Comment

Why angry Americans are tempted by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders

Peter Hartcher

The agonisingly long US election campaign has reached the point where we can start to pay attention to it as a political event rather than just a comedy sideshow. The outlandish buffoon Donald Trump can no longer be laughed off. 

Donald Trump meets Game of Thrones

Walkley Award winning editor Huw Parkinson works his magic again in the latest video mash-up for ABC's Insiders. (Vision courtesy ABC News 24)

On the weekend he achieved two feats that require us to start taking him seriously.

First, after earlier winning the New Hampshire primary ballot for the Republican party's nomination for the presidency, he won the South Carolina primary as well. These two primaries, taken together, have a 100 per cent success rate in predicting the ultimate winner of the Republican candidacy.

Illustration: John Shakespeare
Illustration: John Shakespeare 

Second, Trump's relentlessness has exhausted the Bush dynasty. Its candidate, Jeb Bush, has surrendered, his $US100 million campaign spending for naught. 

This doesn't mean Trump is the inevitable victor. It does mean  this  campaign is like no other in recent history. Trump has broken every rule, shattered every convention, yet confounded every expert prediction that he would implode. And this tells us that the US itself is in a condition like no other we've seen.

The other telltale is what's happening on the other side of US politics, the Democratic one. Trump's Democrat analogue, Bernie Sanders, is enjoying a similarly flabbergasting success. He was long derided as an unreconstructed socialist in America, and almost unheard of outside it.

He's not the Democrat frontrunner, but he's not far behind. In the Nevada caucuses on the weekend, he won just 5 per cent fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, a former US secretary of state and first lady.

Donald Trump with his family at a South Carolina primary night rally on Saturday.
Donald Trump with his family at a South Carolina primary night rally on Saturday. Photo: Bloomberg

But how can Bernie Sanders be Trump's analogue? There are obvious differences. Trump, billionaire property tycoon, claims to be a hyper-capitalist. Sanders is a self-described democratic socialist. 

Yet it's "what they have in common that's made them the men with the momentum" says the Chicago Tribune's Kathleen Hennessey. 

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and his wife Jane, wave to supporters during a rally on Sunday.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and his wife Jane, wave to supporters during a rally on Sunday. Photo: AP

They are both old, white men, the most unfashionable social group in the developed world today. They are raw and angry, utterly unlike the closely scripted, well manicured political mannequins typically sent out from central casting. 

And it's the anger that is the shared, defining characteristic of both. As John Leland reported in The New York Times a few weeks ago: "Trump and Sanders voters are the likeliest among their parties to be 'angry' at Washington, according to the Times/CBS News poll, with 52 per cent of Trump backers and 30 per cent of Sanders backers identifying that way.

"Anger has risen steadily since 2010 among both Democrats and Republicans," Leland wrote, "and their anger appears to be one factor sweeping Mr Trump and Mr Sanders from the relative margins to the top of many polls."

How much anger is there in the US today? Seven Americans out of ten say they're very angry or somewhat angry about "the way things are going" in the US, according to a CNN-ORC poll from December. 

What are they angry about? The same proportion, seven in 10, say they're angry because the  system "seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power, like those on Wall Street or in Washington," according to an NBS-Wall Street Journal poll from November.

Sanders concentrates his anger on Wall Street, while Trump aims his at Washington. Belonging to a much-derided social group presumably lends some authenticity to their outsider status.

Trump is appealing to be the fury-in-chief. He claims that he is "very, very angry" and will "gladly accept the mantle of anger". Sanders is so angry that he daily calls for a "political revolution", no less.

If the people are so angry at the status quo, can it be a surprise that they are resisting swallowing, once more, the two political dynasties that have dominated the last quarter-century of US politics?

Between George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, those two families have occupied the White House for 20 of the past 27 years. And Americans are refusing to meekly re-endorse them, with Jeb Bush now gone and Hillary Clinton struggling to hold off the Sanders insurrection.

"America's political class is only beginning to grasp the depth of the anti-establishment mood that is gripping the US," observes Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times this month. "Almost eight years after the financial crisis, this mood seems to be growing in strength, not weakening. President Barack Obama's announcement last week that the US unemployment rate is now below 5 per cent barely registered on the campaign trail. 

"Instead, all the talk is of students reeling under unpayable debts; and of parents having to work at two or three low-paid jobs to make ends meet. The idea that the economy is 'rigged' in favour of insiders is now embraced, in some form, by most of the candidates in both the Republican and Democratic parties."

The "most fundamental source" of discontent is economic, according to a Brookings Institution expert, William Galston. Middle American incomes have been stagnant for a decade and a half. 

Shockingly, life expectancy has actually fallen for Americans with low education levels, by four years or 5 per cent. And it happened with startling speed, between 1990 and 2008, according to Jay Olshansky of Illinois University. 

Meanwhile, the US financial system – "Wall Street" – that is blamed for the colossal economic collapse of 2008-9 in a frenzy of greed and fraud is seen to be unpunished. Not one Wall Street executive has been jailed for fraud.

So what appears to many Australians to be an inexplicable fit of American madness is actually pretty rational. If Australia had the same problems, we might have the same reaction.

Americans' financial frustration then begets the quest for someone to blame. This is where Trump and Sanders handily supply the scapegoats.

The other important feature they share is aptly described by the Washington Post's conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer: "Let the others propose carefully budgeted five-point plans. Sanders and Trump offer magic."

They do not offer serious solutions, but the force of their public support means that we have to take them seriously nonetheless.

Peter Hartcher is international editor.

57 comments

Comments are now closed