Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is the new Democratic frontrunner and some conservatives worry he’s the most dangerous threat to President Donald Trump.
These conservatives think Sanders’s left-wing populism will steal away Trump’s blue-collar voters. “Sanders could more effectively run on Trump’s failure to fully keep his campaign promises on foreign policy and trade . . . than Joe Biden or most of the other Democrats running. This populist pitch could win over some Trump 2016 voters while at the same time heightening progressive enthusiasm,” American Conservative editor-in-chief Jim Antle wrote last month.
“For the kind of American who is mostly with the Democrats on economics but wary of progressivism’s zest for culture war, Sanders’s socialism might be strangely reassuring—as a signal of what he actually cares about, and what battles he might eschew for the sake of his anti-plutocratic goals,” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argued in November.
While Trump has fallen short of delivering all of his campaign promises, Bernie certainly is not the man to fulfill them. The democratic socialist is not running a campaign to appeal to anyone who leans right. Sanders supports identity politics, open borders, gun control, and unrestricted abortion. Trump largely has kept his promises on trade while the rest of Sanders’s party whines about trade protectionism. Sanders promises totally to upend a thriving economy and create uncertainty among many working-class voters.
Sanders isn’t Trump’s worst nightmare—he’s the president’s ideal opponent.
A common argument among conservatives who think Sanders is Trump’s most dangerous foe is that Trump won over former Obama voters with economic appeals. Studies cast doubt on that notion. Most studies find that cultural and identity anxieties played a larger role in this shift. Alienation with the Democrats’ support for Blacks Live Matter and open borders was a more common factor among Obama-to-Trump voters than economic dislocation. The 2018 book, Identity Crisis, found Trump’s appeal to cultural and identity issues drove the 2016 election, not the economic anxiety.
Trump can easily keep these swing voters with a culture war message.
Bernie isn’t a moderate on any social or cultural issue. His current immigration agenda effectively would result in open borders—amnesty for all illegal aliens, the decriminalization of illegal immigration, a moratorium on deportations, the abolishment of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and government healthcare for illegals. This is very different from the Sanders who called open borders a “Koch Brothers proposal.”
Bernie wants to strip Middle Americans of their gun rights through red flag laws and increased restrictions. The senator declares abortion is healthcare and says there is no room in the Democratic Party for pro-lifers. Sanders is also touted as the strongest candidate on transgender issues.
How does this message appeal to Middle Americans who are wary of the progressive cultural war?
Some conservatives counter that Sanders’s positions on trade and foreign policy will win these voters over. First, on these issues, there’s not a whole lot of difference between Trump and Sanders. Trump is a protectionist who renegotiated NAFTA and put tariffs on China. Sanders is a protectionist who wants to renegotiate NAFTA and put tariffs on China. Trump is a noninterventionist who wants us to reduce our presence in the Middle East. Sanders is a noninterventionist who wants us to reduce our presence in the Middle East. Trump may be a bit more aggressive than Sanders in foreign affairs and may have not have solved all of America’s trade issues, but he has not got us into another stupid war and his trade policy largely has been successful.
In any case, foreign affairs and trade policy rank near the bottom of issues important to voters, only ranking higher than LGBT rights.
The final argument is that Sanders will win over downtrodden Middle Americans with his economic agenda. That’s doubtful when Sanders plans to screw over much of Middle America. Take his Green New Deal. This plan would devastate the U.S. energy industry and cost at least $16 trillion. The plan will likely put tens of thousands of Americans out of work and raise taxes on the middle class. The Green New Deal is unlikely to save the environment, but it will wreck our economy.
Even the offers of single-payer healthcare and other benefits may not be enough to sway Obama-to-Trump voters. Polling shows this demographic is happy with Trump and plan on voting for him again. The economy is doing well, there’s no new war, the wall is (slowly) being built, and a new trade policy is in effect.
Sanders gives few reasons for Middle Americans to vote for him—Bernie is not the kind of populist they want.