Trump, Sanders, and the Campaign for Magical Thinking

An extraordinary thing is happening in U.S. politics today. Two candidates with very serious chances in their major-party primaries are both running campaigns based on magical thinking. That is, their competing visions of how they would transform America are facially outside the realm of possibility, and the fervent belief by both themselves and their throngs of supporters that all one has to do is elect them and everything will be different is illustrative of a magical belief, an article of faith, rather than a normal rational process.

Donald Trump, the bombastic self-promoting businessman and reality TV star turned authoritarian demagogue, is leading his party’s national polls, and not just by a little. As of this writing the Real Clear Politics poll average has Trump up by 17 points over his nearest rival. Trump has made an incredible number of promises about what electing him will bring his voters. He promised not only to build a giant wall on America’s border with Mexico, but to force Mexico to pay for it, as well as to quickly deport all of the 11 million or so undocumented migrant workers, refugees, and immigrants living in the U.S. He has said he would rebuild America’s infrastructure, and do so in a manner that would cost a tiny percentage of what we currently pay for construction. Trump would ban Muslims from entering the United States, and would kick out any Syrians who were already here. He would increase spending on and the size of the U.S. military. His statements about jobs and employment can be taken to mean that he would not only reduce the unemployment rate to zero, but get a large number of people who are not currently considered to be in the workforce working. He would impose a host of new taxes on imports and bully companies into returning headquarters and manufacturing to the U.S. Trump says he would also drastically reduce individual as well as corporate income tax, reduce the national debt, and cut the federal budget by an incredible 20 percent. He would protect the nation’s entitlement programs while preserving current benefit levels and dismantle Obamacare, but replace it with something else.

Effectively, to believe in candidate Trump is to believe he will create massive amounts of U.S. revenue and jobs while severely limiting trade, slashing taxes, and decreasing the U.S. workforce through deportations and border measures. Oh, and it is to believe that he will greatly increase spending while drastically cutting spending. This is obviously magical on the part of the candidate, and his supporters are either engaging in their own massive instances of magical thinking or are so unsavvy that they are simply picking and choosing what they hear, remember, and believe.

Trumps’ prescriptions are so convoluted and contradictory that discussing how they could never be enacted is barely even a worthwhile exercise. Many of them are prima facie unconstitutional, not even in the purview of the executive, or just simply laughable. Increase spending and cut spending, really? In the unlikely event that his program was even attempted, well, that is why we have courts, and absent a sea of brown shirted volunteer enforcers transforming American society in that particular way, I can’t imagine anything he says ever coming to pass.

Bernie Sanders, the long time elected official, mayor, congressman, and senator who has been nothing if not consistent on his view of economics, is not leading national polls but does stand a realistic chance in the primaries. Compared to Trump, Sanders’ seems to be almost sedate in his promises and policy prescriptions. Sanders has pledged to scrap the ACA and replace it with a single payer system. He has promised free tuition at public colleges and universities as well as a national system of paid family leave. Sanders has also talked about providing universal child care and pre-kindergarten programs, at least to low income Americans. In order to pay for these massive new federal programs, he has proposed steep hikes in individual income taxes, corporate income taxes, payroll taxes, and instituting a carbon tax, along with the usual polispeak about closing loopholes, etc. Not the main issue here but worth mentioning is that the volume of new programs he proposes appears to swamp any discussed revenue increases, which already would dramatically revamp household and government budgets. Further, the proposal creation seems to be ongoing, so I am not convinced that this particular issue is not going to worsen over the course of the campaign.

Where the magic really happens though, so to speak, with the Sanders campaign is not in the proposals themselves or even in how they would be paid for. Rather, it is in the idea that any of them, much less all or most of them, would happen at all. Almost any of these proposals would reshape modern America, and most of them would necessitate a return to tax levels that have not been seen in nearly fifty years. It has been written many times in several publications that Sanders’ legislative agenda is “dead on arrival” because at least one house of Congress will remain in Republican hands after January 2017. This is a valid point. I, however, believe that it is also completely irrelevant, because even if both chambers were under Democratic control, the Sanders agenda would not have a hope of being enacted.

The starkest way to see this is to look at what has been set up as (at least in that it consumes the vast bulk of his spending proposal) Sanders’ central policy priority — scrapping the ACA and replacing it with a single payer health care system. For starters, I think people forget that 13 percent of House Democrats actually voted against the ACA. I suspect that proportion would be higher today given: that In the ensuing years so much rancor and money has been spent against it by conservatives; that so many Democrats failed to defend it or campaign on it in subsequent elections; and that such high profile members as Chuck Schumer have said it was a mistake to do then (which, based on any cursory look at subsequent electoral history, probably means have been done at all). On the flip side, I doubt many of those those Democrats that had a hand or a heart in creating the ACA in the first place and who continue to support it would want to reopen that debate and scrap it, regardless of what the potential replacement was.

Many of his other proposals would individually be the signature legislative pieces (and congressional battles) of other administrations. But looming larger than any of those would be the fight over funding those policies, i.e. the tax increases the Sanders campaign has proposed. We are simply not going to see a majority of Democrats voting for not just a tax increase, but a transformational change that would increase federal revenue by around 25 percent. If America had 100 Democratic senators, I don’t think those types of increases could pass the Senate. This is certainly light years from doable in Congress as it is. To tell people otherwise belies magical thinking on the part of the candidate and campaign, and not just the electorate.

When Sanders is asked how he would overcome the impossibility of his agenda, he talks about a political revolution, wherein the wholesale composition of Congress will change and the previous ages of American political and social history will suddenly no longer apply. Aside from the fantastical nature of it, this line of thought is condescending and insulting to countless actual Democratic activists and electeds who have been engaged and organizing for generations. There are some great characterizations of this thinking. Ta-Nehisi Coates portrays the response as, “something something socialism, and then a miracle occurs.” Although this specifically regards race issues, it is appropo of the campaign’s outlook as a whole. Jonathan Chait believes Sanders may simply not understand politics. And Ezra Klein notes, “Sanders has offered a puppies-and-rainbows approach,” specifically directed at the health care plan, but again very extrapolatable.

The Trump and Sanders visions for America are extremely divergent, but they are connected by this thread of magic. It weaves through all facets of these races: through the candidates, their campaigns, and their supporters. I don’t think it is of the puppies and rainbows variety, though, mainly because both of those are actual things in our reality. I think the thinking in this year’s elections is more akin to unicorns, a fantastical beast that has never before existed, in the “vote for me and every home will have a unicorn” sense. I am deeply dismayed by it, not only because cumulatively the numbers indicate that a majority of Americans share the fallacy, but because its belief minimizes the actual difficult work that politics and governance requires, and spreading that idea will probably leave the public ultimately more angry at and less engaged in government than they are today, which is saying a lot. I hope that the electorate, sooner rather than later, will realize and accept that there are no unicorns.

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