The day after a Donald Trump supporter pepper-sprayed a fifteen-year-old protester outside a Trump rally in Janesville, Wisconsin, people lined up around the block in the rain to see Bernie Sanders at the Orpheum Theater in Madison.
The atmosphere at the two events could not have been more different.
A friendly looking man strummed an acoustic guitar as the Bernie supporters waited patiently in line. “You don’t like what you earn?” he crooned, “Come on and feel the Bern!”
There were no clashes with protesters nor calls to violence at the Sanders event.
“I do not believe the American people will ever elect a President who every day is insulting one group of people or another,” Sanders declared in Wisconsin, where he is leading Hillary Clinton in the latest Marquette poll by 49 to 45 percent. (Cruz has also built a big lead over Donald Trump in the state, with the help of Scott Walker, powerful rightwing radio hosts in the Milwaukee area, and the rest of the Republican establishment, which hopes to knock off Trump in a contested national convention.)
While the people of the United States grapple with serious problems, Sanders added, the Republicans are behaving like clowns. “What these guys are doing is attacking each other’s wives. It’s beyond belief.”
But at the Trump rally in Janesville, the crowd ate up Trump’s attacks—on Cruz, Governor Scott Walker, House Speaker Paul Ryan—a hometown boy in Janesville—on his opponents who supported NAFTA and the TPP, and on the whole Republican establishment.
Of Walker, Trump said, “He’s not doing a good job.” He cited high unemployment, a growing budget deficit, and a “Middle class hit very, very hard due to loss of manufacturing jobs.”
Plus, although Walker likes to ride a Harley, “He does not look like a motorcycle guy, I’m sorry. . . .The motorcycle guys like Trump!”
Trump’s taboo-breaking rants found a welcoming audience in Wisconsin—even as he began to sound like he was running for wife-beater-in-chief, defending his campaign manager’s assault on a reporter, and then walking back his suggestion to Chris Matthews that if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade, women who seek abortions should be “punished.”
Cruz has succeeded in pushing Trump back in Wisconsin, but his fan base among working-class voters across the nation is growing too big to overcome. Barring a convention coup, it will carry him all the way to the nomination.
“Trump’s appeal is to economically stressed people,” says Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan. Pocan grew up in Kenosha, which, like Janesville, has suffered mightily from outsourcing and plant closings. He understands the anger of Rust Belt voters who have seen their jobs shipped overseas. Trump is hugely popular among disaffected, working-class voters for a reason, Pocan points out: “He’s talking about trade with China, and everyone should be talking about trade with China.”
David Newby, the former president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO agrees: “In Janesville, certainly at GM and its suppliers—for those who lost their jobs, the anger is totally understandable,” he says. “They did all the right things. The companies they were working for were making money. And then to be so brutally tossed into the trash heap—anyone would be angry.”
“The country-club Republicans in the suburbs around Milwaukee think Trump is crazy, and his poll numbers are really low, but when you look at the data among working-class voters in Northern Wisconsin it’s the reverse,” Pocan adds.
Sanders voters, likewise, are messing up the Democratic Party’s elite consensus that Hillary Clinton is the only credible candidate. She lost six of seven early spring primaries in the West by embarrassing margins, thanks to young people who don’t feel especially confident that she or the political and business establishment who back her really care about college debt or shrinking job opportunities. As Sanders pulled ahead in Wisconsin, she departed the state to focus on New York.
Clearly, anti-establishment voters are disrupting both major parties.
The populist campaigns of Trump and Sanders pose starkly different visions of America. “Thank God we’ve got someone out there who can channel that anger in a progressive direction,” says Newby. “If we didn’t have Bernie, we’d just have Trump. Then he’d have even more support. All bets would be off.”
All bets may be off come November.
If Bernie Sanders is not in the race, the sharpest economic populism on offer in November will likely be coming from Trump.
“Progressives can’t afford to cede economic populism to the man who could prove to be the most effective white nationalist campaigner of our generation,” says Tarso Luís Ramos, executive director of Political Research Associates, a watchdog group that studies the far right..
In the name of cracking down on “welfare queens” and other “takers,” the right has long used racism to undermine support for unions, public schools, unemployment insurance, solid urban infrastructure—all underpinnings of the American middle class. Bringing together white, working-class voters and people of color around their common interests is an urgent task for progressives.
“People understand racial politics is critical to the future of the country—so it must be addressed,” Ramos points out. And it is being addressed—by Donald Trump.
This, unfortunately, has been the largest deficit of the Bernie Sanders campaign: voters of color responded more favorably to Clinton, especially in the South, as Sanders missed opportunities to bring together his economic populist message with a message of racial justice— to focus on how attacks on unions, job protections and the public sector have fallen particularly heavily on people of color and women, and to show that he was listening to their concerns.
But in Wisconsin, on the eve of the April 5 primary, Sanders began to speak more directly and fluently on this issue. And there were, notably, more young African American and Latino voters in the crowds at his rallies.
He struck out at Scott Walker and other Republican governors for their efforts to make voting more difficult through voter ID laws, and connected those racially motivated efforts to the larger struggle for democracy.
And he hit on a recurring theme: “This campaign is listening,” Sanders said again and again, before a big crowd at the Alliant Center in Madison.
“This campaign is listening to women,” he said. “And what they are telling us is that they are sick and tired of earning 70 cents for every dollar a man earns.
“This campaign is listening to our brothers and sisters in the Latino community. And what our Latino brothers and sisters are telling us is that they are tired of living in the shadows. . . . It’s time for comprehensive immigration reform and a pathway citizenship.”
“This campaign is listening to our brothers and sisters in the African American community. . . and they are saying, Why did we have billions of dollars to spend on the war in Iraq, which we never should have gotten into, but we don’t have the money to rebuild devastated communities all over the country like Flint Michigan?”
Sanders laid out a vision of what it would be like for people to take control of their own democracy.
“I believe we are at a turning point in America today,” he said. “Millions of people look around and say, ‘Why do we have such a grotesque level of income and wealth inequality? Why do we have so many people in prison? . . . Why don’t we have guaranteed health care? . . . Why are we not more aggressive in combating climate change?”
Trump made a similar point: “There is something happening. It’s like a movement. It’s incredible,” he told the crowd in Janesville. Then he talked about himself, and his cameos on “the cover of Time Magazine, the cover of all the newspapers.”
Beneath the macho posturing, the racial antagonism, and the violence, this is the biggest difference between the populist visions of Sanders and Trump. One is about a great democratic movement. The other is just about Donald Trump.