The only way America could produce a true populist, a home-grown demagogue that could rise to the top of national politics, would be through the media.
Is Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump a greater long term threat to the principles of classical liberalism? Trump’s program is antithetical to classical liberalism. He wants to follow protectionist trade policies. He has disclaimed any interest in reforming the burgeoning entitlements that are the principal engines for growing the state. He seems to quite content to praise authoritarian leaders abroad, like Vladimir Putin. He wants to make it easier for public figures to sue private citizens for their criticism. And he is so vulgar and gratuitously offensive that he undermines the culture of self-restraint necessary to the classical liberal order.
Of course, Sanders is worse on many of these axes. He not only wants to preserve all entitlements but add to social security and to create an entirely new entitlement to higher education. He also is a protectionist. He would destroy the private provision of health care. And he would raise tax rates sky high. As for authoritarianism, he seems to have trouble condemning any regime, such as Cuba, so long as he can entertain the false belief that the regime has been good for the social welfare of its citizens. His program is ominous for civil liberties as well. As the state grows larger, it inevitably hijacks citizens into its programs at the expense of their core beliefs. Just ask the Little Sisters of the Poor. While I do not have much confidence that Trump would nominate excellent jurists, Sanders’ would be far worse.
Thus, for all the justified condemnation of Trump’s illiberalism, Sanders’ program poses more dangers to liberty. On the other hand, Sanders is running to be the nominee of the more statist party. Trump is running to be the nominee of the party of limited government. Certainly if he wins the Presidency and perhaps even if he does not, he will remake the party in his own image. Thus, his candidacy could also have a disastrous dynamic on the future of the nation, making us more like continental Europe, where the parties of the right entertain few ideals of classical liberalism.
Another way to compare the two candidates, however, is to ask which candidate’s success this electoral season signals a worse future for liberty in the United States. And here the answer is clearer: Sanders. Trump’s campaign is supply-driven. Trump is a sui generis candidate—a celebrity with a great talent for manipulating free media. It is not obvious that he can be easily replicated in the future.
In contrast, Sanders’s campaign is demand-driven. He himself is not charismatic, but his hard-Left policies have nevertheless struck a responsive chord. And his most enthusiastic supporters are very young, whereas Trump’s are older. Democratic candidates are surely now planning to use Sanders’ platform for their own future presidential runs.
But whether as candidates or harbingers of our future, Trump and Sanders bode ill for the future of classical liberalism in the United States.