Behind the Revolution: Why Sanders and Trump Won

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Donald Trump greets supporters at an event in Iowa. Trump and Bernie Sanders have won the New Hampshire primaries. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The stunning victories of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the New Hampshire primaries mark the first time both parties have been so upended at the same moment. The 69-year-old casino mogul and 74-year-old socialist have changed everything. And the question now is what it means both for the nomination and the country.

Take the country first.

So many banalities have been used to compare Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump: "They're outsiders." "They're anti-establishment." "Their supporters are angry."

All of that is true. But the big thing the two insurgents have in common is as obvious and ignored as their stump speeches. Whenever they mount the podium, they take time to state how America is stacking up poorly against other nations. No other candidate does this with the same regularity, if ever. The Republicans may lament Obama's presidency; and Hillary Clinton may complain about the GOP. But none of the also-rans ever make the case that America is a wreck compared with other countries. Sanders points to the Scandinavian social democracies and asks why we don't have universal health care and free college tuition and roads that aren't rutted. Trump makes the same complaints about crappy roads and points to the smart negotiators for China and Japan and Mexico, who he says are killing us. "When was the last time we won at anything?" Trump often asks.

Both men got here because they embody a profound sense that America is doing terribly compared with other countries, and they name those countries. Our demise is owning to a special-interest cabal, they argue. Look what Sanders said in his victory speech:

We serve notice to the political and economic establishment of this country that the American people will not continue to accept a corrupt campaign finance system that is undermining American democracy, and we will not accept a rigged economy in which ordinary Americans work longer hours for lower wages while almost all new income and wealth goes to the top 1 percent.

So the anger of Sanders and Trump voters isn't free-floating or inchoate. It reflects a belief in American decline that other candidates don't accept. To hear the rest of the Republican field, you'd think that the mere removal of Barack Obama would right the country. But the Sanders and Trump voters know there's something deeper and more systemic going on, and they hew to the darker visions of their favored candidates or even their kookier ones. At his acceptance speech, Trump said he had heard the unemployment rate is 42 percent and that the 4.9 percent official figure is bogus.

Hillary Clinton, with her hugging of the president and calling for a simple expansion of Obama policies on health care and tuition assistance, has completely missed the moment. A significant portion, if not the majority, of the Democratic Party believes that expanding Obama's policies are wholly inadequate to the challenges at hand. They need to be overhauled. Clinton, who came of political age in the Reagan-era South, became an expert, like her husband, at cautiously pushing liberal policies while trying to avoid a cultural backlash. That worked well in a Democratic Party that was dominated by whites without a college education who favored FDR-style liberalism and were animated by fears of crime and wanting America to seem strong in the world.  The Democratic Party today is more animated by gender equity, trans rights, abortion access, income inequality and restraining police.

Clinton may well find a way out of this mess. In her concession speech, she sounded a more progressive note than usual, and she dropped the now-failed electability argument. She might be able to sow more doubts about Sanders's fitness for office and the soundness of his ideas. But the Sanders win in New Hampshire, while expected, was so sweeping that the Clinton campaign will have to find a new message. Whether it's hitting Sanders as a tax hiker or something else, you'll hear something new soon.

The Republican Party is equally disrupted. For decades, the GOP has been in a state of equipoise: Overwhelmingly anti-abortion, unanimously pro-tax cuts and eager to use the American military overseas. Trump has crushed this consensus. He wants to raise taxes on hedge funds. He calls the Iraq War a "disaster" and had no patience for the Libya invasion. He defends entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. He might be anti-abortion, as he says, but no one thinks that's a very high priority for the mogul. And he has cast aside the niceties of the immigration debate for a full-throated assault on Mexican and Muslim immigrants. Immigration is the secret ingredient to Trump's coalition the way inequality is for Sanders.

New Hampshire should be taken with caveats. It was the springboard for the presidential candidacies of  John McCain, Paul Tsongas and Gary Hart. There's no shortage of candidates who have won there only to fade in the longer race. That could happen again. But none of those reformist candidates, like McCain, had an ideology that was so revolutionary, so at odds with the party establishment. They offered a critique, not a sledgehammer.

Trump and Sanders have taken aim at the idea that America is top dog. They've said the world is rigged, unfair and a mess, and the elites have made it that way. That message isn't likely to disappear.