As the 2016 presidential election gathers steam, it’s tempting to compare the Bernie Sanders surge among Democrats with the Donald Trump phenomenon among Republicans. After all, both candidates are marshalling support from the ideological grassroots in their respective parties (the left in Sanders’ case, the right for Trump), and both have successfully tapped into a deeper anger that animates their campaigns.
When you reflect on the nature of that anger, however, a crucial distinction between the two candidates emerges: Sanders is drawing on a compassionate anger, while Trump is fanning the flames of a selfish anger. This may seem like a small difference, but it’s one that will literally determine the fate of millions.
First, a quick moment of clarification. When I discuss “compassionate” and “selfish” forms of anger, I’m referring to the underlying philosophy embedded in a given set of frustrations. Although both forms of anger tap into a visceral sense of outrage within their listeners, the former insists that they exhibit empathy for others, while the latter encourages them to focus on advancing their own interests at the expense of others. Thus – to use the analogy of a schoolyard setting – the practitioner of empathetic anger will demand that the rules be fair and the toys be shared, while the practitioner of selfish anger will raise a fuss whenever he’s losing the game or doesn’t have as many toys as he’d like… regardless of whether real cheating or unjust inequality is actually involved.
This brings us to the current election cycle. As the most recent Democratic debate demonstrated, Sanders is practically monomaniacal in his focus on the problem of income inequality in America. Whether he’s discussing the importance of raising the minimum wage, proposing a substitute for Obamacare that would guarantee free health coverage for everyone, or advocating policies that would lower college tuition and student loan rates, all of his positions are bound by a common thread. Sanders sees an America that, despite proclaiming itself the “land of opportunity,” is clearly rigged to offer better opportunities for the affluent than the poor. Similarly, despite its nickname as the “land of the free,” Sanders vocalizes a widespread outrage at the notion that anyone can have a freedom worth having while languishing in insurmountable poverty. Listening to his rhetoric, one hears undeniable echoes of Franklin Roosevelt’s famous Economic Bill of Rights:
“We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”
Whereas Sanders’ campaign has been fueled by a consistent ideology of economic progressivism (or, as he likes to call it, democratic socialism), the Trump boom has gathered momentum by pitting various groups of Americans against each other. It’s easy to forget that when Trump skyrocketed to his current frontrunner status over the summer, it was by vilifying undocumented Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. Since that time, his campaign has wallowed in the depth of misogyny, racism, and Islamophobia, with Trump garnering headlines and gaining support by openly promoting the prejudices that have marginalized non-white males in the past. While it’s tempting to identify this pattern of bigotry as the common thread tying his campaign themes together, this wouldn’t be precisely accurate. The actual thread is Trump’s cynical awareness of the fact that, by shattering the so-called “politically correct” taboos against attacking traditionally oppressed groups of people, he can simultaneously speak on behalf of the privileged while making both them and himself seem like the underdogs.
Indeed, the evidence of this can be found not on the many occasions when Trump’s hatemongering has succeeded, but on the numerous times it has failed. Take his anti-Semitic comments during a speech in front of the Republican Jewish Coalition; when he declared to his appalled audience that “you’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money,” he clearly intended to position himself as a brave challenger of a Jew-controlled status quo. This approach didn’t gain traction, so naturally he abandoned it, but structurally it was identical to the rhetoric he has successfully used against Mexicans or Muslims – insinuate that racist assumptions about those groups are correct, feed off of the media outrage regarding his remarks, and profit from the support that rallies behind him for “speaking the truth.” The same thing can be said of his efforts to mobilize a bigoted reaction against the Cuban heritage of his chief rival, Ted Cruz; when he urged an Iowa audience to remember that “not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba,” the goal was once again to politically weaponized what he hoped would be the racist inclinations of his own supporters. The fact that this tactic didn’t work against Cubans (and thus Cruz) simply proves that Trump’s strategy, though often successful, is still a hit-and-miss affair. Of course, because the hits yield such great rewards and the misses have yet to hurt him politically, Trump has no particular incentive to stop.
Even though Trump will probably never redeem the quality of his anger, though, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from his actions. If Americans truly want to elevate the quality of their political discourse, it is imperative to start by distinguishing between the type of anger that speaks to legitimate needs among the vulnerable and the type of anger that only sows seeds of dissent and hatred. This is an issue that transcends the Sanders and Trump campaigns, or indeed the 2016 presidential election entirely. At its core, this is about what it means to be a responsible citizen within a democratic society – something that Sanders clearly understands, and Trump just as clearly does not.