Trump, Sanders and the Rise of Anti-Establishment Politics

Celine Lau

The 2016 US presidential race has given rise to a few surprises, the foremost being the unexpected popularity of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, and business mogul Donald Trump. Who could have predicted that a little-known elderly politician with idealistic – some would even say wholly naïve – policy proposals would become Hillary Clinton’s main opponent for the democratic nomination? Likewise, when Trump initially announced his candidacy for presidency, few thought he would ever achieve political success. It was assumed that his repeated touting of supposed business excellence would quickly fall flat, revealing his lack of policy experience and competency for the role. Evidently, this has yet to happen to the GOP frontrunner.

What factors can explain the success of these candidates? Beyond simply looking at their stances on topical issues (though no doubt also important), I believe there is another crucial underlying feature in their respective campaigns. Specifically, the way they have positioned themselves in opposition to establishment candidates, thereby offering a new and novel method of leadership to an American populace striving for change and believing that they deserve better.

Indeed, Trump and Sanders represent a departure from traditional political decorum in two key ways: their approach to financing their campaign and their performances in debates and rallies. Needless to say, positioning oneself in opposition to perceived establishment qualities, such as a proclivity for duplicity, gerrymandering and prioritising special interests over the common good, only serves to enhance a candidate’s perceived trustworthiness, an appealing quality to key voter demographics.

The fundamental similarity between the way Trump and Sanders have chosen to finance their campaign is the fact they do not accept money from super PACs, allowing them to claim that they are not beholden to any special interests. By the end of 2015, Trump had raised 19.4 million dollars, 13 million dollars of which he had contributed himself. The remaining 2.6 million dollars were made up of individual and large donations. So, his claim that he is self-funding his campaign is partially true, which allows him to assert that he has no need to pander to the special interest of super PACs, lending strength to the authenticity of his arguments (the coherence of which notwithstanding) and enabling him to speak freely without fear of offending major sponsors.

Sanders, too, has been able to raise an incredible amount of money: approximately 139.8 million dollars, 99.98 per cent of which are public donations. In March alone, he raised forty-four million dollars. His vehement refusals to accept super PAC money aims to highlight how the vast wealth inequality in the United States has enabled the top one per cent to influence political affairs. In contrast, Hillary Clinton has raised 22.5 million dollars in total, 28 per cent of which is derived from super PAC support, notably from Wall Street entities. This support, along with her acceptance of hefty speaker fees from Goldman Sachs, has engendered accusations that Clinton is subservient to big banks, and liable to prioritise their interests over public concerns.


Trump and Sanders’ respective speaking habits and debating tendencies have also accentuated their divergence from traditional political etiquette. If you hadn’t realised by now, Trump has continually broken any and all unspoken rules about public speaking, denouncing ‘political correctness’, which many of his supporters find to be a refreshing change. Indeed, the single most recurrent justification of Trump support is that he “tells it like it is”. Certainly, he isn’t afraid to speak his mind:

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.”

“They [illegal Mexican immigrants] are rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

“If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America.”

On issues such as international relations, he has been known to take a particularly aggressive stance in terms of handling China, repeatedly saying that it would be best to be firm with the country when negotiating trade deals with them. His slogan Make America Great Again has been received especially well by his supporters, many of whom have not started or completed tertiary education, call themselves the ‘silent majority’, and are strangely keen to reassert the cultural, military and economic hegemony of the United States over the rest of the world.

On the other hand, Sanders – depicted by critics and opponents as an unkempt, angry liberal platitude-spouting socialist – represents a stark contrast to the ideal demeanour of establishment politics as eloquent, guileful and sharp witted. Notably, he has refused to lower himself to the level of deliberately attacking the other democratic candidates. He has refused on several occasions to attack Clinton, at one point even deflecting attention from her in saying, “We’re tired of hearing about your damn emails!” Sanders’ dedication to running an issue-oriented campaign has put a spotlight on his authenticity and integrity, appealing to many voters, especially those under the age of 25. On a side note, he has been impressively consistent in his political agenda and message over his entire career, highlighting yet again another discrepancy against the establishment democratic candidate Clinton, who has historically been known to favour varying positions on the same issues over the years, including on marriage equality, trade (the TPP ) and immigration.

In summary, Trump and Sanders have both profited by occupying the anti-establishment label, distancing themselves from establishment politics and introducing a refreshing amount of honesty, integrity and passion into the political conversation. Well, Bernie has at least. Trump, if nothing else, has revealed a concerning sector of the population who believe that an ill-mannered reality show host, who believes that his personal net worth fluctuates depending on his mood, is capable of being the figurehead of one of the most powerful nations on this planet.

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