What helps explain the unexpected rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the polls?
E. J. Dionne’s Washington Post piece “Don’t look now, but Sanders is Rising” contains a clue to the difference between public perception of Trump and Sanders, on the one hand, and most other candidates for President, on the other.
It’s pretty simple, as it was when the people of Minnesota shocked the world (and themselves!) by electing Jesse Ventura, the former professional boa scarf wearing wrestler and straight-talking, no holds barred, Minneapolis radio talk show host, as Governor.
E. J. Dionne cites a poll by WMUR-TV in New Hampshire trying to get a handle on the primary race between Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Of all the questions, the one that stood out from the standard questions about one’s position as liberal, moderate, or conservative was this simple question: “Who is least honest?”
Thirty-one (31) percent answered Hillary Clinton. Only three (3) percent picked Bernie Sanders. To put it positively, 97 percent trusted Bernie as the straighter shooter.
Watching the Republican Presidential Candidates Debate last night, something similar was on display. I scratched my head wondering how it happens that Donald Trump was the highest rated candidate in the polls that led to the top 10 Republican candidates. When asked whether he would support the eventual party nominee, Trump said he would not make that pledge. He was booed by many in the audience. But I suspect the audience and those watching on their televisions and iPads would rate him as low on the “least honest” factor last night as the New Hampshire Democrats answered for Bernie.
Jesse Ventura was elected by Independents, Democrats, and Republicans who were disgusted by the less than honest answers of the two experienced politicians on the stage of the debates. Jesse did full Nelsons, pinning the more experienced “less honest” (i.e., more skilled at obfuscation) Skip Humphrey and Norm Coleman to the mat.
E.J. Dionne ends his column with this observation:
“As for alienation from the system, Trump and Sanders do speak to a disaffection that roils most of the world’s democracies. But their way of doing so is so radically different – Sanders resolutely pragmatic, Trump all about feelings, affect and showmanship – that they cannot easily be subsumed as part of the same phenomenon. Sanders’ candidacy will leave policy markers and arguments about the future. Trump’s legacy will be almost entirely about himself, which is probably fine with him.”
I would add that the American electorate understands feelings and affect, and that, in an entertainment culture, we have come to expect to be entertained. In the Donald and in Bernie we see and hear two men who stand against the odds, and the one thing (perhaps the only thing) that links them in the hearts of those who watch and listen is that they are “the least dishonest”.
But honesty and showmanship alone do not a good governor or president make. We need to bring our minds as well as our hearts to ringside.