In the burgeoning genre of think pieces linking the rises of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, Stephen Marche’s vapid Guardian essay over the weekend is perhaps the definitive contribution.
Over the past several months, the two have been variously equated on the basis of their policy positions, hostility to party establishments, and allegiance to political “extremism” — in other words, as somehow equivalent political phenomena.
Both Trump and Sanders, we are ceaselessly told, are essentially vehicles for outrage, addressing discontent through demagogy, and are therefore similar. As David Brooks wrote last September:
These sudden stars [Sanders, Trump, Ben Carson, and Jeremy Corbyn] are not really about governing. They are tools for their supporters’ self-expression. They allow supporters to make a statement, demand respect or express anger or resentment. Sarah Palin was a pioneer in seeing politics not as a path to governance but as an expression of her followers’ id.
All “populists” are created equal, you see.
But in channeling this canard, Marche’s essay — a lengthy account of a road trip to Iowa where Trump and Sanders held rallies within days of each other as well as the author’s reflections on his own whiteness — cannot be surpassed.
The piece opens with a cringeworthy bit of smug Anglo-Canadian nationalist liturgy in which Marche — who, like this writer, hails from Canada’s largest city — waxes poetic about the country’s “inert virtue of tolerance” that, he tells us, is “the most prominent inheritance of the British Empire.” (It is unclear where Canada’s lengthy history of racism — including the state’s attempted cultural genocide of the country’s indigenous population — fits into Marche’s historical narrative.)
As our hero draws closer to the Yankee border, his tender Canadian sensibilities begin to be challenged by the “carbon monoxide-infused queue waiting to enter Detroit” — a place where his motherland’s supposedly limitless tolerance and pristine air are suddenly nowhere to be found.
The essay’s bizarre mise-en-scène is erected around Marche’s periodic, if largely incoherent, reflections about his own whiteness. It is unclear for what purpose, besides clickbaity adornment, passages like the following actually serve:
At the corner of my groin, where it had been tingling, a brown patch spilled like spoiled milk down my skin. A wide brown patch shaped like post-climate change Florida in the corner of my thigh. Instantly, I knew I would die. And the next moment I started driving back to Toronto, to my wife and children, flesh of my flesh.
Besides these peculiar interjections, most of the piece consists of shallow reportage about the two rallies Marche attends:
The woman beside me — Stars ’n’ Stripes Hat — was wearing a pewter elephant pendant. A young girl in a bright orange dress passed out of the VIP entrance wearing an elephant pendant encrusted with diamonds. Elephant pendants were a theme, I noticed, and elephant brooches and elephant rings and elephant T-shirts. They came in all different price points and in all different styles: round elephants reminiscent of French cartoons from the 1960s, and strange pseudo-sexual shimmies, and with 1920s straw boater hats leading parades.
Why any of these things are at all relevant we mere mortals can only ponder. Marche devotes several paragraphs to extended reflections on Trump’s hair, and even one to Sanders’s, his growing surplus of adjectives and cultural allusions piling up in neat little mounds as the essay wears on.
Eventually, a familiar thesis emerges as Marche writes:
The Bernie Sanders rally in Davenport was the precise opposite of the Donald Trump rally in Burlington and yet precisely the same in every detail . . . The same specter of angry white people haunts Sanders’s rally, the same sense of longing for a country that was, the country that has been taken away.
To substantiate this claim, the author notes that attendees at both rallies are wearing various bits of campaign swag, own smartphones, and shout slogans. Their radically different political demands apparently do not warrant a mention.
Regurgitating a familiar bit of anti-socialist agitprop, Marche brands Sanders’ supporters “cornfed hipsters,” observing that “[while] rich white people can afford to think about socialism, the poor can only afford their anger.” (That socialism has, at various points, had a considerable pull on portions of the American working class is something Marche conveniently omits.)
Dismissing Sanders’s calls for a “political revolution” in a few sentences, Marche casually concludes that the Vermont senator’s crusade to topple the proverbial casino of American capitalism is doomed to fail because he has personally observed several actual casinos while driving through Iowa. The piece then closes with a few paragraphs of forgettable pabulum and intellectual window-dressing.
What’s striking about Marche’s essay is how little genuine political content it contains. Relying largely on irrelevant anecdotes about the appearance of the two rallies, he almost entirely ignores the political programs they were organized to promote.
Indeed, he declines to substantiate the whole enterprise of comparing Sanders and Trump in the first place — that they are both white political candidates who draw crowds and are clearly the products of various kinds of discontent is evidently enough.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, Sanders’s further-left analog in Britain, has received similar treatment.
In an especially hyperbolic article in the Daily Beast entitled “The Daily Hate: Corbyn, Trump and the New Politics of Spite,” Maajid Nawaz declared after Corbyn’s victory: “We are living in a spiteful, populist time . . . Across the Western Hemisphere a new type of leader is emerging whose rise to power has been as unpredictable as it has been swift.”
This new politics of “extremism,” Nawaz wrote, includes everything and everyone from Corbyn to Trump to Greek neo-Nazis to Islamic and other religious fundamentalists — all of whom are ostensibly channeling “parochial bigotry” and seeking “cultural dominance.”
Once again, the political aspirations of these various groups — to say nothing of the fact that some are competing within democratic structures while others are seeking to bring them down — do not factor into the analysis.
Does it matter that Sanders and Corbyn are lifelong leftists who’ve won multiple popular mandates from various constituencies while Trump is an openly bigoted, cartoon plutocrat who’s never been elected by anyone? To the various liberal and centrist pundits penning such comparisons, it evidently does not.
From their perspective, figures like Corbyn, Sanders, and Trump are all “populists” — i.e., unserious, immoderate, and anti-establishment. That they are attacking completely different establishments and have completely different political programs is simply ignored.
In this increasingly popular ontology of Sanders and Trump, the normative content of their respective populisms is given little if any weight; opposed to the neoliberal consensus, albeit in radically different ways, both are dismissed as comparable popular outbursts that need to be extinguished by “serious people.”
This brings us to the actual function of these comparisons, which is to neutralize the Sanders insurgency and others like it. In affixing the same label to both the far right and the Left, liberals and centrists are able, in a single maneuver, to inoculate themselves against challenges from the latter.
Such reflexive defensiveness among elite stenographers can only be the product of a political consensus which, perhaps for the first time in a generation, feels genuinely threatened. And not just by Donald Trump.