Let’s talk for a minute about Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
Both of them were in New York recently. Sanders made a speech about Wall Street to a large and boisterous crowd. They cheered his idea of taxing financial transactions and using the money to make public college tuition free. They booed Wall Street executive bonuses, and loudly joined in to finish some of Sanders’ sentences. (“Congress does not regulate Wall Street … WALL STREET REGULATES CONGRESS!”)
“Second-biggest crowds, in all fairness,” said Trump at a meeting Wednesday with The Times editorial board. He added, of course, that his were way, way, way bigger.
Both men’s campaigns are about outrage. Sanders wants the country to rise up against the special privileges that keep making the richest 1 percent richer. Trump rocketed to the top of the polls by railing about illegal immigration. The saddest thing about this presidential race so far is that the Trump approach has gotten way more attention.
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To be honest, Donald Trump as a presidential candidate is fascinating, in a perverse way. The effect is sort of like being at a cocktail party listening while a half-tipsy celebrity blathers on about his stupid co-star and the way the Academy Awards are fixed. Trump doesn’t drink, but his speeches do have that sloppy off-the-cuff quality. He'll start to talk about an issue and then abruptly announce: “So who knows? It’s a theory.” Then he boasts about his polls. (“I could talk about these suckers all night long.”)
There’s something a little refreshing in a candidate who does all his bragging upfront. And let’s acknowledge that the number of typical American voters who want to listen to a call for the return of the Glass-Steagall Act is not as large as the number who want to hear Trump rant against environmental regulations by describing his affinity for hair spray.
But Sanders has such better villains. In his Wall Street speech, he talked about businessmen who get away with the financial equivalent of murder. Wachovia, an American bank later acquired by Wells Fargo, “aided Mexican drug cartels,” Sanders said, by laundering billions of dollars in their cash. “Yet the total fine for this offense was less than 2 percent of the bank’s $12.3 billion profit … and no one went to jail. No one went to jail.”
That seems a lot more outrageous than Mexican workers sneaking across the border – even the ones who are portrayed, in Trump’s TV ad, by a film clip of Africans trying to fling themselves across a fence out of Morocco. (Hard to believe that less than two years ago, I was making fun of a candidate for the Senate who ran an ad in which an office worker in South Dakota was impersonated by a French model. We’ve come so far.)
Maybe the problem with Sanders’ speech was that after he warned Wall Street and corporate America “if you do not end your greed, we will end it for you,” he seemed to feel compelled to say how he would do that. Which did require some discussion of the Federal Reserve and banking regulation.
Trump seems to feel absolutely no compunction to explain how anything would work. His defense program is basically, “We’re going to make our military really, really, really strong.” He’s going to get rid of all the immigrants here illegally – the actual procedure for making this happen is hazy – and then force the Mexican government to pay for that wall. (“Trust me, Mexico will pay.”) And he’s going to reduce the trade deficit with China (“the single greatest theft in the history of the world …”). At the editorial board meeting, Trump said he’d use his stupendous deal-making powers to force the Chinese to raise the value of their currency.
And what if the Chinese don’t comply? Trump said he’d impose a tariff. How much of a tariff? Maybe 45 percent.
This seemed like a new number. A few years back, Trump called for a 25 percent tariff on Chinese goods, and early in the campaign he mentioned a 35 percent tax on Mexican-built cars. Do you think he’s been re-running the figures during campaign flights? Another possible answer would be that he just makes this stuff up as he goes along.
There is, Trump says, “a great anger out there. … A lot of people say that my campaign has picked up on that, and I didn’t do that intentionally.” Perhaps that’s true, in the sense that he never sat down and wrote out an Anger Plan. He just keeps repeating whatever seems to get a rise out of his listeners. He always was a great marketer.
It’s not all that stunning that he’s so far ahead in the national polls, given the quality of the Republican competition. But it’s depressing that he’s cornered the anger franchise when his targets exclude America’s own wealthy and powerful.