To many, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are polar opposites. To Sanders’ supporters, Trump is a reality-TV billionaire, exactly the type Sanders blames for today’s problems. To Trump’s fans, Sanders is a government-loving socialist, and a wimp who hands over his mic to Black Lives Matter protesters. As Trump says of Sanders: ‘He wants to give away our country, folks. We’re not going to let it happen.’
But Trump and Sanders share much in common. Both come from outside the normal political channels; until recently neither was a member of the party they now seek to represent in the presidential election. Both are channelling disaffection from sections of society, often blue-collar, that have lost faith in government, political parties, business, and other institutions. And both Trump and Sanders are mobilising people on the basis of a populist, anti-elite message.
Today’s new populism in the US – like populist individuals and movements of the past – isn’t bound by the traditional political categories of left and right. As the historian Michael Kazin has noted, populism is ‘more an impulse than an ideology’; it is a ‘flexible mode of persuasion’ that can be employed towards a variety of political ends. In the US, populism has ranged from the small, farmer-based People’s Party of the 1890s and the labour movement of the early-20th century, to George Wallace’s segregationist third-party presidential bid in the 1960s and Ronald Reagan’s overtures to workers in the 1980s.
This latest wave of populism in the US, as represented by Trump and Sanders, is filling a vacuum left by the slow disintegration of the Republican and Democratic parties. Both groups have adopted top-down, technocratic policies, and both are widely viewed as dysfunctional. Populism is also fuelled by a backlash against the political and cultural elite’s apparent disdain for lower-class people, whether it’s President Obama’s dig at people who ‘cling to guns or religion’ or Mitt Romney’s dismissal of the ‘47 per cent’ who are ‘takers’.
The new American populism has been more successful than anyone imagined only a few months ago. It is shaking up the old order. What is unusual about today’s populism, from the perspective of US history, is that it is emerging on both the left and right simultaneously. This reveals that populism is now a society-wide phenomenon, and calls into question how meaningful the traditional left-right categories are today. What’s even more striking, considering so-called ‘American exceptionalism’, is that the US version of populism is part of a global trend: Trump has parallels with Nigel Farage of UKIP and Marine Le Pen of Front National; Sanders resembles Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.