Politics & Policy

Trump, Sanders, and the Politics of Envy

(Don Emmert/AFP/Getty)

‘Money, it’s a crime,” said Pink Floyd. Or was that Bernie Sanders?

It might as well have been. “When the top one-tenth of 1 percent now owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, that’s not fair,” Sanders told an energized crowd during his New Hampshire primary victory speech Tuesday. “The top three drug companies in this country made $45 billion in profit last year. That is an obscenity. . . . We must tell the billionaire class and the One Percent that they cannot have it all at a time of massive wealth and income inequality.”

Despite the noises about incarceration rates and climate change, the theme of Bernie Sanders’s campaign was clear: Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch!

And it’s working. Not only did the Vermont senator win Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary by 22 points; according to exit polling, he won men and women, moderates and liberals, those with college degrees and those without, those who own guns and those who don’t, and previous primary participants and first-timers. The only voters who preferred Hillary Clinton were those older than 65 and those from families making more than $200,000 per year.

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In other words, envy sells. And make no mistake, that is what Sanders is selling. After all, socialism is inevitably a politics of envy: Wealth is by definition finite, so more in your pocket means less in mine — and if I have less than I want, it must be your fault. Because Sanders has no room in his cramped understanding of the world for the complex interplay of free economic actors, he must default to simplistic moral explanations — Greed!: of Wall Street bankers, pharmaceutical companies, and America’s 536 billionaires — and simplistic solutions: to wit, frog-marching Goldman Sachs executives down Fifth Avenue and divvying up their stuff. They’ll have less, so you’ll have more.

And everyone wants more.

#share#Coincidentally, Donald Trump — who, like Sanders, crushed his nearest rival by 20 points — is exploiting the same itch. “We are going to make America great again,” he said in his own victory speech Tuesday night, “but we’re going to do it the old-fashioned way. We’re going to beat China, Japan. We’re going to beat Mexico at trade. We’re going to beat all of these countries that are taking so much of our money away from us on a daily basis.” And, later: “We are now going to make [deals] for your benefit. We’re going to make the deals for the American people.”

Unlike Sanders, Trump has no determinate position on any matter of public policy, but that’s of little importance. He is not pitching a movement; he is pitching himself. His promise is not any particular slate of policies; it’s Donald Trump writ large. An America with Trump at the helm is one in which America “wins,” like Trump wins; makes good deals, like Trump makes good deals. In Donald Trump’s America, everybody gets to live a little like Donald Trump. This is at least partly why Trump’s supporters are so vicious toward his detractors: The latter threaten their chances to live bigger.

I get what should’ve been mine all along. And all for the low, low price of a vote.

It’s envy, en masse, on both sides. Somebody else has it (cheaper tuition, cheaper health care, business-class tickets, a Mercedes, &c.), and I want it. Under Sanders, top-hatted Uncle Pennybags will do the perp walk; under Trump, we’ll put the screws to Beijing and Uncle Pennybags himself will cut me in on the deal; but in either case, I get what should’ve been mine all along. And all for the low, low price of a vote.

Those who believe that politics is little more than personal psychodrama played out on a grand stage might be closer than usual to the truth this election cycle. Neither Trump nor Sanders, despite their claims, is ushering in a revolution. They are ushering in a politics more petty, vulgar, and low — more animated by voters’ base inclinations — than any in recent memory. If New Hampshire is any indication, voters are not about anything so high-minded as constitutional government or national security or racial justice or even “hope and change.” They’re about me getting mine, by hook or by crook.

Free college, free health care, and winning. This election is the Gollum-cry of the masses: WE WANTS IT.

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