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Trump’s State of the Union suggests he’s worried about Bernie Sanders

Responses to the State of the Union showed the Democratic Party is divided. Trump is targeting the left wing.

A woman in a headscarf shouting during a Bernie Sanders rally.
Sen. Bernie Sanders supporters at a New Hampshire rally.
Preston Ehrler/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media/Getty Images

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders gave speeches on Tuesday night responding to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, with Whitmer providing a moderate’s vision for the Democratic Party and Sanders making the case for reviving America through left-wing policies.

While Whitmer was the one giving the official Democratic Party response to Trump’s remarks, it was actually Sanders’s speech that seemed to be most directly in conversation with the president’s address. This was something Trump seemed to anticipate, with his remarks full of strident warnings of a socialist takeover of America.

Those warnings — and the ways in which the speeches seemed to clash — served as a potential preview of a 2020 general campaign season in which left-wing populism emerges as the chief challenge to Trump’s right-wing populism.

It is far from clear who the Democratic presidential nominee will be. But the fact that the addresses came just one night after the Iowa caucuses kicked off, with indications that Sanders — and the progressive politics he represents — could be a dominant force in the Democratic primary, certainly brings that potential dynamic into focus.

And this makes Whitmer’s and Sanders’s speeches neat encapsulations of the choices Democratic voters face in the primary.

Whitmer, who won the governor’s mansion in 2018, delivered her remarks with an affable Midwestern folksiness. She focused on explaining how the Democrats have a party brimming with practical policy solutions to problems like health care premiums and decaying infrastructure that can be implemented incrementally.

She also called for unity across the two parties — and for Republicans to set aside partisanship for Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate.

Sanders, by contrast, had nothing conciliatory to offer.

Instead, he spoke with fiery passion about class war between the 1 percent and everybody else. He demanded Medicare-for-all, complete cancellation of student debt, and widespread mobilization in the face of accelerating climate change. He did not appeal to Republicans’ better angels or for bipartisan consensus, and he repeatedly called Trump a liar.

In a pivotal election year like this one, Whitmer’s and Sanders’s speeches didn’t just illustrate divergent visions within the Democratic Party about what America should look like. They also served as distinct roadmaps for how the party establishment and the insurgent left wing of the party are inclined to oust Trump from office.

And voters will soon have to decide which of these visions they want their party to embrace: the “political revolution” Sanders promised, or the progressive but more incremental vision Whitmer outlined that is embraced by candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden or former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Trump’s State of the Union speech, which focused most emphatically on the outward strength of the economy, seemed to indicate that he believes the Sanders approach could very well win out, even if the candidate himself does not.

That’s in part because the positions that Sanders advocates for have spread beyond him in mainstream politics, something illustrated by Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s response to Trump’s State of the Union on Tuesday night, which she delivered on behalf of the progressive Working Families Party. In that speech, the first-term Congress member spoke forcefully about how Trump has enacted “short-sighted policies that work for the wealthy and powerful few but leave the worker and the immigrant behind.”

Strikingly, Trump made sure to bash socialism several times in his speech. He linked it to Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, and he warned that the sort of government-backed health care Sanders advocates for would be catastrophic and only a boon for unauthorized immigrants. He also went out of his way to mention his update to NAFTA as supported by organized labor — a section of the electorate Sanders has courted — and described his own policies as “pro-worker.” And he didn’t mention impeachment.

None of this means that Sanders will win the nomination, or even that Trump thinks he’s harder to beat than a moderate. But it does suggest that the right feels a serious need to fight the ideas that Sanders has made a matter of sustained public debate.

Whitmer’s and Sanders’s speeches showcased two Democratic futures

Whitmer’s speech and Sanders’s were a study in contrasts.

Whitmer delivered her remarks calmly before a quiet audience in the heart of Michigan, a Rust Belt state that Trump narrowly won in 2016 and that was crucial to Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton. Whitmer championed her gubernatorial campaign slogan in Michigan — “fix the damn roads” — and used infrastructure investment as a guiding metaphor for practicality and the possibility of bipartisan unity. “All across the country, Democratic leaders are rebuilding bridges,” she said.

In addition to discussing Democrats’ infrastructure efforts across the nation, Whitmer focused heavily on health care. She spoke about her experience as a state senator working with Republican lawmakers to expand health care in Michigan under the Affordable Care Act. But she warned against the GOP’s efforts to dismantle the policy and its protections for people with preexisting conditions. “It’s pretty simple. Democrats are trying to make your health care better; Republicans in Washington are trying to take it away,” she said.

In short, Whitmer’s earnest celebration of establishment Democrats’ can-do spirit and focus on practical fixes was a summary of a possible Democratic pitch to the average moderate swing voter in a battleground state.

Sanders’s remarks were also — quite literally — a pitch to voters. But his angle couldn’t have been more different.

Sanders delivered his speech from Manchester, New Hampshire, before a crowd of rowdy supporters. New Hampshire holds its Democratic primary next Tuesday, and given that it’s the first nominating contest that Sanders won in the New Hampshire 2016 primary against Clinton, the state represents a particularly strong base for him.

The Vermont senator’s speech kicked off with a cocky crowd-pleaser: “I just listened to Donald Trump’s third, and what I believe to be his very last, State of the Union address.” Sanders then delved into how the economy is “booming” for “Trump and his billionaire friends,” but not for “anybody else.”

While Whitmer focused on how the economy could be improved for working Americans through policies like minimum wage increases, Sanders painted a bleaker picture of plutocracy. “The wealthiest people in our country have never ever had it so good, and we are now experiencing more income and wealth inequality than any time in the last 100 years,” he said.

And while Whitmer’s speech focused on bread-and-butter issues like improving roads and ensuring clean water, Sanders focused on sweeping, transformative policies like canceling student debt and implementing Medicare-for-all. Whitmer presented solutions as commonsense and technical, while Sanders articulated the conviction that “the American people want a government that is based on the principles of justice and compassion.”

Unlike Whitmer, Sanders bluntly discussed Trump’s trade policies and criticized them for doing nothing to prevent corporations from sending jobs overseas. He promised to make efforts to end this practice.

In his tone, Sanders alternated between rage at the status quo and snarky skepticism of proposed solutions. When discussing Trump’s State of the Union pledge to protect health coverage of Americans with preexisting conditions, Sanders bellowed, “Really? How gullible do you think the American people are?”

As Sanders repeatedly declared Trump a liar, it became clear that he felt the prospect of good-faith negotiation with the GOP was low. Instead, he pushed for the idea of leading a racially diverse mobilization to wrest control of the government from the hands of corporate interests.

Like so many of his speeches, Sanders’s address was aimed at progressives and those disenchanted with how the system works. It’s important to note that latter camp, some analysts believe, could include some Trump supporters in battleground states.

Trump’s speech suggests that he takes Sanders seriously

Trump’s State of the Union address covered a lot of ground. He boasted about low unemployment, he awarded right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and he shared grisly stories of crimes allegedly committed by unauthorized immigrants.

What was interesting about Trump’s references to his opponents was that he didn’t mention impeachment or the debacle in the Iowa caucus, nor did he take notable strikes at the Democratic Party establishment. Instead, a lot of his criticisms about his political challengers focused on the idea of the rise of an extremist left.

For example, Trump invited Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó in a gesture of solidarity with him against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro — and as a stand against socialism in the Americas. “The United States is leading a 59-nation diplomatic coalition against the socialist dictator of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro,” Trump said.

That point is somewhat undercut by the fact that Guaidó would probably be considered a socialist by US standards, but Trump didn’t let that stop him, going on to say, “Socialism destroys nations. But always remember: Freedom unifies the soul.”

Trump also warned against Medicare-for-all as a socialist nightmare that would take away health care from Americans.

“One hundred thirty-two lawmakers in this room have endorsed legislation to impose a socialist takeover of our health care system, wiping out the private health insurance plans of 180 million Americans,” Trump said. “To those watching at home tonight, I want you to know: We will never let socialism destroy American health care!”

Trump also tied Medicare-for-all and socialism to immigration anxieties among his base. He said Medicare-for-all would subsidize free health care for unauthorized immigrants and act as a lure for more of them to enter the country.

“If forcing American taxpayers to provide unlimited free health care to illegal aliens sounds fair to you, then stand with the radical left,” Trump declared. “But if you believe that we should defend American patients and American seniors, then stand with me and pass legislation to prohibit free government health care for illegal aliens.”

In addition to constantly trying to revive the stigma around the s-word (socialism), Trump presented himself as friendly to organized labor. Labor is a key part of the Democratic base and an essential constituency for Sanders’s bid for the Democratic nomination. He described his updated version of NAFTA as “the first trade deal in many years that earned the support of labor unions.”

All this would seem preparation to face a Democratic rival who looks more like Bernie Sanders and less like Joe Biden.

Sanders versus Trump?

This doesn’t mean Trump thinks Sanders is a more formidable opponent than, say, Biden in a general election. And it could be argued that he’s experimenting with the strategy of painting the entire Democratic Party as the party of Sanders precisely because he thinks that policies like Medicare-for-all are good flashpoints.

Overall, it makes sense as a strategy to use against a party that is becoming increasingly liberal even without Sanders in it. Pressley’s speech, for example, called for ordinary citizens to organize en masse to help bring to fruition a democratic socialist wish list of policies, including a Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all.

But it is worth noting the symmetry between Sanders’s and Trump’s speeches, and the possibility that Trump takes the socialist threat as dangerous per se. While Whitmer focused on practical solutions, Sanders and Trump both spoke in sweeping, ideological language. While Whitmer longed for bipartisan unity and viewed it as a possibility, Sanders and Trump both have antagonistic, us-versus-them worldviews. While Whitmer seemed sanguine about fixing America, both Sanders and Trump see the world today as harsh and unfair and in need of transformative change.

Should Sanders fail to take off in the primaries, perhaps this will all fade. But if his surge continues, this could be a sign of what’s to come: a clash of populisms, from the left and from the right.