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Why Do We Keep Comparing Trump and Sanders?

Their politics are poles apart. But they're stirring similar emotions among alienated voters and anxious establishmentarians.

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Comparing Senator Bernie Sanders with reality television star Donald Trump has become something of an election-watching pastime. The two have been noted for their similarities to one degree or another in publications as diverse as Politico, The New York Times, National Review, Bustle, the Washington Free Beacon, and many more. Their policies have been likened in the Free Beacon and Bustle, with the former claiming they are “the same person” according to policy analysis, and the latter promising they are “more similar than you think.” Most columns of this genre sport headlines bearing the word populist. But is the comparison really all that informative? 

On one hand, the delight of addressing Sanders and Trump in the same breath comes in part from the surprise of the match-up; the two are often construed as the most extreme iterations of their respective parties, so putting them together provokes a kind of counterintuitive thrill. And on the axis of having shifted the realm of the politically possible (often known as the Overton Window), Sanders and Trump do have something in common, though they’ve budged the window in opposite directions. They also share some stylistic habits, as much as some amount of bombast and stridency are going to be shared by any old guy from Brooklyn and any other old guy from Queens. Last, and most substantively, Sanders and Trump are each populists of a certain kind, and have attained broad appeal in a way that seems to irk the establishment members of their respective parties.

On the other hand, these similarities are almost totally located inside the election—that is, they have to do with how Sanders and Trump have proceeded with their campaigns. To suggest that they are politically similar is a far stranger proposition, not least because Trump rarely articulates policy plans outside of general goal statements, frequently contradicts himself, and has openly stated he intends to be politically unpredictable. Sanders, on the other hand, proposes so much legislation that knowing what policies he supports is mostly a matter of figuring out where to start, and he emphasizes his political consistency. Nonetheless, attempts have been made.

National Review’s Jonah Goldberg has observed, for example, that Trump sometimes appears to be in favor of single-payer health care, that he and Sanders each oppose an “open borders” immigration approach, and that both have their objections to free trade. The notion that Trump supports single-payer healthcare wrongly presumes he has a health-care policy in the works whatsoever, but moreover relies on older gestures toward single-payer (mostly from statements made around the year 2000) to the exclusion of more recent statements in which he has applauded a government-paid system for the poor and private, market-based insurance plans for the majority. Sanders, on the other hand, openly advocates a “Medicare for all” system amounting to a single-payer universal program for all Americans. If “Medicare for all” and Medicare for some are identical, then Sanders and Trump are the same, and words have no meaning.

Then there is the matter of “open borders,” a notion which Sanders opposes because, he says, inviting workers to venture from other countries into the United States for jobs would result in their immediate exploitation and abuse. Donald Trump is also against open borders-type policies, but it’s primarily because he fears open borders would put Americans out of work, and probably also because he’s a xenophobe at large. Other candidates who have criticized open borders policies include Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina; meanwhile, zero candidates have come out in favor of “open borders.” 

With so much of this year’s election revolving around fears about immigrants and refugees as criminals and terrorists, Sanders’s bold critique of the corporate and capitalist intentions behind open-borders agitation stands out, and his support for pro-immigrant reform (and existing policies, like DACA and the DREAM act) places him at odds with Trump, who has vowed to rescind DACA and the DREAM act. On the axis of supporting some immigration controls, then, Sanders and Trump are similar to one another (and all the other candidates), but the differences in tone and degree are so extreme as to virtually translate into a difference in kind.

Trump would reform our trade laws to favor America, and opposed the Trans Pacific Partnership, as did Sanders—and as did Hillary Clinton, as did Ted Cruz, as did Martin O’Malley and Carly Fiorina and Mike Huckabee. Again, the similarity is so ubiquitous among candidates as to be unrevealing. 

An enterprising observer might note that Trump and Sanders both seem to have certain Second Amendment proclivities, but even there the two are not alike. Trump has made gun rights a major plank of his campaign, vowing to grant concealed-carry permits validity in all 50 states and calling President Barack Obama’s Tuesday executive order on gun control “no good” and “not fair.” Meanwhile, Sanders offered his support of Obama’s executive action, and vowed to uphold it if elected president.

As for social issues and taxation, Trump appears nominally pro-life while Sanders is fervently pro-choice; Trump’s tax plan would drastically reduce taxes while Sanders has said he would increase taxes, including those on the so-called middle class; Trump is opportunistically opposed to same-sex marriage while Sanders is strongly in favor of LGBT rights. If Sanders usually advanced policies along the lines of “we’ll fix that” or “it’ll be great,” it would be easier to draw comparisons here; as it stands, the actual plans Trump has proposed are vastly fewer than the emotions he has provoked.

But at last, emotions matter. And it’s the emotions Trump and Sanders seem to inspire among political elites and their court commentariat that elicit the same shambling comparisons over and over again, with aggrieved conservatives trying to convince their fellows that Trump is too Sanders-like, and aggrieved liberals trying to work the same line in reverse. What else could inspire so many people to insist black and white are more similar in their startling extremity than so many shades of gray in between? 

“These sudden stars are not really about governing,” The New York TimesDavid Brooks wrote of Trump and Sanders back in September. “They are tools for their supporters’ self-expression. They allow supporters to make a statement, demand respect or express anger or resentment.” So too have they become emblems of establishment furor: While Trump and Sanders’s supporters praise their respective uniqueness within their parties, their detractors seem bent on inventing an imagined sameness to negate their straying constituencies’ interest in new political options. The two candidates are not meaningfully alike in terms of policy. Their greatest similarity may, at the end of the day, be their ability to arouse anxiety in people whose comfort with democracy was built upon a two-party system that often serves to limit it.