[Editor’s Note: This is part of an occasional series by LSU journalism students covering the presidential campaign in Iowa.]
By James A. Smith and Abigail Hendren, LSU Manship News Service
DES MOINES, Iowa — President Trump has disrupted American politics since he announced his candidacy in 2015. He uses abrasive language, dismisses Washington’s political establishment and has shifted his party further to the right.
So have Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and they are among the leaders here. The two do not use Trump’s caustic rhetoric, but they are disruptors nonetheless. Like Trump, they have cast themselves as combatants for the have-nots, and they are pushing the Democratic party further to the left by insisting that American health care, banking and trade, to name just three, are not working for everyone.
Warren, Sanders and Trump say they despise the traditional politics of Washington. They claim the system does not work for the average American. Sanders and Warren’s campaigns are geared toward the working class, young voters and those who struggle to make ends meet under crippling costs of healthcare and student debt.
Trump, who handily won Louisiana in 2016, targets working class voters who feel as though they are overlooked among the mess of bureaucracy. In short, all three claim their policies are in the best interests of ordinary Americans as opposed to the Washington establishment interests of politicians and the wealthy.
Although the two Democratic senators vehemently oppose Trump, they are, in a way, his left-wing equivalents. All three share a common, timeless ethos: disrupt the system.
“If you could close your eyes and there weren’t accents,” David Redlawsk, a political scientist at the University of Delaware, said, “you might not be able to tell the difference.”
All three disregard traditional niceties of the political elite. As “outsiders,” they promise to overhaul Washington and reform American society. They make these promises with volatile rhetoric to excite crowds.
Some Iowans, like Tiffany Mitchell, 43 and uncommitted to any candidate, feel as though an outsider is necessary in Washington.
“I like the idea and the concept of [an outsider] but I also want someone who knows what they’re doing, unlike Trump,” Mitchell said, at a rally for Andrew Yang, another outsider. “I do get the outsider concept. I do like it…for me, it’s more of the overall package versus ‘he’s an outsider so I’m going to vote for him regardless.”
At the same Yang event in Perry, Iowa, young voters seemed to favor unorthodox candidates, but are disappointed and frustrated with Trump.
“I think, when people voted for Trump, they were getting someone like Yang,” Gloria Jenson, 23, said referring to Yang’s case that the American economy is in crisis. “Trump diagnosed it, but he treated it wrong.”
Disruption politics here plays out in words. Trump’s 2016 slogan was “Make America Great Again.” “Drain the swamp” became one of his trademark phrases, along with “build the wall” and “lock her up,” referring to Hillary Clinton.
Sanders, an independent from Vermont, vows to “take on” insurance companies, pharmaceutical makers, the fossil-fuel industry, privatized prisons, the military-industrial complex, Wall Street, the NRA and “the billionaire class.” He calls Trump “dangerous” and a “spoiled brat.”
At Warren rallies, the Massachusetts senator often runs through the crowd like a prizefighter with hands outstretched rather than entering from the stage. Supporters chant, “Two cents!” referring to her proposed 2% “wealth tax” on personal assets greater than $50 million.
“The time for holding back is over. We need big, structural change,” Warren said at a rally in September in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Sanders’ speech at his New Year’s Eve party in Des Moines paralleled the same charged energy seen at Trump rallies.
“We’re going to take that victory into New Hampshire, we’re going to go to Nevada, South Carolina, California,” Sanders shouted as the crowd roared as he listed the states. “With your help, we’re going to win the Democratic nomination, and with your help in 2020, we are going to defeat the most dangerous president in the modern history of America,” he said.
Trump ignites supporters when he speaks on hot-button talking points like immigration, Islam and nationalism. At a rally in Shreveport, Louisiana in November, he harnessed the power of his nationalist rhetoric.
“America is winning again like never before, and America is respected again, respected at the highest levels,” Trump said. “Every country that comes to see me, they respect our country again,” he said, drawing strong reactions from his crowd before he finished speaking.
“Their rhetoric is very similar,” Redlawsk said referring Trump and Sanders, adding that they are equivalent opposites of one another.
Like Trump, Sanders shares an adversarial relationship with the press. In an August fundraising email, Sanders said the media “barely discuss our campaign or write us off when they do,” adding, “we will have to take on virtually the entire media establishment.”
Trump and Sanders champion fair trade over free trade and emphasize their dedication to revitalizing American manufacturing. Warren’s “economic patriotism” trade plan highlights wages and the environment.
Since entering office, Trump has attempted to renegotiate trade deals. He is replacing NAFTA with a new North American trade agreement and has engaged in trade wars with China. Sanders opposed NAFTA as well, but does not support Trump’s renegotiated deal with Canada and Mexico. The senator says Trump’s proposal falls short of meeting economic, environmental and humanitarian standards.
“Go back to the drawing board,” Sanders challenged the president.
Infrastructure hasn’t been an early priority in the 2020 campaign for most candidates, but Sanders, Warren and Trump have declared clear positions on the topic.
Both Sanders and Warren expressed support of expanding public transit to address climate change. Trump has focused on rebuilding crumbling roads, bridges and rails in order to create American jobs but has failed to get the plan through Congress.
While Sanders and Warren are both viable progressive candidates whose broad policy goals overlap in many ways, they differ on key issues. Most notably, Sanders is an unapologetic proponent of socialism as a product of the Young People’s Socialist League. Warren, however, defends a capitalist economy.
“Markets with rules can produce enormous value,” Warren said in an interview with The Atlantic. “The problem is that when the rules are not enforced – when the markets are not level playing fields – all that wealth is scraped in one direction.”
On New Year’s Eve, when asked where he and Warren differ, Sanders avoided giving clear policy disagreements.
“Are you upset that I haven’t attacked Elizabeth Warren?” Sanders prodded, drawing laughter from supporters in attendance. “I think we have a lot in common, and there are differences.”