Both the Republican and the Democratic races have been dominated, at least in terms of excitement and enthusiasm, by demagogues. We have a Fascist (Donald Trump) and a Marxist (Bernie Sanders).The fact that neither is likely to get their party’s nomination is cold comfort because,even in losing, Trump and Sanders will have forced the eventual nominees to take irresponsible positions out of political expediency.
The politician who the Trumpster most closely resembles is Silvio Berlusconi,the former prime minister of Italy. Both are performers who have mastered the use of television. Both are billionaire business moguls, who boast of their wealth and sexual prowess. Both claim their riches render them immune to corruption. At the same time, both swear their own shady business dealings make them uniquely qualified to purge a rotten system, on the theory that it takes a thief to catch a thief, e.g. FDR appointing notorious Wall Street “operator “Joseph P. Kennedy as the first head of the Securities Exchange Commission. Both delight in making crude and offensive public comments,which their followers find funny and endearing.
In short,both Trump and Berlusconi are totally unqualified by character, temperament, and intellect to be heads of state of major countries, especially in these parlous times. This is true even without considering their positions on major issues, which consist of a grab bag of ridiculous and contradictory pronouncements, consistent only in their crass opportunism and unerring ability to appeal to voters’ worst instincts.
By comparison, Bernie Sanders’s positions reflect a coherent ideology.
A notable example is his stance on immigration, where he has broken with Democratic orthodoxy by questioning whether flooding the U.S. with impoverished immigrants willing to work for low wages really helps American workers.(Most Democrats simply want to increase the number of Latino voters, with little concern what the economic impact that will have on groups they supposedly champion.)
The problem is that Sanders’s consistency means Bernie is consistently wrong.
The real impetus for his campaign is hatred of the rich. George Packer, a proudly liberal writer for The New Yorker, has noted that Sanders REALLY hates the rich. Packer marvels that Sanders hates them even more than Elizabeth Warren, in whose stead he was drafted by the Trotskyite wing of the Party of Workers, Peasants and Intellectuals when she got a case of the vapors.,i.e. scared of taking on the Clinton machine.with its apparatchiks like Sidney(“Sid Vicious“)Blumenthal.
This is,of course a very dated joke,referencing the first Godfather movie, meaning he would threaten them until they went along with his radical program. Every thing from single payer health care, free tuition at public colleges, paid family leave, etc.could be provided, Sanders claims, by making the 1% pay their “fair share”.
Not only does Sanders refuse to say what that “fair share” would consist of, but he never mentions that even a 90% marginal rate would only cover part of the current deficit. No explanation at all is offered as to how the additional $18 trillion in federal tax revenues will be raised to pay for the rest of his program.
Taking another cue from Elizabeth Warren, Sanders also wants to double down on all the existing entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid), even though these programs are already actuarial time bombs, set to go off with changing demographics. Why is giving current beneficiaries far more money in benefits under these programs-far more than they were promised-a good and noble thing if it means they’re won’t be enough money to pay future beneficiaries the benefits they WERE promised?
If you’re Bill Clinton’s former Labor Secretary Robert Reich,who was here in October to promote his new book and to dialogue with Red-Staters for a documentary he’s doing, you would insist there is a big difference. Trump, Reich & Company argue, is merely a demagogue, while Sanders and he are, by contrast, “populists”.
Right-wingers can also be populists, Reich conceded, but its a BAD form of populism, because it stirs up fear and resentment of unpopular minority groups. There is a universal human tendency to look for scapegoats, he noted, and Trump plays on this by blaming everyone from Mexicans to Moslems for the country’s problems. He gives the further example of such a” bad” populist as Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman,turn of the century South Carolina-rabble rousing senator and governor, who blamed blacks, Roman Catholics, and Jews for the plight of the poor whites who were his supporters.
Reich unwittingly gets himself in hot water here because Tillman, like other Southern demagogues of that era, also railed against Wall Street, the wealthy and corporations – all the same people Reich and Sanders despise!
Why not, after all, come up with multiple scapegoats if you’re a demagogue/populist?
There is a whole rogues gallery of Southern demagogues who switched back and forth in finding unpopular groups to incite hatred against. Another such figure was cited by Tom Wolfe in his 1970 classic essay”Radical Chic”. This was Senator Tom Watson of Georgia, who offered a combo special of yahoo positions,right wing (support from the KKK ) and left wing (attacks on capitalism and imperialism). In our own era we had Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright, Bill Clinton’s mentor, a fervent opponent of both the Vietnam War AND civil rights for black people! All these race-baiters were of,course prominent Democrats,and stayed that way until the 1970’s,a little fun fact I was never taught in college, but what would you expect of an institution that still bore the stamp of Woodrow Wilson? I did talk to old alums,who’d had his constitutional law class,and they say he was the best teacher they ever had.(If you knew people who were in the class of 1912 and also know people who graduated in 2012,it gives you the long view!)
Most recently we had Occupy Wall Street.
Embraced by the leaders of the Democratic Party,including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama, it harshly attacked American capitalism, a position which was highly publicized, which it blamed on International Jewry, a position which was not publicized at all, at least by the mainstream media.
Populism, left or right, too often degenerates into hatred and resentment towards some handy targets. Tactically, it makes little difference if it’s poor brown people (Trump’s Mexican “rapists and murderers”) or rich white people(The 1% or the Kochs).
It’s always someone else who is to blame for your problems,who has “rigged the system”to enrich themselves at your expense..whether you’re a “poor farmer”or “a working man”(preferred 1915 terminology) or part of the “struggling middle class”(preferred 2015 terminology).
So why be surprised when someone combines ethnic or racial hatred with class hatred ?
They’re two sides of the same coin.