- Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are voicing visceral feelings of economic disenfranchisement and alienation among pessimistic voters who feel they've been ignored for years
- It is turning out to be a potent electoral brew -- which has lifted insurgent candidates like Trump and Sanders throughout the 2016 cycle and challenged foes like Hillary Clinton and establishment Republicans
(CNN)Finally, somebody is listening.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders might be poles apart in their politics and temperament, but they are voicing visceral feelings of economic disenfranchisement and alienation among pessimistic voters who feel they've been ignored for years.
The billionaire and the democratic socialist are in different ways speaking for vast populations of Americans who feel threatened by globalization, who question the benefits of "free trade" that political leaders have peddled for decades and who believe distant elites control the economy in ways detrimental to their lives and prospects.
It is turning out to be a potent electoral brew -- which has lifted insurgent candidates like Trump and Sanders throughout the 2016 cycle and challenged foes like Hillary Clinton and establishment Republicans who have found it tougher to reconcile the grass-roots anger.
The cocktail of economic anxiety was clearly evident in the backstory of Trump's triumphs in Michigan and Mississippi and Sanders' surprise win in the Democratic primary in Michigan on Tuesday night.
"Michigan has been stripped. You look at those empty factories all over the place, and nobody hits that message better than me," Trump told CNN's Anderson Cooper on Wednesday.
The two men are not just playing on pre-occupations of those who see themselves as victims of the globalization and technological change that have scythed through the blue-collar economy. Seven years after the Great Recession erupted, wage growth is stagnant and under employment is rife. Structural economic issues that dogged the middle class even before 2008 have also been left to fester.
It doesn't matter that gas prices are at rock bottom, the unemployment rate is at its lowest point for eight years and Wall Street, despite a rocky several months, is up 40% over five years. College costs more, basic living standards are more expensive and good-paying jobs seem more precarious than ever. Many people are still asking: "When will the recovery reach me?"
When opponents point out that neither vision comes with a set of ready-made solutions or even coherent policies, they almost miss the point.
That's because Trump and Sanders are appealing to gut-level emotions that amplify political movements, not the wonky details of trade or economic policy.
"I think we are in a new era now and that new era is primarily about people's deep concern about the structure of our economy, their feeling that the playing field isn't level, that it is elite interests that are writing the rules," said Felicia Wong of the progressive Roosevelt Institute which has conducted polling showing that voters are more likely to express an interest in voting in 2016 after hearing a message on trade.
"These are concerns that Trump and Sanders are speaking to in very different ways, but they are appealing to the same core anxieties," she added.
Trump's message is explosive, identifying culprits in what he sees as the corrupt cabal of Washington politicians and supposedly sinister outsiders, like illegal immigrants, job-stealing Chinese firms or tough negotiators who run rings around effete U.S. officials in places like Vietnam and Japan. To his backers, he is the fiercest shark in a global pool who, if nothing else, will have the rest of the world again fearing America's bite.
Despite claims by his rivals that his businesses have profited from outsourcing, the billionaire frequently complains that it's now impossible for him to purchase American-made televisions for his hotels, and he must buy in bulk instead from South Korea.
And he taken the politics of anxiety further than Sanders, moving out of an exclusively economic realm to tap into a deeper sense of cultural disenfranchisement among many patriotic Americans.
It's a group of people who see rapid social change on issues like gay marriage bringing into question their traditional beliefs which they feel are scorned by political elites on the east and west coasts and are susceptible to dire warnings about America's declining power abroad.
In Michigan, 55% of Republicans said in exit polls that trade with other nations takes away U.S. jobs while 62% said that they were very worried about the U.S. economy. Trump was the top pick for voters in both those categories. In Mississippi, some 58% of people of those asked said trade takes away U.S. jobs and 54% of that group voted for Trump.
Sanders' narrative on trade
The story was similar on the Democratic side, where 57% of Democratic voters in Michigan said trade takes away U.S. jobs. Among people who thought so, Sanders was the most popular candidate.
"I think the key to him winning in Michigan was his clear message on the trade policies," Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver told CNN's "New Day" on Wednesday. "Michigan is a state that has been devastated by bad trade deals. He has opposed every one and Secretary Clinton has supported almost every one. People in Michigan know what the real impact of that is."
The Clinton campaign accused the Sanders camp of distorting her positions, including on the North American Free Trade Agreement ratified during President Bill Clinton's administration and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which she backed in concept as secretary of state but now criticizes.
"She has said that we need to renegotiate NAFTA, she opposed CAFTA, opposed the TPP deal," Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. "She has a record, where she considers those trade deals individually and has a strict approach and when they don't help lift wages for American workers she opposes them."
But Sanders has established a narrative difficult to counter. His approach to Americans' anxieties is to offer a "political revolution," one that would rewrite the rules of the American economy -- and the global one -- according to a much more progressive blueprint.
His denunciations of Wall Street "oligarchs" and complaints of a "rigged" economy and a "corrupt" campaign finance system play into the feelings of his supporters that they are powerless to address the worsening conditions of their lives.
He hammers NAFTA and pacts with China, that have boosted global trade flows, fed America's addiction for cheap goods from abroad, but also left a trail of victims in industrial states where the manufacturing base just could not compete with the low-wage rising economies of Asia and elsewhere.
And Clinton has also yet to come up with an effective riposte to assaults by Sanders on her paid speeches to Wall Street firms after she stepped down as secretary of state.
The Sanders win in Michigan has some of his supporters sensing that a campaign that seems inexorably trending away from him may at least thrive through the journey through primaries in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Illinois and Wisconsin that often turn on blue-collar issues.
And even if he cannot catch Clinton, Sanders can take credit for dragging her to her left on economic questions, as she now speaks in her stump speech about the need to make hollowed out American communities "whole" again.
And Trump's seizure of the economic zeitgeist points to an eventual general election strategy. His prospects of capturing the White House, given his low standing among minority voters, would depend on driving a massive turnout among white, lower-middle-class voters to expand Republican hopes in states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and even Illinois. That is just the audience that is most likely to be wooed by his tough-talking economic nationalism.