The New Hampshire results have solidified the reigning cliche that the 2016 campaign is an anti-establishment revolt of both the left and the right. Largely overlooked, however, is the role played in setting the national mood by the seven-year legacy of the Obama presidency.
Yes, you hear constant denunciations of institutions, parties, leaders, donors, lobbyists, influence peddlers. But the starting point of the bipartisan critique is the social, economic and geopolitical wreckage all around us. Bernie Sanders is careful never to blame Obama directly, but his description of the America Obama leaves behind is devastating.
Donald Trump is even more colorful in describing the current “mess” and more direct in attributing it to the country’s leadership. Both candidates are not just anti-establishment but anti-status quo. The revolt is as much about the Obama legacy as it is about institutions.
Look at New Hampshire. Hillary Clinton had made a strategic decision to wrap herself in the mantle of the Obama presidency. Big mistake. She lost New Hampshire by three touchdowns.
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Beyond railing against the wreckage, the other commonality between the two big New Hampshire winners is in the nature of the cure they offer. Sanders and Trump offer magic.
Take Sanders’ New Hampshire victory speech. It promised college education, free; universal health care, free; world peace, also free because we won’t be “the policeman of the world.” Plus a guaranteed $15 minimum wage. All to be achieved by taxing the rich.
So with Trump. Jobs will flow back in from everywhere. Universal health care, with Obamacare replaced by “something terrific.” Veterans finally taken care of. Drugs stopped cold at the border. Indeed, an end to drug addiction itself.
How? That question never comes up anymore. No one expects an answer. People love Trump’s contempt for the “establishment” but what is truly thrilling is the promise of a near-biblical restoration. As painless as Sanders’.
Trump and Sanders are soaring not just by defying the establishment, but by defying logic and history. Sanders’ magic potion is socialism; Trump’s is Trump.
The young Democrats for Sanders appear unfamiliar with socialism’s tale of ruination. Are they even aware that China’s greatest reduction in poverty in human history correlates with the degree to which it has given up socialism?
Trump’s magic is toughness.
Apart from the fact that strongman rule contradicts the American constitutional tradition of limited and constrained government, caudillo populism simply doesn’t work. It accounts in a large part for the relative backwardness of Africa and Latin America. In 1900, Argentina had a per capita income fully 70 percent of ours. Argentina’s per capita income is now 23 percent of ours.
There certainly is a crisis of confidence in the country’s institutions. But that’s hardly new. Yet not in our lifetimes have the left and right populism of the Sanders and Trump variety enjoyed such massive support.
The added factor is the Obama effect, the depressed and anxious mood of a nation experiencing its worst economic recovery since World War II and watching its power and influence abroad decline amid a willed global retreat.
The result is a politics of high fantasy. Things can’t get any worse, we hear, so why not shake things up to their foundation? Anyone who thinks things can’t get any worse knows nothing. And risks everything.