Trump and Sanders: Who's the real 'outsider'?

Outsiders have seldom been the real thing. Donald Trump has bragged about using government influence to get rich. Sanders’s policies would concentrate more power and resources in the nation’s capital.

L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Sun/AP
US Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a press conference following a speech at the 59th annual Nevada State AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention at the Luxor Hotel & Casino on Aug. 18, 2015, in Las Vegas.

Many commentators have noted that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are the odd couple of outsider politics. Although they disagree on many major issues, both are running for president by running against the political establishment.

Their strategy is an old one. Twenty-two years ago, James Ceaser and Andrew E. Busch analyzed the 1992 election in a wonderful book titled "Upside Down and Inside Out." "The outsider appeal," they wrote, "resonates with fundamental elements of the American tradition that can be traced back to certain themes of the revolutionaries, the anti-federalists, the Jeffersonians, and the Jacksonians."

In the 1992 primaries, once and future California Gov. Jerry Brown ran as an outsider against Bill Clinton. In the general election, billionaire Ross Perot took up the mantle as an independent candidate.  Ceaser and Busch noted that these self-styled outsiders sought "to 'tap into' the anger that exists against Washington." Sound like any current candidates?  At the Huffington Post, Igor Bobic and Oliver Noble write that the most overused cliché of current campaign coverage is that Sanders and Trump are "tapping into" something big.

Outsiderism is the shape-shifter of political strategies. Outsider positions can be liberal or conservative, thoughtful or nutty. But much of the time, wrote Ceaser and Busch, "it is not a question of position but merely of positioning." Outsiders "appeal to diverse positions united only by a common mood or discontent."

Outsiders can surge in the polls as long as voters are just venting. Eventually, however, people get more serious about the candidates’ qualifications.  At that point, outsiders can stumble over their weaknesses and quirks. In 1992, Ceaser and Busch point out, many Democratic voters grew "wary of Jerry." In June of that year, Perot actually had a double-digit lead over both Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. His standing plunged as people learned about his eccentricities. (He enjoyed a bounce at the very end of the campaign, when it was clear that Clinton would win and that it was safe to cast a protest vote for the man whose theme song was "Crazy.")

Outsiders have seldom been the real thing. Jefferson was a landed slave-owner who was far more detached from "real people" than his rivals John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Jackson had a tough childhood, but by the time he ran for president, he had been a general, territorial governor, and US senator. For all his invocations of the free market, Perot made his fortune selling computer services to the government, becoming America's first "welfare billionaire." Donald Trump has bragged about using government influence to get rich, brazenly using eminent domain to enlarge his empire.

In some ways, Sanders is different. He is a man of modest means, and unlike Trump, he has a thorough knowledge of the issues and a sincere commitment to his beliefs. Many conservatives respect him as a worthy and honest opponent. But even Sanders is not as much of an outsider as one might think. His supporters are neither the downtrodden masses nor a rainbow coalition.  Let’s put it this way: a Sanders rally is whiter than the Helsinki chapter of the Barry Manilow Fan Club.

Sanders’s policies would concentrate more power, influence, and resources in the nation’s capital. The Washington metropolitan area, which already boasts six of the 10 richest counties in the nation, would get even richer as his programs created more jobs and business opportunities for the educated professionals who are now flocking to his cause.

As the old saying goes, people who shout "power to the people" mean power to the people who shout "power to the people."

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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