Among the many unfortunate conventions of modern punditry is that of the false equivalency. If one novel thing occurs in a given scenario, you can rest assured that a second novel thing will either be deemed to be just like it, or its apposite.
So it is that a new assertion is suddenly everywhere: that presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are two sides of the same coin. As Trump is to the right, the pundits assert, Sanders is to the left. After all, look at the many ways in which they are alike! They both yell! They both have New York accents! Both have ugly hair!
To be fair to our equivilating pundits, there is one thing that the two have in common: They each express the frustrations of their constituencies. But that’s pretty much where the parallels begin and end.
Trump is a billionaire self-financing his campaign. Sanders is one of the poorest members of the U.S. Senate (though his $417,000 net worth hardly ranks him at poverty level), and his campaign has raked in the largest number of small donors ever recorded. One might chalk up those structural differences between the two campaigns to ideology, if one were to believe Trump to have one. But if one did, one would be wrong. While Trump often hits notes that resonate on the right, such as his antipathy to immigration, he also embraces positions that are anathema to modern right-wing dogma, such as cutting the defense budget. He would have left Saddam Hussein in power. He accedes that some climate change is the result of human activity. He thinks Vladimir Putin is a cool dude.
Sanders, on the other hand, says he’s a socialist and embraces socialist positions: tuition-free public colleges, single-payer health care, a social safety net.
If that’s not enough to convince you of the falseness of the two-sides-same-coin fable, there’s a marketing professor in Oregon who’s ready to take you on with what may just be the most idiotic version of the myth ever concocted. Writing in Politico magazine, Troy Campbell knows why Bernie and the Donald are the same in different ways: They’re both enabling dissenters (emphasis his).
The theory, taken from social psychology, is that because Trump and Sanders each speak in terms heretofore unspeakable in public, they enable others to say the same previously unutterable things. This, Campbell says, enables each man to express what the good professor terms “fringe beliefs.”
As an example of one of Trump’s fringe beliefs, Campbell uses the candidate’s call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. Fair enough. One would hope that qualifies as “fringe” (though perhaps not quite as fringe as one would like: 36 percent of Americans support such a ban, according to a December Washington Post/ABC News poll).
And for an example of Bernie Sanders’s fringe beliefs? All Campbell has to offer is that the Democrat calls himself a socialist.
Never mind that a label is different from a belief or a view. While most Americans may not consider themselves to be socialists—that Cold War aversion dies hard—it’s instructive to examine the socialist candidate’s actual positions against the backdrop of public opinion.
Breaking up the big banks, as Sanders advocates? A 2013 Rasmussen survey found that 50 percent of U.S. adults favored this position. As for making public colleges and universities tuition-free, an August 2015 YouGov survey found that 55 percent agreed in principle, and 46 percent of respondents approved of using tax dollars to do so. Bernie’s big on raising taxes on the rich; what say the American people? According to an April survey by the Pew Research Forum, 61 percent say the wealthy aren’t paying their fair share. Oh, and a January 2015 poll by the Progressive Change Institute found that more than half of Americans—including a quarter of Republicans—favor a single-payer health-care system.
Now let’s review some of Donald Trump’s other positions. The American people are not getting behind his call to deport all undocumented immigrants. In fact, according to an August Pew Research Center survey, only 27 percent of Americans said that undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. should be evicted from the country. Trump wants to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency. In a March 2015 survey, Gallup found that only 16 percent of those surveyed thought the federal government was “doing too much” to protect the environment. (Forty-eight percent said it was doing “too little”.)
So, really now, who’s got the “fringe view”? Well, 47 percent of Americans say they would vote for a socialist candidate, according to Gallup. But I couldn’t find a single poll that would tell me how many say they would vote for an authoritarian blow-hard.