What’s with the comparisons between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump?

If you had told a Very Serious Journalist a year ago that, in July 2015, democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and honey roasted wingnut Donald Trump would be in second place in their respective parties’ presidential primaries, they wouldn’t have even bothered to laugh.

Today, Very Serious Journalists, seeing those two men in second place in their respective parties’ presidential primaries, are writing Very Serious Articles suggesting that the two are equal and opposite flavors of radical. It’s the only way they can make sense of the phenomenon.

They all go something like this:

Bernie Sanders is an uncompromising and avowed socialist who hates the market and your freedom; Donald Trump is an uncompromising and avowed racist who hates Mexicans and their freedom. Both are the distilled essence of their parties’ core ideologies, so the two represent equal and opposite poles on our ideological spectrum. Both have gained momentum by appealing to the frustrations each party’s most radical wings have with their respective establishments. Therefore, Sanders is the Left’s Trump.

As Antonin Scalia would say, that argument is pure applesauce. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s similarities start and end with their position in the polls.

Those who make the comparison between Sanders and Trump can only do so by suggesting that Sanders’s views are radical so as to be out of step with the Democratic Party and the country as a whole. As I’ve noted before, Sanders was as liberal as David Vitter was conservative in the last Congress. His proposals for an infrastructure bank, free college tuition paid for by a speculation tax, single payer health care and an income tax increase for those making more than $600,000 per year are progressive, yes, but let’s be clear: They don’t come close to being the ideological analogs of the ideas being thrown around in the Republican primaries.

Rand Paul wants to implement a flat tax. Scott Walker thinks the minimum wage is a “lame idea.” Multiple mid-to-top-tier candidates are on record supporting a constitutional marriage amendment. Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal want to change or eliminate the Supreme Court. For his part, Donald Trump wants to build a Great Wall of America and have Mexico pay for it, which, by the way, is the only thing distinguishing him from his opponents.

Bernie Sanders, via AFGE / Flickr

Bernie Sanders, via AFGE / Flickr

One need only look to see how each candidates’ parties are reacting to them to see the difference. Hillary Clinton has already begun deploying surrogates to cast Sanders as a radical — a Ron Paul figure whose large crowds are themselves indicative of support that runs deep but not broad. The Republican Party, for their part, can’t cast Trump as a radical because of how little separation there is between him and the mainstream GOP — and how popular his racist rhetoric is within their party.

Sanders’s support is a measure of the substantive ideological differences between himself and Hillary Clinton. Trump’s support is a measure of the rhetorical amplification he has given to what the Republican field was already saying. As Ana Marie Cox wrote in The Daily Beast, in an article confusingly titled “Bernie Sanders is the Left’s Trump”:

When Democratic base voters flock to Sanders, they are expressing dissatisfaction what current Democratic policies. When Republican base voters flock to Trump, they are expressing dissatisfaction with Republican rhetoric.


Put another way, Bernie Sanders’s support is about Bernie Sanders. Donald Trump’s support is about everyone else.

That makes them different, not similar.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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