As an American living in the UK, I often get asked about the presidential election, particularly my views on Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. My British and European friends cannot understand why two polar opposite figures are becoming significant in American politics at the exact same time. To this question, I always respond that Trump and Sanders are two sides of the same coin, and should be understood in relationship to each other. They are both ‘populists’: politicians who appeal to the hopes and fears of the general population by contrasting the interests of “the people” with the interests of political and corporate elites.
Both Trump and Sanders’ supporters are angry with the current state of American affairs, and they tend to be angry about the same things – an inefficient, ineffective federal government, a corrupt corporate sector, and a lack of opportunity and mobility for the middle class. Where the two candidates differ is in their proposed solutions to these problems. Sanders believes the answer lies in universal healthcare, free higher education, and a higher minimum wage, among other things. Trump’s plan is to “make American great again” by deporting undocumented immigrants, building a wall on the Mexican border, and being smarter than the rest of the world. It must sound like I’m making fun of Trump, but I’m really not – these are his actual policies.
I also tell my friends on this side of the Atlantic that neither Trump nor Sanders are a unique phenomenon in the history of American politics. In fact, America has a long and distinguished history of presidential candidates who might be described as populist. The two most famous are William Jennings Bryan and George Wallace. Bryan ran for president in 1896, 1900, and 1908 on platforms that attacked big banks and corporations while appealing to small farmers. Wallace, who famously said, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” ran for president in 1968 on an explicitly racist platform, hoping to undo the gains the Civil Rights movement had made during the 1960s.
History suggests neither Trump nor Sanders are going to win the 2016 election. Both Bryan and Wallace were soundly defeated in the general election, as was every other populist presidential candidate in United States history. In fact, in all likelihood neither Trump nor Sanders will even become a candidate in the general election – recent history shows that while populists candidates can ignite excitement and lead opinion polls in the months leading up to primary season, once the actually primaries begin, the party unites around a more mainstream candidate.
However, that does not mean that the popularity of Trump and Sanders is not significant. In fact, I believe that future historians will view the two men in the same way that contemporary historians view Bryan and Wallace – as figures that represent major events in United States history. Though Bryan was defeated in three elections, most of the reforms which the economic populist advocated were enshrined into law over the next 20 years. Bryan’s efforts made once radical ideas mainstream, and his failed campaigns mark the beginning of what is now known as the Progressive Era. In contrast, after the racial populist George Wallace was defeated in 1968, desegregation in the South accelerated.
Let us hope that history repeats itself. Even though neither Trump nor Sanders will win the 2016 election, perhaps future politicians will address the economic issues that have led the frustrated to support both of these candidates. America does not need a wall to keep immigrants out, but it does need to provide economic opportunity, mobility, and stability for its citizens.