Elon in Iowa

The Populist Phenomenon

Posted January 20, 2016

— Whenever Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders mention one another in their remarks during interviews, town hall events or major campaign rallies, they lambaste each others’ policies as dangerous, radical or even un-American. However, if one takes a closer look at the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders and the supporters that have vaulted them both into the national political spotlight, there are a striking amount of similarities between the two candidates. While Bernie and Donald seem to disagree on almost every policy area, they have found one area of agreement: Big money in politics and special interests have brought about an age in politics in which the American people have lost their political voice.

The emergence of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders shocked many in the political and media worlds, where pundits and lawmakers initially dismissed both candidates as merely the "flavors of the month." However, when examining the two insurgent candidates, it is important to note the context of the election cycle which they have both taken by storm.

About a year ago, before the presidential campaign cycle got underway, most political pundits predicted a face-off between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. One of the main factors they used in their reasoning was the well-connected political networks of Bush and Clinton and the ability to raise large sums of money. A year later, what was once seen as a strength for Bush and Clinton’s candidacies has become a liability, with both candidates struggling to fight off the aura that they are beholden to special interests. Meanwhile, neither Trump nor Sanders has a super PAC, and they are riding a wave of populism and hunger among voters for presidential candidates that say what they mean and mean what they say. However you may feel about Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders’s policy proposals, you must to a certain extent respect both of them for standing by their views and bringing a level of honesty and principle to a process that often lacks either of the two.

In mid-September, when Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were continuing to build momentum in the polls, political pundits again tried to explain their successes, this time going after Trump and Sanders supporters, labeling them radical and irrational. Being someone who aligns with the Democratic Party, I tended to give more gravitas to this notion surrounding Trump supporters than Sanders supporters. Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to see Trump supporters up close and personal at a Trump town hall event in Urbandale, Iowa.

On a chilly Iowa morning, standing outside waiting for the doors for the event to open, I got my chance to pick the brain of a Trump supporter who was standing behind me in line. I talked to this man for over an hour before the rally, and what I found was not a prejudiced, rude, xenophobic voter who was filled with hate for his fellow man. Instead, I found a man named Rick Demuynck, an accountant who worked for the Department of Transportation, a man who spoke intellectually and thoughtfully about various policy positions. I discussed various issues with him over the course of this hour, and I was taken aback by how willing he was to listen to my ideas and consider my positions. Here was not a man full of hate, but full of fear for the safety of his loved ones.

After speaking with Rick, I realized that his support for Donald Trump was explained in one of the first things he said to me after I asked him why he was a Trump supporter: security. While Bernie supporters are fixated on securing and righting the perceived wrongs they see in income inequality in the United States, Donald Trump is tapping into similar wrongs on the international level, where his supporters see the country as under attack from terrorists and being exploited by other countries through trade and other forms of diplomacy that they see as making America weaker.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders do not agree on many things, but at the end of the day, their campaigns are both centered on the same populist notion: It is time for a change from politics as usual.


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About this Blog:

Elon University students are in Iowa, covering the presidential campaign and caucuses are part of their coursework.