News coverage of the 2016 primaries continues to focus on the unlikeliest figures. A billionaire reality TV star who donated to Hillary Clinton has convinced working class Republicans that he is their champion and that his (and only his) words can be trusted. Meanwhile, a septuagenarian white man from a rural state has convinced left wingers he is capable of leading a party that has long criticized its opponents as being dominated by out-of-touch white men.
Some have considered these two outsiders as part of the same populist trend of anger directed towards the country’s governing class. For one, both are quite protectionist – Donald Trump lashes out against both trade and immigration, while Bernie Sanders mostly criticizes trade and, well, most private business activity domestically. They are also remarkably comfortable with suggesting sweeping government actions in order to advocate for a disaffected underclass uncomfortable with globalization. Besides that, they are radically different, as would be expected of a business mogul and self-described socialist. How can they even be compared, in that case? The key is that they serve an identical role in opposite ways.
It is interesting that, as American politics has become more polarized, the extreme wings of the political spectrum seem to be simultaneously stronger and more insecure than ever before. While the Tea Party purged many incumbents and moderates from the GOP, rank-and-file Republicans have become even more distrustful of the establishment, not less. Figures like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, once conservative heroes, are now seen as sellouts by the base. And the widening gap between the parties means that each side has even more reason to fear should other side win a major election.
A consequence of polarization is that, to partisans, each election is no longer about resolving the issues of the next four years one way or another – instead, the outcomes of individual issues determine future elections to come. One election can lead to an agenda that can completely nullify one side of American political ideology. Sanders and Trump have won the loyalty of a devoted fan base of particularly insecure partisans – whom I will label “Existentialists” – by speaking to the issues of campaign finance reform and immigration, respectively.
Campaign finance reform – and overturning the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision specifically – has been a major rallying cry on the Left during the Obama era. Depending on one’s interpretation of that decision (or actual understanding of the case’s basic facts), it can be considered a victory for free speech, an undue increase in the influence of corporation money in elections, or even the legalization of outright bribery. Despite the practical limitations of Super PACs, the dominating role of union spending and other left-wing interest groups in elections, and the fact that corporations give significantly to both parties, leftist Existentialists are not confident in their ability to survive this era of big money.
The thinking goes that the legalization of unlimited soft money spending during elections will forever keep politicians in the hands of big business – and thus true, progressive reform in the US is impossible unless there are significant regulations (or, ideally, public money is used to fund elections). A number of leading Democrats have taken up this cause. Most prominently, Harry Reid has used the Senate floor as a platform to attack the Koch brothers and to propose bills that would effectively amend (some say repeal) the First Amendment.
But none have addressed this as fervently as Sanders. The Existential left wing of the Democratic Party supports him because it does not believe it can ever fully implement its vision for America without first preventing nefarious interests from spending considerable sums of money to sway public opinion. As far as it is concerned, the rest of the party (particularly Hillary “speaking fees” Clinton) is simply a figurehead of the corporate-sponsored establishment.
Meanwhile, Trump has the undying loyalty of certain single-issue right wing voters. These voters may or may not be movement conservatives, registered Republicans, or even voters at all. But when Trump clumsily claimed that most illegal immigrations were rapists, drug dealers, and criminals at the beginning of his campaign, he stumbled upon the key to their support. Critics may dismiss this as xenophobia or racism, but there are a few layers to immigration that makes it a crucial issue to Trump voters.
First and foremost is economics. Trump supporters tend to be men without a college education – that is, unskilled workers. They are the ones hurt the most by globalization, when jobs are outsourced and factories are offshored to countries with lower wages. They are also the ones most likely to compete with unskilled immigrants. The consequence of this is not only measured in jobs lost, but wages held down by the simple law of supply and demand: more labor competition means a lower price for that labor. Economists are split on whether labor markets work this neatly, but the data seems to back this up. Perhaps more importantly, it is an obvious conclusion based on the personal experiences or intuitive perceptions of these workers themselves.
Notice that this includes all unskilled immigrants, not just illegal aliens. This represents a split in the Republican Party – many believe that the solution to illegal immigration is simply to make the legal process easier. As for illegal immigrants already here, that’s nothing that a modest fine and a pathway to legal status can’t solve. Trump supporters take a far harder line against immigration in general and legalization in particular because those solutions are wholly unhelpful to them. They believe they will face job competition whether it comes from those with green cards or without them.
Among Trump voters who care most about immigration are the right wing Existentialists, who see it as a threat to the long-term viability of conservatism itself. They believe that importing large numbers of people from (mostly developing) countries means there will be a sizable contingent of people retaining the values of their native cultures, particularly if they are not compelled to assimilate. Because American republicanism is a unique institution in the world, and the main lodestar of conservatism, it needs to be actively instilled into new immigrants to be maintained.
Instead, right wing Existentialists see a political establishment that shrinks from pushing for assimilation due to a politically correct fear of standing in opposition to multiculturalism. Worse, it insists on the practical and moral imperative of rewarding millions of migrants – who live in America by virtue of a general unwillingness to secure the borders or enforce existing laws – with citizenship. Since these illegal aliens are largely sympathetic towards Democrats, such mass amnesty will essentially grant them millions of new voters. Thus would American political culture be fundamentally transformed, and any hope of conservative electoral victory on the national level would be gone. Right wing Existentialists are willing to overlook Trump’s flaws because they believe a strong stance on immigration in the short term is the necessary first step to keeping conservatism viable in the long run, and nobody else is up to the task.
The respective obsessions of Trump and Sanders supporters are also useful for revealing their overall worldviews. Sanders’ fixation on the “rigged economy” and “billionaire class” demonstrates his emphasis on class differences (or, if you want to oversimplify Marx: historical materialism). This focus is part of his appeal and also a massive blind spot – it explains why he insists that his agenda is the best one for black voters, even as his generalized economic rhetoric and de-emphasis of specifically “black” issues makes them his weakest contingent in the Democratic primaries.
Trump’s focus on immigration certainly encompasses economics too, since it deals with a political and corporate elite that undermines the rule of law in pursuit of cheaper labor. But talking about largely Hispanic immigrants (as well as Muslims) inevitably has an ethno-racial element as well, particularly if Trump’s Existentialists argue that demographics is destiny, and that the culture of one’s origin country is the main determinant in how he will vote or whether he becomes a terrorist. This explains why the media is so comfortable labeling Trump as a racist who is a favored by white supremacists.
Certainly there are other factors at play in the candidates’ overall poll numbers. Most of Sanders’ support might be due to his idealism or honesty. Trump’s entertainment value and wizard-like ability to command media attention is probably the best explanation for his poll numbers (or he might indeed be a Master Wizard).
But for each of their core supporters – the ones who will never vote for anyone else – these candidates are also fighting an existential battle on their behalf. Expect their almost religious devotion to persist.