I’ve been seeing something baffling lately. I don’t know if it’s widespread or if it’s just a quirk of my social media feeds, but I’ve been seeing a bunch of people saying that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are the same. I don’t mean to say that they have similarities (I’ll talk about those later). They seem to be implying that they are virtually interchangeable candidates. I wish I knew if these people are purposely trolling or if they really don’t understand.
Their case takes a couple of different, but related forms. Sometimes it starts with the obvious Trump/Hitler comparisons. Just take a Hitler speech and swap Jews for Muslims and Communists for Mexicans and you pretty much have a Trump speech. Then, they say that the Nazis were the National Socialist Party and Sanders is a Democratic Socialist. They point out that both Sanders and Hitler wanted universal healthcare and strong public transportation and think they’ve made their point. Trump has something in common with Hitler and so does Sanders, so they must be the same. The other form is to start with Sanders’ supposed socialism. Then, they point out all of the socialist/leftist things that Trump has mentioned like single payer health care and avoiding military entanglements. So, either Trump is an obvious fascist and Sanders is a fascist in disguise or Sanders is an obvious socialist and Trump is a socialist in disguise. Either way, they are the same.
The big problem with this line of thought is that having things in common is not enough to make people the same. Trump and Sanders are not even similar, except superficially. They are both old, white men. They agree on a couple of issues (maybe. It’s almost impossible to know what Trump actually believes.). But, Sanders has been a public servant for his entire adult life while Trump is a celebrity/businessman. Sanders is consistent while Trump is mercurial. Sanders is concerned for others while Trump is completely selfish.
Given that they are not even similar, let alone the same, why all of this talk about them both being fascist (or socialist)? I think it has to do with the most important similarity that they have, they are both populists. Populism is a funny thing. It comes in many varieties. Saying all populists are alike is like saying all pop music is alike (Hey, did you hear the new Kanye? It sounds just like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”.). Just knowing that any two people are populist politicians doesn’t mean you know anything specific about their ideas or policies. It just means that they are tapping into the people for their support as opposed to the establishment.
The really funny (or sad) thing is that populism is enough for a huge number of Americans. They are angry and supporting a populist candidate, whichever populist candidate, seems to be their way of expressing that anger. While I don’t think that Sanders and Trump have anything substantive in common, I do find it fascinating how much many of their supporters seem to have in common.