it’s because, “someone is doing the raping.” Anyone who takes umbrage at the remark is a loser, especially if they argue Trump’s free-wheeling accusations with facts and statistics. The reality is that immigrants are less likely to commit violent crime than native-born citizens and that we already treat immigrants, through low wages and so-called family detention centers, with abject savagery. When confronted with information like this from Anderson Cooper on CNN, Trump’s response was, “Anderson, you are not a baby, OK.”
Context is meaningless in this world. Saying “Mexicans are rapists” is every bit as true as saying “white people are rapists.” You might leave off the categorization altogether and say, “people are rapists.” But in a frightened and confused America, a billionaire can stir up good poll numbers by blaming an utterly powerless group like immigrants. However uninformed and careless Trump’s remarks may be, he says them in such a way that many Americans receive them as straight-talking truth. It’s an unfortunate magnetism that ignorant people speaking authoritatively possess.
Providing a perfect foil for Trump’s cartoonish run is Vermont Senator and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. The two of them are not, as is sometimes insinuated, mirror images on opposite sides of the political spectrum. While most presidential elections eventually see the two candidates racing for the middle ground, no other pairing is as perfectly distinct as Trump and Sanders: on the one hand a serious, scholarly socialist voice for working America; on the other a blustery, billionaire TV personality.
Even in the way the two comport themselves there are striking differences. Sanders doesn’t engage in negative campaign ads; Trump does almost nothing but issue attacks and childish ones at that. Sanders is eager to address issues and lay out specific policy proposals; Trump answers every question with, “I’m the best [negotiator, wall-builder, ‘at the military,’ etc.] in the world” and waits for the applause. Sanders is funded by unions, ordinary people and grassroots movements; Trump can easily outspend them all using his own finances. Sanders points out that the American economy is rigged by and for the rich; Trump uses “I’m rich” as a rallying cry.
To some, it is this very wealth which most qualifies Trump for the presidency. In 2012, Mitt Romney ran a campaign devoted largely to portraying himself as something other than a wealthy, successful plutocrat. Now, Trump seems to think that’s just what America wants. For all of conservative media’s attempts to portray wealthy Americans simultaneously as the country’s job-creating saviors and as victims of a cruel system that shames their success, the sober voice in the room belongs to Sanders.
Working Americans have seen their incomes, benefits, pensions and job opportunities stagnate or evaporate. They’ve watched the rich get richer and receive tax cuts and nothing has trickled down. When they hear that 99 percent of all new income generated since the recovery has gone to the one percent, and learn of Sanders’s plan to offer Americans education and ramp up New Deal-style public works programs, it’s a radical departure from the standard refrain of, “We need to empower and enrich business so they will save us.” Clearly it’s resonating: at a July 1 campaign stop, Sanders drew the largest crowd of any candidate of the season to date.
Sanders is unafraid of the term “socialist,” which effectively neutralizes it as a weapon against him. His opponents may even be loath to use it at all – Sanders’s defense of people-oriented social planning is dangerously appealing once it gets out there, as his big crowds and narrowing gap with Hillary Clinton demonstrate. He’s armed with intellectual credibility, decades of public service, a good voting record, and figures about the runaway wealth of the one percent that will make working Americans’ heads spin.
Trump will always have a home among the large numbers of Americans whose political attention span fits on a yard sign and he’ll play favorably to those whose capitalist religion makes them terrified of anything socialistic. But naked braggadocio will only take him so far. Forced into a presidential debate or other long-form showdown with Sanders, Trump will embarrass himself horribly. The choice for working Americans will be obvious.
At this point, Sanders and Trump are both considered longshots for very different reasons. Trump is a longshot because he’s a transparent buffoon. Sanders is a longshot because he’ll be up against all the nation’s big money. But a Sanders vs. Trump race is still fun to imagine. There is no finer representation of the revolution this country needs – one in which people, not profit, are given primary consideration – than socialist Bernie Sanders whooping billionaire Donald Trump.