3rd Election Report from the USA: What Trump and Sanders Have in Common

Published on 2016/05/20
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There is only one topic in the American media right now: Trump, Clinton and Sanders. The two outsiders (Trump and Sanders), whose serious chances of becoming their party’s presidential nominees were almost universally dismissed from the outset, line up against Clinton, the representative of the political establishment. And it is precisely this positioning that is now making things so difficult for her. Thanks to the “super delegates” she collected early on, Clinton entered the primaries with a firm lead over the left-wing populist Sanders, but the momentum is now clearly with Sanders und Trump.

Sanders is winning one primary after another, and it was anything but convincing to hear Clinton on Tuesday as she declared, on the back of her narrow win in Kentucky (both candidates actually collected the same number of delegates), that she had now put an end to Sander’s winning streak. A lot now depends upon the results of the Democrat’s primary in California in early June. Trump clearly wants Clinton to secure the Democratic nomination, in the hope that can then pick up swathes of Sander’s disenfranchised supporters.

The media in the USA are much more partisan than their German peers: The broadcaster FOX has clearly aligned itself behind Trump. Although this doesn’t mean that FOX pulls any punches with its reporting. Roughly nine months ago there was an extremely heated exchange between the conservative news stations star presenter, Maggie Kelly, and Trump. The latest interview, broadcast yesterday, saw Trump admit that he had previously made mistakes.

The Washington Post officially announced that it has set up a team of 20 investigate journalists, specifically tasked to critically research every single aspect of Trump’s life in order to write a book on what they uncover. The New York Times, unsurprisingly, stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Democrats, and has established itself as strongly “anti-Trump.” Just a couple of days ago, the NYT tried to stoke up a huge fuss about Trump’s relationships with women. The newspaper claimed that they would reveal Trump as a sexist misogynist. One of the journalists involved in researching the story is an extremely committed feminist, a fact that led Fox News to respond by questioning whether she was possibly not the right journalist to assign to an expose of a man who organises beauty pageants. The story has become something of a boomerang for the New York Times, as a number of the women quoted in the original article have taken to the airwaves to distance themselves from the statements made, claiming that what they said has been taken totally out of context and assert that they never had any negative experiences with Donald Trump.

Critical questions have also been addressed at Trump from within conservative circles. There is nervousness that some of his positions, in particular on the economy, are not clear enough. For example, Trump signalled that he potentially supports an increased minimum wage, whilst also pointing out that this is something that the individual federal states have the freedom to decide upon for themselves. Such statements certainly appeal to Sander’s supporters (who Trump is clearly targeting), but they are a massive turn-off for free-market oriented Republicans. Trump’s criticism of free trade agreements have also raised questions about just how much he supports free-market economics.

The biggest uncertainties surrounding Trump right now are in relation to his foreign and security policies. How much does he even know about foreign policy? How consistent is he, or more to the point, how unpredictable is he? These concerns don’t just bother Trump’s left-wing opponents, but also worry large numbers of Republicans. Trump is now trying to present himself as more “reasonable” and reliable. He has arranged a meeting with Henry Kissinger, the universally respected foreign policy elder statesman, designed to send out a clear signal. But Kissinger also meets with Democrats, and is unlikely to offer Trump any form of public endorsement.

The success of Trump and Sanders just goes to show the scale of widespread dissatisfaction in the USA in the wake of the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Obama, hailed in Europe as a shining light and beacon of hope after his first election victory, has been an economic and foreign policy failure. The popular mood has turned against “Washington”, and this is the wave both Trump and Sanders have been riding. Both have been massively underestimated, because the scale of general disillusionment and discontent has also been massively underestimated.

Both have been successful because they come across to most Americans as “honest” and “authentic”. People say: Sanders and Trump say what they think. Sanders has taken on the attitude of a revolutionary: After his speeches, the socialist Bernie Sanders can often be seen to ball up his fist, reminiscent of the traditional communist fighting salute. His mostly younger followers simply love this kind of thing. “Feel the Bern” has become one of the best recognised slogans across America. Clinton isn’t able to even come close to inspiring and firing up her supporters into the same kind of ecstasy seen at Sanders and Trump rallies.

At the same time, Trump clearly gets a kick out of breaking all of the established rules of “political correctness”. It doesn’t bother Trump, or his supporters, that he is attacked by opponents as racist or sexist. Such insults have clearly lost their sting. While Clinton focuses on mobilising women and minorities, Trump is primarily scoring points from angry white men who have the feeling that no other politicians take their concerns seriously. Clinton may still clearly ahead of Trump in the major opinion polls, but I still see the result of the election as open.

About the Author

Dr. Rainer Zitelmann is one of the leading experts for the strategic positioning and communications of companies.