There are 329 million people in the United States of America. They are spread across 3.8 million square miles. The presidential race will be determined by the actions of three of them: Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Michael Bloomberg. Each is a New Yorker. Each hails from a different borough. Trump was born in Queens, Sanders in Brooklyn, and Bloomberg, a native of Massachusetts, has worked and lived in Manhattan since 1973.
For a long time New York City politics stopped at the Hudson River. Now the nation faces the prospect of eight months of septuagenarian New Yorkers yelling at each other. The geographic, regional, ethnic, and racial diversity of America is nowhere visible. Religion is an exception: The first Jewish presidential nominee of a major party will also be, in all likelihood, the most hostile nominee toward Israel ever.
How did this happen?
Trump’s presence is the easiest to explain. For one thing, he’s the incumbent. He’s also the most significant political figure of the last 30 years. His appeal has never been limited to area code 212. The audience that bought his books and his board game, that visited his casinos and watched his television show, drew from all walks of life, all corners of the country. President Trump is from New York, he lived in a triplex in his black skyscraper on the most coveted piece of property in the city, but he isn’t really of New York.
The Manhattan crowd treated him like an oddity. He was an object of fun. Even today Bloomberg brags that he is wealthier than Trump. Rich and famous he may be, but Donald Trump never has been an insider. Since he first appeared on the scene in the late 1980s, his key constituents have been the type of men who build his hotels. He speaks their language, he shares their tastes, and he embodies their aspirations. That is why he connects with the coal miner in West Virginia, the farmer in Wisconsin, the factory worker in Ohio, the restaurant server in Pennsylvania.
The 2016 Republican primary was the first step in New York’s political takeover. Trump’s victory is instructive. He did it through savvy manipulation of media — his city’s stock and trade — and by identifying and winning over a growing pool of potential Republican voters whom GOP elites ignored. Disaffected Democrats, often without college degrees, alienated from a party defined by the values of liberal professionals and woke Millennials, are the most important element of the Trump coalition. They were up for grabs for a reason. The center left was hollowed out.
Plenty of center-left Democrats remain, of course. The Democrats would not have won the House in 2018 without them. The problem is the communications apparatus of the Democratic Party — the cable networks, social media, newspapers, and public radio — is to the left of the median voter. And media deliver the cues for national politicians. Media set the agenda. The headlines are filled with discussions of the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, the 1619 Project, trans rights, “Abolish I.C.E.,” Russian collusion, Mothers of the Movement, the March for Our Lives. This discourse titillates the left. It drives the rest of us away.
Four years ago Trump leveraged his committed supporters against a divided field. The institutional party couldn’t stop him, partly because it was unable and partly because it didn’t want to. Which institution in America today, after all, is willing to deny “the people” its choice? Trump won a plurality of votes and the nomination. When that happened, the GOP faced a decision: Trump or Clinton. You know the rest.
Bernie Sanders is following a similar path. He defeated the competition in Iowa and New Hampshire with around a quarter of the vote. His splintered opposition prevents the anti-Bernie Democrats from consolidating around a single candidate. Not since 1992 has a party nominated someone who failed to win either of the first two contests. Not in the modern era has a party denied the nomination to the winner of the most delegates. (Walter Mondale entered the 1984 convention with less than a majority of pledged delegates, but got the nomination.) That is why Sanders is in a commanding position.
And why the third New Yorker, Bloomberg, is lighting $400 million on fire trying to prevent the Democrats from nominating a democratic socialist. He may not be able to close the deal. It is telling that Trump, Sanders, and Bloomberg have flexible relationships with the political parties they seek to control. Trump has changed his party registration five times, most recently coming full circle to Republican in 2012. Bernie Sanders has never registered as a Democrat. Bloomberg has been a Democrat, a Republican, an independent, and, since 2018, a Democrat again.
The top two vote-getters in the 2016 Republican primary were Trump and Ted Cruz. Both men ran against the party establishment. The top two vote-getters in the 2020 Democratic primary are Sanders and Pete Buttigieg (so far). Try finding more concrete evidence that voters want outsiders than in the Democratic embrace of a man who praised the Moscow subway after a visit to the Soviet Union, and a 38-year-old who spent eight years as mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city.
The power of media, collapse of the center left, revolt against the political establishment, and a realignment of campaign finance that privileges small-dollar contributors on the one hand and self-funding billionaires on the other have elevated the Big Apple to preeminence. This election will be the equivalent of a Subway Series, a UFC fight at the Garden between Norman Thomas and Frank Costanza. In such an absurd situation Larry David becomes a contested symbol, imitating Sanders on Saturday Night Live as Trump tweets clips of him wearing a MAGA hat on Curb Your Enthusiasm. And the bartender from the Bronx waits in the wings.
Only in New York, kids. Only in New York.