Last week, Donald Trump told late-night television host Jimmy Kimmel that he would debate Bernie Sanders, so long as ABC agreed to make a hefty donation to charity. It was a joke, but the Sanders campaign responded seriously — bring it on.
The prospect of a Trump-Sanders debate slipped away, at least for the time being. But in the twenty-four hours when it seemed a possibility, people of all political stripes understood that pitting the two anti-establishment candidates against one another would be a significant political event.
Granted, some liberal commentators were quick to dismiss the proposed debate as nothing more than a distraction. Of course, this objection fits their pattern of painting Sanders’s continued participation in the Democratic race as a irresponsible breach of party etiquette, potentially destructive to Hillary Clinton’s chances in the general election.
But the country needs a Trump-Sanders debate, if only to show the increasingly out-of-touch punditry what most ordinary voters already know — the two candidates may rail against the same broken system, but they’re not “making the same pitch,” as the Washington Post claims. A huge chasm separates Trump’s politics from Sanders’s.
Still, many in the mainstream media are fascinated with the supposed similarities between the two candidates — as if there is any equivalence between a xenophobic billionaire with powerful friends and a committed socialist whose grassroots campaign is funded by small donors.
Many commentators would have us believe that Trump and Sanders are two sides of the same coin, with mirror-image policy positions and a common voter base that is invariably white, male, and pissed-off.
Of course, a quick look at the demographics casts doubt on that line. Despite the media’s best efforts to paint Sanders supporters as spoiled, affluent white men — clinging desperately to their social status — the numbers just don’t add up.
Trump’s base, meanwhile, actually is almost entirely white — not too surprising for someone who openly calls for the deportation of Muslims and Mexicans while accepting support from an openly white supremacist “super PAC.” And Trump supporters are older.
Back in September — when the candidate overtook his Republican challengers for the first time — about half of his supporters were between between forty-five and sixty-four, and another 34 percent were sixty-five and up. Less than 3 percent were under thirty.
Despite the liberal insistence that Trump draws his support exclusively from poor whites — who liberals and conservatives alike would just as soon exclude from American politics altogether — the median income of Trump supporters is actually $73,000 a year, well above the national median of $51,000. It’s also higher than the median income of Sanders supporters, which hovers around $60,000.
But while reports claiming some equivalency between the two are misguided, it is true that Trump and Sanders supporters have at least one thing in common — they have no confidence in the American political system as it’s currently constituted, and they’re urgently demanding change.
That’s why a Trump-Sanders debate is so important.
This election season has activated a sprawling constituency of disaffected citizens — a bloc of voters who see the ideal of American prosperity as an unattainable fantasy and the current political system as an intolerable outrage. Two candidates are speaking to this mass dissatisfaction, and winning tremendous popular support in the process — but only one of them has a vision worth defending.
Perhaps picking up on the swelling disaffection of the electorate, pundits have stoked fears that Sanders supporters are easy marks for Trump — or vice versa — despite the utter lack of substantive political similarities between the two candidates.
Elites’ control over the limits of political legitimacy is slipping — and they seem to know it. The Sanders defector — that hypothetical Bernie supporter sure to cast an anti-Hillary protest vote for Trump come November — seems poised to replace the “Bernie Bro” as the media’s favored anti-Sanders strawman.
But it’s true that for down-and-out workers in the post-2008 economy, the alternatives on offer are far and few between — and many people, feeling left out of the American dream, are desperate for an alternative.
A recent New York Times article from Wilkes County, North Carolina — one of the counties hardest hit by the recession, where median household income fell more than 30 percent between 2000 and 2014 — made the stakes clear. In Wilkes County, which is 93 percent white and at least 23 percent poor, some voters support Trump and some support Sanders, but everyone seems to agree that the American dream is a bust and political change long overdue.
Even the candidates themselves have recognized that a common sense of dissatisfaction motivates their separate bases. Each candidate has claimed to be optimistic about peeling supporters away from the other — not because their political visions are so similar, but precisely because they’re so different.
For his part, Sanders has been saying since as early as December that many Trump voters are “working-class people” with “legitimate” anxieties and frustrations.
He defended the dignity of Trump’s working-class supporters while ruthlessly criticizing the candidate’s politics, saying “What Trump has done with some success is taken that anger, taken those fears, which are legitimate, and converted them into anger against Mexicans, anger against Muslims.”
Recently Trump has joined in, taking a pass at Sanders supporters while talking to the Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity earlier this month — “I think a lot of the young people that are with Bernie Sanders are going to come over to my side because they want jobs.”
Trump claims to know what specific issue will win them over — “Bernie Sanders and I agree on one thing,” he said. “Trade.” But Bernie’s a socialist and Trump an entrepreneur — “the difference is, I’ll make great deals out of it,” said Trump. “I mean, he’s a socialist. He doesn’t know what to do.”
But Trump’s assertion that he and Sanders have much in common when it comes to trade is hardly true. While their platforms may contain some superficial similarities regarding trade policies, Sanders and Trump propose radically different economic visions.
For one thing, Trump wants a lower minimum wage. Sanders wants wages to be higher.
Sanders imagines a national government that can impose steep taxes on the wealthiest members of society, redistributing the national wealth to ordinary wage-earners in the form of social goods, like single-payer health care and free higher education.
Trump may drone on about how everybody should pay their fair share, but what he really wants is a national government that will protect American corporations from foreign competitors — especially the Chinese — while allowing them to squeeze as much work out of their employees for as little as possible.
Sure, Trump wants to keep working-class jobs in America. But he also wants to make sure that employing American workers isn’t too costly compared to the poorly regulated labor markets in the Global South.
Trump doesn’t want good, stable jobs for American workers — his desire for depressed wages is proof enough of that, as is his brutal repression of a union drive at his Las Vegas hotel. He just wants cheap downhome labor for the American billionaire class.
Whether the upstart democratic socialist from Vermont gets to face Trump in the general election remains to be seen — but it’s increasingly unlikely. Regardless, we should fight to put a Trump-Sanders debate back on the political agenda.
The country deserves the chance to watch the two anti-establishment candidates go head-to-head — and see for themselves that while Sanders offers the promise of a prosperous, equitable future, Trump offers nothing but hot air and bigotry.
Millions of working-class Americans — battered by a fundamentally unequal economic system and alienated from conventional politics — deserve to see Sanders expose Trump’s hypocrisy for themselves.