Simon Carswell: Trump and Sanders have more in common than you might think

They have tapped the same frustration felt by voters who feel let down by establishment politicians and angry that the system is stacked against them.

Cast your mind back seven months to that moment Donald Trump descended that escalator at Trump Tower into the presidential race to the strains of Neil Young's Rockin' in the Free World.

Remember how you laughed at the absurdity of it all: a billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV star with ambitions to add the White House to his list of residencies. Recall how you shook your head in shock when he said Mexico was sending rapists and drug-dealers across America's southern border. You probably even laughed at his hair again, his double-weaved comb-over or whatever it is.

You’re unlikely to be laughing now. Just days before the first Americans start picking the parties’ nominees, Trump holds a commanding lead in the national polls in the election to be the Republican Party’s candidate in November.

He has retaken the number one position in the state that holds the inaugural nominating contest of the presidential race: Iowa.


The idea that an outsider like Trump, a demagogue whose high-decibel, emotional appeals have played on the economic and societal fears of voters, could carry Republican hopes and lead the party of Abraham Lincoln into November's election was once unthinkable. It is now a very real prospect. If he wins in the Iowa caucuses next Monday, it could be difficult to stop him.

For the second half of last year, senior Republicans were tripping over themselves to warn about the damage that Trump’s abrasive style and vitriolic rhetoric could do to the party’s prospects of victory.

Now Trump has been buoyed by their opposition to his closest rival, Texas senator Ted Cruz, a disruptive force in the US Senate. The businessman is cashing in as the lesser of two evils.

Senior Republicans, such as Mitch McConnell and John McCain, have given Trump a new legitimacy in Washington by supporting his attacks on his rival's eligibility to be president as a natural-born citizen – given Cruz's birth in Canada.

Even former Republican nominee Bob Dole said last week he preferred Trump to Cruz – "nobody likes him" – because he could work with Congress. It shows how far Trump has come in seven months to be considered a reasonable alternative.

Some are kicking themselves they had not seen his appeal sooner. David Axelrod, Barack Obama's strategist in his historic 2008 election, admitted in a New York Times op-ed on Monday how embarrassed he was that he had missed the secret of Trump's popularity.

Obama’s allure

It was just like Obama’s allure eight years ago, he wrote. Voters “almost always seek a remedy, the candidate who has the personal qualities the public finds lacking in the departing executive.”

Axelrod continues by asking: “Who among the Republicans is more the antithesis of Mr Obama than the trash-talking, authoritarian, give-no-quarter Mr Trump?”

While they could not be further apart politically, Trump and Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont who is upsetting Hillary Clinton's coronation to the Democratic nomination, have plenty in common. They have tapped the same frustration felt by voters who feel let down by establishment politicians and angry that the system is stacked against them.

“I will gladly accept the mantle of anger,” Trump said at the last Republican debate. You only have to spend a short time at a Sanders rally to see he clearly wears that mantle on the Democratic side.

Sanders rails against a corrupt campaign finance system, while Trump boasts about his capacity as a billionaire to rise above a system of political patronage that grassroots conservatives dislike as well.

Fringe candidates

From the outset, Sanders and Trump were both painted as fringe candidates. Trump repeatedly reminds anyone within earshot that he was the only candidate brave enough to take a hardline position on illegal immigration that has resonated with a large bloc of voters. Sanders says eight months ago when he began his campaign, he had no money, no organisation and little name recognition around the country. Now, he says, the candidate once deemed the inevitable nominee “may not be quite so inevitable.”

Much like Trump has been doing for months in his narcissistic campaign, Sanders has started referring to his strong poll numbers to counter Clinton’s argument that she is more electable.

Trump and Sanders have also exposed a major failing of the political establishment. It erred not just by dismissing them both early on but by underestimating the strength of the anger at Washington politics that they have so effectively articulated.

Both have been vague on the details of the lofty goals they promise: Trump on the specifics of his plans (how he will get Mexico to pay for his wall along the border, for example) and Sanders on how he will finance his (free healthcare for all and free college education for whoever wants it).

It hasn’t really mattered. This election has been all about the anger and who has mined it best.

Clinton tried again at a televised town-hall meeting of the Democratic candidates in Iowa on Tuesday to plead for realism to undermine Sanders's idealism. She quoted former New York governor Mario Cuomo: "You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose."

Poetry’s triumph

Right now, poetry is winning. Both Trump and Sanders have harnessed the passion of the frustrated left and right. Being outsiders and Independents has only added to their appeal. Sanders votes with the Democrats in the Senate but is a proud Independent, while Trump has floated between the parties throughout his life.

Now, another Independent and billionaire, the former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, is exploring a presidential run. He is eyeing a possible opening between Trump's ascendancy on the Republican side and Clinton's failure to stop the rise of Sanders on the Democratic side.

Presumably Bloomberg sees himself as a strong voice who might lead the so-called sensible middle and, as he might view it, make people come to their senses. He might struggle with that group. The Trump and Sanders insurgencies have so far shown that the centre is somewhat indifferent.

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times Washington Correspondent