What, exactly, is the difference between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump?
“Everything,” you might say. “Every single thing.”
Yeah, that’s mostly right, but not entirely. There is one very obvious similarity, in that both Sanders and Trump have, from opposite ends of the liberal-conservative spectrum, engendered more genuine, visible excitement than their counterparts from within the “political establishment.” Sanders leads Hillary Clinton among Democrats in New Hampshire and appears to be fast closing the gap in Iowa; Trump sits atop nearly every Republican poll.
The other similarity is that, despite these promising signs, neither Sanders nor Trump is, by orthodox wisdom, a “serious candidate.” Self-proclaimed realists don’t see either one in the White House—not in a million years. The numbers, supposedly, are irrelevant; the packed arenas and palpable public passion are irrelevant. Are these mainstream, levelheaded voices correct?
There is some good reason to take with a grain of salt the early successes of any non-traditional presidential candidate. The election is still well over a year away, and it’s logical enough to suppose that the only people closely following the action at this premature stage are an uncommonly agitated minority: i.e., the voters who, frothing with anger, simply cannot wait for change. These people naturally would be attracted to an “extremist” platform.
Come election day, however, the rest of us—the mild and fearful majority—will zombie-walk out to our polling stations and vote for a polished, conventional candidate who pledges to maintain the status quo. (Or so goes the cynical take.)
The real function of Bernie Sanders, according even to many of the people who like him, is to drag Hillary Clinton further left: the idea is that, faintly frightened by Sanders’s growing fan base, Clinton will feel obliged to adopt (falsely or not) at least a few of the positions introduced by her opponent, so as not to lose completely the progressive vote.
This tactic may strike you as a bit mysterious: why would voters ever switch their allegiance from someone whose views they’ve shared all along to someone who has only lately adopted those same views out of fear of his or her competitor?
The function of Donald Trump, meanwhile, is purely to create content for media organizations. I don’t know what Trump himself thinks he’s doing out there, but his unbridled xenophobia, racism and misogyny, combined with his preexisting fame as a caricature of late capitalism and a reality-TV host, obviously make for colorful headlines and easy click bait: he’s a dream come true for the lazy pundits whose accordingly incessant Trump coverage is in large part responsible for his current pseudo-legitimacy. A few months ago, he wasn’t real news, but we reported on him as though he were; now he actually is news, whether we like it or not.
Some of the liberals I know have attempted to fashion a sort of ironic appreciation for Trump: at least he makes for good late-night comedy punchlines, right? I don’t think he does. I find him totally boring. There is a more compelling liberal argument within the notion that Trump’s absurdity may serve to alienate undecided moderates from the GOP; even so, I experience no glee when I read about his antics. Like a troll, he seems eager for attention of any sort: best just to ignore him—which, of course, I’ve now failed to do. I don’t feel great about that.
That may just be me, though. Right- and left-wing organs both seem to have a certain self-interested appreciation for Trump, and on Facebook, even though most of my “friends” are Democrats, I hear more about Trump than I do about any candidate except Bernie Sanders. (My Facebook friends post about Sanders around the clock.)
Yet somehow we’re to believe that Sanders doesn’t stand a real chance against Hillary Clinton, with whom most liberals seem, at best, kind of bored—just as Donald Trump will apparently never be able to sustain his lead against a horde of seemingly less beloved Republican candidates who, after all, are nearly as repugnant as he is, anyway.
The ultra-cynical take: both Trump and Sanders are fictitious entities created by Mark Zuckerberg in order to spur social media activity. In fact, I will go out on a limb and say that Donald Trump, real human being or not, will never be the president of the United States; I’ll stake my nonexistent reputation on it. As for Sanders—I’ll be voting for him in the primary, but I actually have no idea what degree of seriousness I should attach to his overwhelming online support.
Is he just a fun meme for young people projecting sociopolitical consciousness to post about, like that “Kony 2012” video? Will they actually get out and vote for him, or will they suddenly remember that Russell Brand told them that voting is pointless? Can they possibly sustain their enthusiasm—which, since there are no Super PACs for Bernie Sanders, is all he really has—through 2016? Are they already getting a little tired?
It’s worth remembering that Barack Obama was an unrealistic candidate until he wasn’t that anymore; it was inconceivable that a black man could actually become president, yet he became president anyway. We all have to make a philosophical choice among cynicism, idealism, and something in between, and although cynicism presents itself as the religion of the cold, hard truth, it’s not always clear in which direction reality truly lies.
But I don’t really care which philosophical option you choose: just vote for what you believe in—it doesn’t actually matter whether you do so with a sense of fatalistic pessimism or with Pollyannaish naïveté. Tell yourself that your vote counts, or that it doesn’t; vote earnestly or ironically. Roll your eyes while casting your ballot, if necessary—it won’t be the only pointless, self-deluding thing you do that day, so why not?
How you vote is irrelevant. It counts the same regardless.