AUSTIN, Texas — At a massive Bernie Sanders rally like the one held downtown here on Sunday evening, you get the sense that a huge swath of the Democratic voter base is deeply unhappy with everything in America, and has been for a while.
The immediate object of their ire might be Donald Trump, but their discontent goes further back than the last election, and it encompasses more than politics as usual. They want everything Sanders promises: Medicare for all, free college, free child care, a massive increase in the minimum wage, the Green New Deal, all of it.
But they also want something more, something harder to define. Justice, maybe, or a reckoning with the powers that be. They’d like to wield that power, and they seem ready to sweep away the social and economic order to get it. There’s something positively Trumpian about their fervor, in their belief that they can overcome the political establishment and corporate media elite and usher in a new era. You could almost say they want to make America great—as they define it.
At the very least, they’re ready for what Sanders promised the crowd of nearly 13,000 fired-up Austinites on Sunday night: a transformation of American politics
Some perspective on crowd size at Bernie Sanders rally in Austin TX. Set to start in about 30 min. pic.twitter.com/RbQ53En63c
— John Daniel Davidson (@johnddavidson) February 23, 2020
What’s behind this? Why such seething discontent? The media wasn’t much interested in answering that question about Trump voters in 2016, but maybe now that Sanders is poised to run away with the Democratic nomination, they’ll get curious.
If they do, it might begin to dawn on them who helped set the stage for this kind of populism. It wasn’t Donald Trump, it was Barack Obama. The failure of Obamacare, the failure to hold Wall Street accountable for the housing crash and the recession, the sluggish recovery, the Bush wars extended for another eight years, the unfulfilled promise of hope and change. Then, after all those disappointments, they were asked to vote for Hillary Clinton.
In other words, the same forces that propelled Trump to the White House in 2016 are propelling Sanders to the top of the Democratic ticket now. And if the failures of the Obama administration and the concurrent collapse of trust in our institutions weren’t enough, Obama has made things worse for the anti-Sanders Democratic establishment by refusing to engage on behalf of any candidate, not even his own vice president.
You’d think Obama would have enough of a vested interest in his own legacy either to tell Joe Biden not to run or to jump in and effectively campaign with him. He had two choices, and chose neither.
Sanders and Trump Share a Powerful Message
In the meantime, many of his erstwhile supporters have moved on, and Bernie’s their man now. Like Trump, he has big plans for America. Also like Trump, he has a penchant for hyperbole.
“We’re tired of seeing workers across Texas and the country work for starvation wages!” he thundered to the adoring crowd in Austin, a not-quite-fitting venue for Sanders’ doomsaying rhetoric. This city’s unemployment rate is 2.5 percent and the average hourly wage here is two-and-a-half dollars more than the rest of the country.
It’s also not all tech bros driving the growth. Working people in Austin are on average doing pretty well, especially construction workers. Sanders might have noticed the multitude of construction cranes looming over the downtown, well within his line-of-sight from the stage Sunday night.
But the disconnect from some aspects of reality is part of what’s driving Sanders’s campaign. He’s tapping into something that goes beyond the plain facts of jobs and wage growth, beyond the palpable wealth and prosperity of cities like Austin. He’s putting his finger on an exposed nerve in American life, namely, the desire to wrest power from the elites and return it to the people.
That was more or less Trump’s message in 2016—and his explicit message in his inauguration speech. Only the villains have changed, slightly, in Sanders’s telling. Instead of corrupt Washington politicians, it’s corrupt Wall Street billionaires. Instead of Obama’s failure to drain the DC swamp, it’s Obama’s failure to take on corporate special interests and drug companies. In both cases, the message is clear: the people have been cheated by the elites, and we’re going to bring them down. Our time is now.
This isn’t the sort of message that resonates in societies with a health civic culture and high levels of public trust. It’s also worlds away from Obama’s positive message of hope and change and post-partisan politics.
But this isn’t Obama’s America anymore. This is the America of Trump and Sanders, and if you’re upset with the ways things are going, with who has power and who doesn’t and how you might be able to get some, then they have a message just for you.