Research News

Historian puts Trump and Sanders in context

Jefferson Cowie (courtesy of Jefferson Cowie)

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump might not seem to have much in common except for presidential aspirations, yet a Vanderbilt University historian says both are riding the same wave of working-class American anger. “I think both movements have their source in the same anxieties but from very different perspectives,” says Jefferson Cowie, the James G. Stahlman Professor of History at Vanderbilt. “These are fundamental appeals to the angry and disgruntled.

“Sanders wants to redistribute wealth and increase economic security, while Trump is taking those same fears and turning them against immigrants, liberals or whoever else he thinks has made America weak.”

Both Trump and Sanders started out as longshot candidates most pundits thought had little chance to be elected president.

“These guys who were somewhat laughable candidates at first now have so much traction,” Cowie says. “[lquote]It really speaks to the failure of the mainstream parties to address the needs of working Americans.”[/lquote]

There have been forbearers to populists like Trump in American history, Cowie says.

“If you go back in time, you see Trump-like populism in Pat Buchanan and George Wallace, Joseph McCarthy and Huey Long in the 1930s,” Cowie says. “They pushed the mood into a very defensive posture against everything that wasn’t their idea of America.

“George Wallace’s slogan when he ran for president was ‘Stand Up for America.’ That’s similar to Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again.’”

Sanders would like to be a Franklin Roosevelt-style reformer of the American economy, but the odds are stacked against him, Cowie says.

“Let’s say Bernie gets elected by some miracle,” Cowie says. “He would face tremendous opposition in Congress. He might be able to use the bully pulpit to get some legislation through, but even Obama, who had a supermajority (in the Senate) at first, had a difficult time getting things done.”

Cowie is a social and political historian whose research and teaching focus on how class, inequality and work shape American capitalism, politics and culture. He argues in his new book, The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics, that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal sparked a unique and probably unrepeatable golden period between the 1930s through the mid-1970s when circumstances came together to give working class Americans a fair chance to prosper.