By David K. Shipler
Cynicism about politics appears not to be genetic. It has to be relearned generation after generation, election after election. So it is that voters who are fed up with ineffective or unjust government, and by politicians who promise what they don’t deliver, are flocking to two candidates who cannot possibly deliver what they are promising: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
The attraction, at each end of the spectrum, seems to run beyond protest or anger. Not only do Trump and Sanders supporters know what they dislike, they also know what they want to believe is doable: “Make America great again,” says Trump. “Make this political revolution a reality,” says Sanders.
Polling shows that only six percent of voters “would consider voting for both men,” Thomas Edsall reports in The New York Times, based on recent NBC/Wall Street Journal surveys. But a few of their policy proposals actually overlap: hitting corporations for taxes on overseas profits; eliminating tax loopholes for the very rich, opposing trade agreements that have facilitated the American job drain; raising the wages required for foreigners who get H-1B work visas; and increasing spending on mental health treatment for veterans, for example.
Trump also favors letting vets use their Veterans Administration cards for private physicians, outside the system, who accept Medicare. Sanders takes credit for a law that “makes it easier for some veterans to see private doctors or go to community health centers,” his website declares.
If you take time to drill down into the positions detailed by both candidates, you’ll find that while both offer some concrete specifics about how they would accomplish their goals, Sanders’s are more solidly documented. Some liberal economists have questioned his math, but there is no doubt that his proposed tax increases would generate hundreds of billions in additional revenue. All he’d need is a Congress that looks nothing like the one we’re fated to have.
Both Trump and Sanders support universal health care: Sanders by expanding Medicare to everyone, which he’d pay for by getting some imaginary Congress to remove the income ceiling on Medicare taxes, and Trump by—well, don’t ask, just believe.
“We’re gonna have great plans,” Trump said of health care on MSNBC’s Morning Joe this week. “They’re gonna be a lot less expensive than Obamacare, they’re gonna be private, there are gonna be lots of different options.” A search through Trump’s speeches, videos, and website explanations turns up nothing on how this nirvana would be achieved.
That’s the Trump pattern. “I'm gonna make our military so big, so powerful, so strong that nobody, absolutely nobody, is gonna mess with us . . . We're gonna get rid of ISIS. We're gonna get rid of 'em--fast.”
ISIS and al-Qaeda won’t mess with us? That’s what terrorists do: mess with countries that have strong militaries. Fear tends to level the playing field, and all it takes is a few zealots with knives, guns, and suicide vests. Ask the Israelis. And Trump plans to pay for this expanded military by slashing the corporate tax rate to 15 percent, eliminating the estate tax, and cutting the national debt.
But his crowds roar their approval, so therapeutic is bellicose certainty against the sense of helplessness in a confusing world. They’re in for disappointment if he’s elected, once they discover that he’s like a coach who spends halftime shouting fierce rhetoric instead of analyzing plays.
Take his proposed wall at the southern border: “Mexico must pay for the wall and, until they do, the United States will, among other things: impound all remittance payments derived from illegal wages; increase fees on all temporary visas issued to Mexican CEOs and diplomats (and if necessary cancel them); increase fees on all border crossing cards – of which we issue about 1 million to Mexican nationals each year (a major source of visa overstays); increase fees on all NAFTA worker visas from Mexico (another major source of overstays); and increase fees at ports of entry to the United States from Mexico [Tariffs and foreign aid cuts are also options]. We will not be taken advantage of anymore.”
This, on his website, is more detail than you hear from him in debates. Still, hot air balloons are easily pierced by reality, in this case the intricacies of the law and the tricky nuances of maintaining peaceful relations with a neighbor.
Trump’s windy bullying is striking a dangerous and disharmonious chord among a large minority of the American public that yearns for simple, tough-guy solutions. His supporters are not just angry, they are idealistic, and therefore worthy of concern. When Trump comes close to inciting violence, as he did recently by declaring that he’d like to give a punch in the face to a protester who had been expelled from a rally, he manipulates his crowds into mob-like frenzy.
What will happen when they are disillusioned, either by Trump’s failure to get the nomination, by his failure to win the presidency, or his failure to realize all his grandiose, chest-thumping promises if he gets to the White House? He will vilify others for his failures, and those scapegoats could become targets, possibly of a political violence that he seems inclined to encourage. America could be in for a very brutal time.
Disillusionment would come more gently to supporters of Bernie Sanders. He would be foiled by any Congress that could reasonably be expected to gain office. He has laid out much more detailed and specific plans for reaching his goals than Trump, but they depend, as Sanders has said, on a political revolution from citizens below who elect a very different set of legislators.
His website has an informative table detailing how each of his ambitious proposals would be paid for, from free public university tuition to universal Medicare to his five-year, $1-trillion investment in rebuilding roads, bridges, railways, airports, seaports, public transit, dams, wastewater plants, and other infrastructure—a huge and badly needed effort that would create large numbers of jobs.
This is an alluring table if you’re willing to pay more taxes—or see richer folks do so. For example, corporate taxes on all profits made in offshore tax havens might generate $100 billion annually toward the infrastructure plan. Free tuition, he argues, could be funded by a hefty transfer tax of 0.5 percent on stock transactions, akin to the United Kingdom’s approach, and lower rates on bond and derivative sales, which would generate a predicted $352 billion annually, based on 2011 figures. That would happen even with an expected decline in trading volume by as much as 50 percent, which could have a positive effect of dampening the market’s volatility.
So, as emotional as Bernie’s appeal has been, he has also given voters a lot more than Donald in the cerebral category—a good many things to think about. Nevertheless, change would have to come at the grassroots level in enough Congressional districts to remake the political landscape.
When that doesn’t happen, as it will not anytime soon, Bernie’s supporters, especially the idealistic young, will either redouble their organizing efforts or, in most cases, learn cynicism, and a new generation will be disillusioned by politics.