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Bernie Sanders Is No Donald Trump

Why Sanders’s haters keep finding similarities between two politicians who could not be more different

As a general rule, people do not compare other people to Donald Trump as a compliment. It is plainly rude to tell another person that you see even trace amounts of Trump in them, but more to the point it is also almost always wrong. For all the try-hards on Twitter aiming to approximate his voice and the many GOP candidates wanly aping his scatterbrained hyperaggression, very few people alive are even remotely similar to Donald Trump.

Some of his more outsize and oafish peers come close, but none quite measure up. New York sports talk radio legend Mike Francesa shares Trump’s drowsy peevishness, a passion for opaque interpersonal feuds with his similarly blowsy peers, and an abiding belief that he has never been wrong, but is finally too small-time an operator. The clammy end-stage Rudolph Giuliani currently butt-dialing reporters and nodding out in cigar bars certainly fits with Trump’s careening personal sloppiness and unseemly thirst for attention, but trades Trump’s plummy savoir-faire for spittle and sozzle. WWE chieftain Vince McMahon, whose head Trump once shaved in the ring as part of a wrestling storyline, has Trump’s carnie avarice and an aesthetic sense that’s similarly stuck in 1987, but is entirely too active in his cynicism. To truly be like Donald Trump, not just in the sense of being cruel in a lazy way and ignorant in a superheated one but also being anywhere near as relentlessly aggrieved, you pretty much have to be Donald Trump. It’s a time-consuming thing, and other people have jobs.

But then the point of making a comparison to Trump isn’t really to be correct. The point of making the comparison is making the comparison, and then letting people notice how unflattering it is. When people are described as Trumpian, it is generally just a wised-up way of saying that the people in question are coarse, extremely distasteful, and—if you’ll pardon the political science jargon—suck a lot. When, say, Michael Bloomberg’s campaign calls Bernie Sanders “the Trump of the left,” it is trying first and foremost to make a point about how rude and unseemly Sanders and his campaign are. It’s not helpful as a comparison, but it is useful, in the way that someone describing rush-hour traffic as “positively Hobbesian” is useful. It tells you more about the pretensions and anxieties and intentions of the person making the comparison than it does about the subject of the comparison itself.

That there is no valid parallel to be made between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump is, in this sense, precisely the reason why that comparison has been made, in increasingly overt and desperate ways, in recent weeks. The comparison isn’t about the few things that Sanders and Trump have in common, which amount to tri-state accents abrasive enough to cut glass and the fact that both have been saying the same things over and over again for decades. Even on that last point, though, the difference between the two is both obvious and telling. Sanders has been assailing the cultural and political violence that follows economic inequality and unfettered capitalism for his entire adult life; Trump has been roughly as consistent pushing the line that various swimsuit models “were very interested” upon meeting Trump in the VIP area at the China Club during Ronald Reagan’s second term. Each holds well-attended rallies; Sanders’s are pitched at people otherwise outside politics, where Trump’s are merely styled that way. Both aspire to be elected president of the United States later this year. But the two are not the same, or similar.

This is mostly why, when Democratic consultants and campaign operatives hint at the similarities between Trump and Sanders or the rotation pundits on MSNBC do the same, or when Joe Biden describes the behavior of Sanders’s supporters (if not the candidate himself) as “Trump-like,” or when ostensibly conflicted Never Trumpers like The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin keep turning up parallels between the Democratic front-runner and the Republican president, it all feels kind of grasping and desperate and off. These are not exceptionally discerning minds, of course, but even if they remain stuck on describing the shape of what the candidates do instead of addressing what they propose, they surely can see the difference between the bloated marzipan golem who currently lords over a lawless archipelago of concentration camps for immigrants and the most reliably left-wing figure in Congress over the last three decades.

The question, then, is why they would bother to make this obviously facile and unconvincing comparison in the first place. That answer has two parts. One is that none of these people are really much good at their very important jobs. The other is that they are scared, because Sanders’s ongoing run toward the Democratic nomination suggests that a critical mass of voters has noticed as much, and is ignoring them. If there’s any real parallel to be drawn between Trump and Sanders, it’s how their respective rises have revealed the flubby redundancy of their respective parties’ establishments.

In a Republican Party built in service of the vinegary whims and furies of America’s business tyrants, Trump fits as a sort of aspirational figure—a man who has slipped the surly bonds of basic human kindness to become a rancid celestial body in his own right. He is a star not in the sense that Trump himself used the term when sharing his personal sexual-assault best practices with Billy Bush, but in a more literal one: something to be admired from afar, a navigational aid for Americans determined to sail off the edge of the earth specifically to spite everyone asking them not to.

Just on the merits, Trump’s appeal is very difficult to figure, mostly because Trump doesn’t have any merits to speak of. He’s pouty and tragicomically vain and grandiosely rageful and stupid in weird off-menu exchanges—interrupting White House staff meetings to ask Reince Priebus if “Wisconsin badgers” are “mean to people” or, to stick to Trump’s peer group, calling WWE headquarters in 2007, after McMahon’s limousine exploded as part of another WWE storyline, to ask whether “something [had] happened to Vince.” Trump is equally resentful of people who have more than him and people who have less than him, for no greater reason beyond that he thinks all of what everyone has should be his by right; it’s not that he wants to be seen as the most successful man on earth but the only successful man on earth. In his wild, vicious, all-canceling selfishness, Trump is outsize and cartoonish and incomparable.

It’s what Trump represents, not just in terms of wealth and power beyond any accountability but in the singular nihilism of his greed and vanity, that cements his grim aspirational appeal. Taken one shabby scam or crude graft at a time, Trump is just a dope who tells the same dumb stories over and over again. But view his self-interested scummery and defiant ignorance through the filter of worshipful regard that American culture and political media applies to rich elites, and from the perspective of venal people who wish to be similarly unencumbered by any broader responsibility, and all that proudly idiotic crudity can pass as a worldview. It’s not a coherent politics by any stretch, because Trump is fundamentally incapable of, and not much interested in, coherence. But then Trump was never selling that. His wealth and fame gave him a leg up on other GOP aspirants in the race for the 2016 nomination, but his incapacity for nuance or subtlety did the real work. Where his competitors nibbled in familiar professional shades of smarm and euphemism, Trump lumbered blithely up to deliver what Republican voters actually wanted, which turned out to be the crying-laughing emoji and brutal, racialized authoritarianism. He has never stopped doing it. Every week, Trump goes on television and writes some new swath of Americans out of the social compact, and every week experts on the various television channels agree, in tones of either concern or studied awe, about how unprecedented it all is.

It’s axiomatic that Trump himself doesn’t give a shit about any of this beyond how it gets and keeps him on television. Trump has long seen himself as the main character in American life, and his cable news network of choice now repeatedly tells him and millions of others as much. It is, let’s say, suboptimal for a nation’s mental and political health to reduce the course of human events to a series of wins for and nefarious attacks against one maudlin septuagenarian narcissist, but in terms of television storytelling it does neaten things up considerably. It is not just Fox News doing this, either. MSNBC spent the last three years selling Trump’s participation first in a murky conspiracy involving Russia and then a clownishly overt one involving Ukraine; both really were roughly as bad as they look, but thanks to the abject submissiveness of elected Republicans, and despite some righteous West Wing cosplay by elected Democrats, neither has really mattered much.

The Democrats running to replace Trump, for their part, have also mostly centered him as a maximally influential figure, explaining their deep concern about the ways in which Trump has reshaped the country. They have noted that This Is Not Who We Are and then pivoted to arguments for why they have the necessary attributes and message to get things back on track. Sanders, who speaks of bigger things and a different track in notably more strident tones, has been pulling away from the pack in something like the way that Trump separated himself in 2016, right down to a contested early result in Iowa against his most ostentatiously well-credentialed rival. Now, as then, conventional primary attacks—about Sanders being a pretender in the party or actively disloyal to it; about being too dedicated to unlikely and ambitious outcomes; about being insufficiently vetted—seem somehow only to bind his loyalists to him more closely. It says a great deal about where the Democrats are as a party that attempts to tar him as “not a Democrat” have broadly corresponded with his rise.

Trump’s nomination in 2016 reflected a collapse on the part of the institutional GOP, which ultimately had no choice but to capitulate to its voters and embrace the combination of debased servility and rank fascism that was previously allowed to remain latent in Republican political appeals. A similar transparency is fundamental to Sanders’s pitch; he pushes for the ambitious policy goals that Democrats have long claimed to want but leaves out the signature Democratic caveat that those things are of course impossible and anyway must be negotiated with an opposition that is by now quite open about not just its unwillingness to do any such thing but its belief that the Democrats are inherently illegitimate. Again, this only looks like a parallel where the candidates are concerned—Sanders deals in the universal “us,” where Trump governs by pointing to increasingly large tranches of Americans and sneering “not you.”

From the perspective of the institutional parties and their aligned media organizations, though, the parallel is cleaner. People who have made their living by defining and describing the scope and scale of the possible naturally resent being challenged on that sort of thing; party insiders, just by dint of their vantage point, do not take kindly to the sudden presence of uninvited masses. In nominating and then electing Trump, Republicans made obvious the extent to which they were no longer playing what one side persists in thinking is a gentleman’s game. The president oversees prisons with children in them and often “jokes” about remaining in office for the rest of his natural life. Only one side of that once-polite binary is even alarmed by this. It’s somehow the same one that keeps playing as if the old rules were still in effect.

It didn’t take long for virtually all Republicans to realize that, distasteful and disgraceful though he is, Trump was their best bet to win them power: Because that is all they really want, they rolled over in turn. Elite Democrats are still working their way through various stages of grief where Sanders is concerned—think of Hillary Clinton sniping that “nobody likes” Sanders or Third Way’s Matt Bennett complaining to Politico that the media “let [Sanders] get away with murder.” There is reason to believe that it might take longer for establishment Democrats to come to the same realization about Sanders that Republicans did about Trump—that this candidate, while not quite their kind, was the only person in their party that a critical mass of voters actually cared about at all, and that winning was preferable to losing. There is some reason to worry that they might never get there; Clintonist Third Way policies have remained vexingly prominent despite repeated, devastating, high-profile failures.

Again, though, the comparison is not quite that simple. Conservative politics in general and the Republican Party in particular have always been a pretty obvious grift; in his atavistic sadism and greed, Trump represents more of an apotheosis than a reckoning. The Democrats have long pretended to represent greater things, which makes Sanders’s maximalism—not for Full Communism, an accusation that Republicans have giddily blasted at even the most tremulous Democratic moderates for generations, but for a welfare state commensurate with the nation’s needs and a government as attuned to the needs of citizens as those of corporations—something more like calling a bluff. In Sanders’s run in 2020, as in his primary challenge in 2016, it is striking the extent to which establishment campaigning, which amounts to Get a Load of These Other Guys and detailed plans to competently administer something like the status quo, has struggled relative to his bolder promises to arrest and reverse a rightward drift that feels increasingly untenable. It turns out that this works even when those promises are made by a politician as stylistically limited as Sanders.

A party that wanted to win might find a way to turn those limitations into advantages. Sanders is, not for nothing, the most popular politician in the country, and one that a healthy majority of voters regard as honest and aligned with their values; Trump, in contrast, has long been and remains historically unpopular. Once Democrats stop making facile comparisons between Sanders and Trump and start drawing the many real and devastating contrasts between the two, this unpolished old socialist really could not just win the White House back but fire up a durable movement. A growing number of Democratic voters seem prepared and even eager to try this. Democratic elites may eventually come around as well, but might in a narrow sense cut against their own self-interest in doing so.

Acronym—the well-capitalized, well-connected, deliberately opaque “venture-style” outfit headlined by veteran Democratic campaign types that built the busted app that helped turn the Iowa caucuses into a tragicomic shitshow—is precisely the sort of failure that would result from a political establishment disappearing up its own metaphorical ass. Whether that organization is deliberately scammy or just a low-utility gambit executed with slapstick amateurism is, at some point, immaterial. That it does something less materially beneficial than, say, ActBlue’s campaign of directing small donations to progressive candidates in state and local races is obvious, but also a sort of category error.

An organization like Acronym exists primarily to move money from rich donors to credentialed operators claiming to deliver useful and innovative expertise, or some technological widget or service, that might lead to the election of Democrats. That organizations like this consistently fail to do that in a way that benefits anyone but themselves—and, in the case of the failed Iowa app, appear to have had no idea about even the most rudimentary aspects of what their work might entail—doesn’t really matter, at least insofar as there aren’t any real consequences for any of it. This is a business that exists both fully inside and oddly outside the churn of politics.

The result is a machine that, if viewed from a sufficiently cynical perspective, is better served by its own continued failure than any meaningful success. Donors always have more money, and the other party only ever gets worse; the decision more or less makes itself. As the rest of the culture drifts into fatalism, there’s a savage irony to the fact that there’s still plenty of money in this particular Banana Stand. That there is always money to find for endless wars and the dubiously useful services of campaign consultants, but somehow only ever less for the sorts of services that people already use and need more of, is the sort of thing that, on its face, would present any left political candidate with an appealing rhetorical running lane. Most, perhaps at the advice of their consultants and pollsters, have chosen to traffic in the familiar rhetoric of half-loaves and compromise. No high-profile candidate has hit that hole quite as hard as Sanders, or gained quite as much yardage as a result.

It is true that part of Sanders’s success has come via his ability to galvanize the members of the Democratic constituency who have been served the least effectively by the institutional Democratic establishment—those consultants and fundraisers and the party apparatchiks ruling little fiefdoms in consequence-free perpetuity. And it’s quite easy, in this context, to see why the party’s little emperors might not appreciate having attention called to their flagrant nudity. But at some point, the tactic of simply waiting for the emperor to put on some damn pants becomes untenable, especially when he insists on doing jumping jacks on television. Some establishments are easier to run against than others. Some practically cry out for it.

It is clear, amid the rubble Trump has made, that a bit of concentrated pressure on a sufficiently rotten bulwark can bring down the whole gilded edifice of a major political party. That pressure and that rot are what stuck us with Trump. It does not seem like too much to believe that, if enough people put their shoulder to the work, and if what is so obviously broken can consent to yield, those same forces—part gravity, part hope—might also get us out from under this wreckage. There is something deadening and bleak about the way in which pundits and campaign strategists and candidates alike center the idea of beating Trump, if only because it leans into the idiotic premise of the president as Celebrity Number One. But there is something bleaker still about those same voices countering the Sanders insurgency with abstractions about electability and a familiar learned helplessness. This principled refusal to read the damn room seems, if anything, more apt to deliver the very outcome they dread—reinforcing Trump’s wholly unearned place of maximum power in the crabbed sanctums of the American political imagination. In this respect, the more relevant analogy to draw isn’t so much between the character and temperament of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as between the Never Trump GOP establishment of 2016 and the emerging Never Sanders Democratic establishment of 2020. That isn’t a flattering comparison, either.