After reading most of the “Donald Trump is the Republican’s Bernie Sanders” think pieces from the last week, I am left believing that the analogy is fundamentally flawed. The basic notion is that both Sanders and Trump represent the angry and unpredictable wings of their respective parties. This is doubtless true of Trump, but is it true of Sanders? It probably isn’t. In fact, Donald Trump is more similar to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, in theory and in practice, than he is to Sanders in several important ways.
The clearest similarity between Trump and BLM is the havoc they might cause in the general election. A Trump third-party run could destroy the GOP nominee; likewise, a significant drop in black support and turnout could doom any Democrat. Both Trump and BLM are very aware that they hold these cards, and both are playing them effectively.
Bernie Sanders is a career politician who will be a good soldier come the convention and the general election. He will make a stirring speech, in which he praises the moderate as the only sensible choice. He will stump for the nominee and his supporters will go with him. Sanders is playing a very traditional role in national Democratic politics. One played by Dean, Bradley, and Tsongas in the past. Trump is not playing that role, nor is BLM, neither of which have committed to supporting either party’s eventual candidate.
Tensions Between Trump Supporters And The GOP Base Are Escalating
This fear that a vital presidential election could be undermined is resulting in an increasingly nasty tension between mainstream supporters of the GOP and Trump supporters. This tension isnmirrored on the Left by stalwart Democrats and BLM activists. There is no such tension between Sanders and Clinton supporters. Sanders isn’t going to cause hurt feelings. Trump and BLM already have.
Mending these wounds won’t be easy on either side. How far will the GOP go to accommodate Trump and his loud loyalists? How willing will the Democrats be to run a national election centered on BLM’s demands to destroy white supremacy?
Part of the difficulty for both party establishments is that Trump and BLM are very light on policy and heavy on emotional appeals. Both focus on how broken our country is. For Trump it’s “the American dream is dead,” for BLM it’s “the country is based on and steeped in white supremacy.” As many have pointed out, Trump’s appeal is based on burning down the establishment. So is BLM’s. In both cases this can lead to a hopelessness among their supporters that is poisonous to the positive message presidential candidates must pronounce.
There is a long time until Election Day, but right now it is difficult to see hardline Trump supporters embracing Bush or Rubio. BLM activists don’t seem much closer to closing ranks with Clinton or Sanders. There are two essential demographics in play here.
For Republicans, the working class, white male was the missing link in 2012. It is a segment of the population that the GOP must motivate more effectively than Romney did. This group is Trump’s bread and butter. For the Obama-era Democratic coalition, black turnout made the difference between presidential victories and midterm congressional shellackings. Right now, BLM has enormous sway over this group.
It is the direct appeal to these respective demographic groups that scares the party establishments. Swaying independents is meaningless for both sides if they fail to secure these key blocs. That’s why right now both primaries are being driven by these non-traditional political forces.
No Republican candidate can avoid being asked about Trump, and all must respond to his wild, off-the-cuff rhetoric. While this gives them the chance to appear level-headed and reasonable, it also sucks the oxygen out of the campaign. No other Republican has been able to bring forth the issues and agendas they want to talk about. As for Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley, each has been made to kowtow to a radical black social and political movement in ways that, for obvious reasons, President Obama is immune to.
Both Are Using Racist Rhetoric
The final, and very important link between Trump and BLM is the over-the-top racial rhetoric employed by both. Trump’s recent statements about Mexican immigrants and past comments about blacks would disqualify any other GOP candidate. In fact, among the majority of voters in both parties it probably already has.
But for Trump supporters, his racist comments are a big part of his appeal. Every time Trump asserts that political correctness is the biggest problem facing the country, his supporters and everyone else know exactly what he means.
For the relatively small number of white voters who feel that the pendulum of racial justice has swung too far, Trump is a champion. His candidacy promises not only to staunch the flow of brown people into the United States, but to give cover to white racial grievance in general.
BLM is playing almost exactly the same role in the Democratic primary. Hijacking a Bernie Sanders rally and telling thousands of Seattle’s most progressive, white people that they are racist sends a very similar message. BLM accuses Democrats of failing to accept that our country’s biggest problem is white supremacy. Trump is telling his supporters, and the electorate at large, that the country has gone to hell. BLM is telling them it always has been hell. In both cases, race and ethnicity are central to the message.
How Much More Damage Will We See?
How each party handles these movements and mollifies their supporters will go a long way towards determining their success in 2016. At the moment neither side seems to have a handle on exactly how to do this. We are seeing very different tactics being applied.
Trump has become an object of scorn, not only to several fellow candidates but to the traditional conservative establishment and news media. The attacks have not been subtle, but most of Trump’s supporters are not tucking in with a mellow Shiraz and perusing National Review. The post-debate spat with Megyn Kelly appears to have been more damaging. She is a familiar and appealing face to some Trump supporters and agnostics (if there are any).
It is not unreasonable for the GOP establishment to believe that a few more moments like this may do enough harm to neutralize him. And one big advantage they have is that Trump is not a social movement, he is a cult of personality. Once he is gone he will be gone, off getting his mug in the tabloids some other way. Some of his supporters might take their ball and go home, refusing to support the nominee, but most will likely see the chance at Republican control over congress and the Presidency as too good to pass up.
In the short term, the Democrats have an easier task with BLM. Scolding them is not an option for anyone. For a white, Democratic candidate, lecturing black people on the proper way to secure social justice is approximately the equivalent of having a Confederate flag tattoo. The central theme of today’s liberal approach to race is that whites must listen more and talk less. But as a presidential candidate, eventually you have to talk. Proxies, such as Obama and Sen. Corey Booker, can be useful, but the candidates themselves will have to start adopting some of the language and policies of BLM. In many ways they already have.
In the longer term this becomes a dangerous play for Democrats. Outside of the urban enclaves of progressive elites and the downtrodden, a campaign centered on destroying white supremacy could be a very, very tough sell. At some point the BLM movement is going to have to make the choice that Occupy Wall Street never did. It will have to endorse a candidate and policies that represent a compromise. Traditionally, such moderation has not been a hallmark of progressive movements.
Donald Trump and BLM have both risen to prominence as a result of unique circumstances. The former, from an overpopulated and disjointed Republican field, the latter from increased attention on government violence towards blacks.
The GOP field will contract, and as it does Trump will become more isolated. The question is whether the damage will have already been done. BLM isn’t going anywhere. The question is how much damage will they continue to do.