Illustration by Jem Sullivan.
Jack Nicholson once dryly noted that his mother “never saw the irony in calling me a son-of-a-bitch.”
2016 has certainly been an odd year for the political and corporate elites. They couldn’t predict (and then subsequently stayed in denial about) the popularity of Bernie Sanders and Donnie Trump. Much like the Nicholson example, the aloof Powers That Be are oblivious to irony: They are the ones who gave birth to the mass anger that now confronts them.
The political cognoscenti have not understood the massive public rage over today’s glaring inequality and mass downward mobility. This is a direct product of their wrenching the system with such power tools as “free” trade agreements, union busting, defunding public services, downsizing, offshoring, price gouging, Citizens United, privatization, the Wall Street bailout, student debt, tax dodging, criminalization of poverty, militarization of police . . . and so god-awful much more.
Instead of comprehending the public’s rage, the established powers have lashed out at these political intruders. Their conventional wisdom (endlessly parroted by the media) is that hordes of blue-collar voters, young people, independents, and others surging into the two outsiders, presidential campaigns have been naïve, unrealistic, selfish, ignorant, racist, misogynistic, anti-immigrant, fascist, or some combination of the above. Of course, such characteristics can be found among every campaign’s supporters, but smearing an insurgency of millions as airheads and haters only reveals the desperation of the smearers.
Take Trump’s campaign. Yes, he has recklessly continued to stoke the embers of hate by belittling Muslims, the disabled, Latino immigrants, women, Spanish-language reporters, and his catch-all category of “losers”—all the while reveling in the role of outlandish, boorish autocrat. Thereafter, pundits and the GOP’s big shots conclude, his appeal and his supporters are racism personified. End of discussion.
Yet, in addition to walling off Mexico and banning Muslim refugees, Trump speaks about NAFTA, runaway corporations, and our “stoopid” leaders who’ve turned their backs on American manufacturing and the struggling families who count on those good jobs. And that is what many of his working class supporters are responding to.
Sanders, too, has won phenomenal support from a similar constituency, including an amazing 75 to 80 percent of voters between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine. Like Trump, he’s been hammering the pampered rich who disdain and discard the working class, but in a different way: He’s also offering a renewed, uplifting, Rooseveltian vision of an “America for All,” not just for billionaires.
The real story, however, is not about the two maverick candidates, but about the waves of ordinary people who’ve created and lifted their campaigns. They embody and give voice to the millions devastated by Wall Street greed in the 2008 crash, who were left out of the widely ballyhooed “recovery,” and who now realize that they’re not included in the elite’s laissez faire schemes of future American prosperity. These voters are hurting today, distressed about tomorrow, and fed up with the two-party indifference to “people like us.”
They are the reason the Bernie and Donnie phenomena are not just 2016 flare-ups but, as Sanders puts it, part of “a political revolution.” The elite’s ploys to trivialize the impact of these campaigns will only stoke the fires of the newly politicized outsiders.
No matter what happens this year to Sanders and Trump, the people who support them are not going away. The rebellion is on. Sanders and Trump are only the current messengers. The message itself is that We, the Grassroots People, now see that we’re being sold out to giant corporations by our own leaders. Like the distant rumble of thunder, the boisterous uprising of outsiders in this year’s election signals the approach of a historic storm.
Jim Hightower produces The Hightower Lowdown newsletter and is the author, with Susan DeMarco, of Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow.