Why the Populist Vote Is Good for America

By Andrej Mrevlje |

The Iowa caucuses virtually left us with five presidential candidates: Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Marco Rubio on the Republican side, and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. These five seem to be the only candidates who can still hope to make a move towards the Oval Office. The only surprise that could – by some miracle – disturb the group of five is Jeb Bush. But the youngest of the Bushes would not bring a new perspective to the race, since he – just as much as Hillary Clinton – represents the continuity of the political system that has led this country into stagnation and is now evolving into a profound socio-political crisis.

Facing this crisis, we have two types of presidential candidates: Clinton, Rubio and Cruz represent the continuation of establishment politics, while Trump and Sanders belong to the populist stream of politics that relies heavily on non-institutional forces.

Ted Cruz, who won the Iowa Caucus last Tuesday, despite entering politics only five years ago, flirts with Evangelicals and passes for the most conservative Republican in Congress. He is also a prominent Tea Party member, but this does not make him populist. Unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Tea Party works within political institutions, and has even plotted the replacement of former Speaker of the House John Boehner with Paul Ryan, one of the early colonels of their faction within the GOP. Hoping to topple President Obama in the 2010 midterm elections, conservatives recruited members of the Tea Party and opened the door to Congress for them. While they may still be small in number, they are loud enough that they make it nigh impossible for the old leadership to select a relatively moderate candidate to represent them. Perhaps the last hope for the moderates within GOP is their newest darling, Marco Rubio. It is tempting for many moderate Republicans to stop financing Jeb Bush and bet what is left of their money on the young Republican senator from Florida. But Marco Rubio is a false hope: he is lovable, yes, but he seems to perform on every available stage. In short, it feels as if he is rehearsing to become a president. On the other hand, the GOP as a whole has lost their political identity and values. They no longer have the tools or the leverage to fight back against the Tea Party warlords that they created. They fill their political and ideological void with nostalgia for people like Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, regretting that they did not give enough support to Mitt Romney in the last presidential election. Don’t we all? A short scan of the present Republican candidates would make Romney almost seem like an excellent choice. This should give all of us an idea of how fast the world is changing. And it’s not for the better.

If the world just slows down a bit, we will be able to witness a complete generational turnover of the American political class by the end of the 2020 presidential elections. If for nothing else but the laws of nature, people like John McCain (80), Mitch McConnell (76), Nancy Pelosi (76), and Harry Read (77), will hopefully retire and leave their seats in Congress to younger politicians. Right now, due to a big influx of Tea Partiers into their ranks, Republicans already have a more youthful look than Democrats. But while we pretty much know where the Republican Party is heading, the Democrats seem to be at a total standstill. It is hard to tell exactly why this is, but to an outsider it’s incredible to observe that the party needs a 74-year-old senator to make a stand for them. Bernie Sanders runs against the establishment, against inequality, against big banks. He is  defending the country’s youth, and he is trying to revitalise the middle class and the country as a whole. His name is on everyone’s lips.

Sanders is no doubt a populist. So is Donald Trump. But the two have only one thing in common: they both saw the abandoned crowds, moving away from politics for miriad of reasons – because they don’t like a black president, because they are disappointed by the promised changes that President Obama never delivered. Or they are scared of the increased racism and the resurgence of white power in this country, and of the looming social tensions, mass shootings, decline of the American power, inequality, crumbling infrastructure… The menu is rich, and the two populists have carefully picked their dishes. Trump, without any sort of political experience, chose bluntness, insults and attacks, using vocabulary that hasn’t been heard for a long time in American politics. But since he is a strong, fearless man, he will be able to “Make America Great Again,” Trump repeats again and again. And the media goes crazy for this man of short, repetitive sentences, who is full of provocations and insults. Trump feeds cable networks with the best food ever: he is continuous gossip.

It took several months before even the most informed political analysts in the country started to take Trump into serious consideration. David Axelrod, the former senior strategist for Barack Obama and the director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, was one of the last to do so when he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times:

Even as he climbed to the top of polls, I confidently predicted that the outrageous Mr. Trump, as transfixing and ubiquitous as he was, was merely a summer fling. He would fade in the fall, when Republican voters got serious about making a long-term commitment.

Seven months later, Mr. Trump has broken just about every rule of conventional campaigning. Short on policy prescriptions and long on provocation, he has serially — and joyfully — insulted Mexicans, women, Muslims, P.O.W.s, people with disabilities and virtually all of his opponents. Yet a week before caucusing begins in Iowa, he still reigns supreme atop the Republican field.

What seemed impossible is now more than plausible: Donald J. Trump, the self-reverential deal maker, could pull off a hostile takeover of the Grand Old Party.

Axelrod even found some unusual similarities between Trump’s current campaign and Obama’s 2008 bid for the presidency. “Open-seat presidential elections are shaped by perceptions of the style and personality of the outgoing incumbent,” he wrote. “Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have. They almost always seek the remedy, the candidate who has the personal qualities the public finds lacking in the departing executive.”

The key to understanding Trump’s aggressive, insulting and provocative behavior as a viable strategy was hidden in Axelrod’s own writing from ten years ago: Trump is playing the antithesis of – and, to some, the antidote for – Obama, much in the same way as, in 2008, Obama was acting as an antidote for Bush.

And as I wrote couple of months ago, Trump rounded out this strategy with the vision that the United States is just another one of his corporations, and that Americans are his employees who should trust their new boss. It looks like millions of Americans are following the new self-proclaimed shepherd. I am not quite sure what will happen to Trump now that he’s come in second in Iowa, and his myth of being invincible has cracked a bit. It is possible that he is done. My hope, however, is that the media will have enough strength to bring this uncrowned prince back, so that we’ll have a chance to watch a race between the two populists in September. No, I am not kidding – I would love to see Sanders win the Democratic nomination with Donald Trump standing on the other side of the ring. It would be something spectacular, something that would really stir up the American public, shake a political system that has been self-indulgent for years on end. There would be a greater chance for reforms, for the end of corporations financing presidential candidates, the end of the corrupt congressmen – like representative Charles B. Rangel from New York, for example, who has been sitting in the House for last 45 years! Yes, if Trump gets the  Republican nomination and Sanders beats out Clinton’s perfectly organized political machine, then according to the polls, there is a good chance that Sanders would be the next U.S. president. I do not know how this would work. All I know is that the two populists should move ahead. That this would be a progress. That a race between candidates of the establishment will bring this country nowhere except increased social tensions that might erupt into something that nobody wants. So, listening to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders last night during the town hall debate in New Hampshire, one could not help but completely agree with the senator from Vermont. Sanders is what I called a reasoned populist – his narrative leads into the ideal state, which echos the Greek Polis mad  makes Sanders a pure idealist.

Otherwise, can you imagine the race between Clinton and Cruz? It would be vicious and long, full of institutional plots and boring performances. Fake emotional inserts, loud voices and loud laughs trying to convince us that they’re being natural. It would turn more Americans away from politics, and it would definitely be the end of cable networks. So where is the fun when politics is a game of pretend and not of action; when the country stands still while the Chinese build fast railroads?  This was once a country where everything was possible, where politics was exciting. But in today’s political climate, that world of possibility doesn’t seem as present.

In this sense, it feels good not to be alone. George Packer is a very subtle political thinker with incredible capacity for finding and connecting the dots. In “Living on the Edge”, a short piece that he wrote for  the New Yorker, he writes:   


Now that we’re entering the frenetic,relentlessly tactical stretch of the campaign, it’s strange to think that the long months before Iowa and New Hampshire actually marked the substantive phase. Candidates had to show up for lengthy debates (even if their answers often ranged from the canned to the preposterous). Every now and then, they gave speeches and issued position papers on issues like tax reform and war in the Middle East (even if their ideas didn’t always stand up to fact-checking or common sense). And, because the candidates were spending so much time in just two states, they had to face questions from actual voters. As a result of all this, we now have a reading of the American political temperature. What we’ve learned is that it’s burning a lot hotter at the grassroots than either party’s leadership seems capable of understanding.

Neither billionaire donors nor the Republican National Committee nor Fox News has been able to mute Donald Trump and his millions of supporters. Politico notes that “establishment Republicans have begun a ferocious round of finger-pointing over who is to blame for the party’s failure to stop Donald Trump.” Should Right to Rise, the hundred-million-dollar Bush’s Super PAC,have directed its dollars against Trump instead of against Marco Rubio? Should Rubio have been more willing to criticize Trump, and Ted Cruz less willing to flatter him? Which is preferable: fear (Trump) or loathing (Cruz)? The latter, says a recent issue of National Review that was wholly and belatedly devoted to stopping Trump. Bob Dole sees it the other way around. The Party leadership expected the primaries to proceed as a kind of demonstration of democracy, with the result already in the bag. Shock is finally giving way to rage.

Democrats are more used to choosing outsiders, like Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. But the long-shot campaign of Bernie Sanders is the opposite of those insurgencies—it has nothing to do with personality or biography and everything to do with issues. Sanders’s persistently surprising popularity shows that the Democratic establishment grasped the deep alienation of its voters no better than its Republican counterpart did. The energy of this campaign has been generated on the margins, by two kinds of Americans: younger, better-educated, more urban ones on the Democratic side; older, more working-class, whiter ones on the Republican side. As with the Progressives and Populists of a hundred years ago, both groups harbor a sense that their country has been taken away from them.

Packer, of course, comes to a different conclusion than I do, saying that the supporters of the populists Sanders and Trump are not any less ideological than their “bosses.”

Does it mean that the voters are more lucid and pure than the candidates who are trying to sell them their presidential packages?

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