Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Populism in American Elections: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump
Populism in American Elections: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump

Populism in American Elections: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump

When a political movement becomes interwoven into an individual’s self-identity, said individual is unable to criticize that political movement without implicitly criticizing themselves. Conversely, to maintain the belief that individuals and the political movement that they are ingrained within are inherently good, any policy action that the political movement undertakes must also be inherently good, and all political actions by that movement become justifiable. This reality is the end goal of populist rhetoric. Populism divides the world into an “us vs. them” dichotomy and uses this divide to create an incredibly loyal political base. Populism has been present in the United States for over a century to some degree, but has reemerged as a focus in academia in response to the 2016 presidential election, in which Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders frequently used populist rhetoric.

The resurgence of populism in American politics coincides with the resurgence of populism across the globe, with populist politicians leading states such as the United Kingdom, India, Brazil, Poland, Hungary, and Thailand. The United States is no exception, and the populist rhetoric used by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders led to a flurry of debate within American media. Articles were written calling Sanders the “Left’s Donald Trump,” the “Donald Trump of the Left,”  and other such monikers. Some claimed that Bernie Sanders was following Trump’s path to the White House. Others flat out rejected the comparison, pointing to Sanders’ common use of populist themes long before the 2016 election cycle. With even more asking that if Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are both populist, despite being near opposites ideologically, what does populism mean?

The definition of populism that was used for this article was taken from Ernesto Lauclau’s 2005 book On Populist Reason. This definition distills populism into three core elements. These elements are Us-Group formation, Other-Group formation, and Popular Demand. An Us-Group is a victimized segment of the population that is argued to represent the entire population, better than the entire population does itself. Examples of this would be so-called “real Americans” for Donald Trump, or the working class for Bernie Sanders. An Other-Group is an antagonized group that is responsible for all of the political issues that a politician references within their Popular Demand rhetoric and is argued to threaten the existence of the Us-Group fundamentally. Examples of this would be the billionaire class for Bernie Sanders and the political elite for Donald Trump. Popular Demand is the string of policy issues that populist politicians reference to gain support from their political bases, such as class divide for Bernie Sanders or undocumented immigration for Donald Trump.

This article focuses on the recent resurgence of populism in American politics and hopes to address the confusion surrounding the term “populism” and its implications for future American politics. Primarily, it compares the use of populist rhetoric by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in their 2016 campaigns in response to various media claims that Bernie Sanders is “the Left’s Donald Trump.” To test this claim, speeches from the 2016 presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are analyzed for elements of populist rhetoric, and then compared to understand the differences and similarities between their two campaigns.

The Rhetoric of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump

In order to compare the populist rhetoric of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, ten randomly selected transcripts were taken from their 2016 campaign speeches and interviews. The 2016 campaign was selected instead of the 2020 campaign for three reasons. First, by studying the 2016 campaign, we are able to study the rhetoric of an entire campaign, from a candidate’s first announcement speech to their inauguration address/concession speech. Second, it was difficult to collect usable data from the 2020 campaigns. Donald Trump has had few speeches that are purely campaign speeches within the 2020 campaign cycle. Solely using the speeches from Donald Trump’s rallies were considered; however, doing so would vastly reduce the sample size of testable speeches for this campaign period. Third, neither candidate was a presidential incumbent in 2016. As incumbency has been shown to affect how a politician campaigns, by excluding the 2020 election cycle, this study removes the possible influence of this effect.

The ten randomly selected transcripts from Bernie Sander’s and Donald Trump’s campaigns were reviewed to determine instances of rhetoric for Us-Group formation, Other-Group formation, and Popular Demand. The policy issues that each politician used for each of these types of populist rhetoric were measured as well, to determine the differences in how each politician crafted their campaigns. Examples of populist rhetoric, as well as how they were coded, is seen below.

Example One: Coding Example for Bernie Sanders

Example Two: Coding Example for Donald Trump

Twenty-two general policy issues were measured within this transcript review. There were some issues, such as heroin addiction, that did not fall into these general policy categories. For each candidate, there were roughly 150 instances of populist rhetoric used in the transcripts analyzed. However, due to the varying lengths of each politician’s transcripts, a direct comparison between the instances of populist rhetoric was not conducted. Instead, the frequency of each type of populist rhetoric was recorded as percentages of total populist rhetoric used, in order to compare how each politician uses populist rhetoric.

Figure One: Types of Populist Rhetoric Used by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders

Figure One illustrates the percentage of the type of populist rhetoric that each candidate used throughout their reviewed transcripts. These pie charts show a difference between the two candidates. The populist rhetoric used by Bernie Sanders was primarily instances of Popular Demand. Sanders spent more time establishing the issues that his campaign wished to address, while Trump prioritized the antagonization of Other-Groups. Both candidates spent relatively little time establishing Us-Groups, which can be explained through the relationship between Us-Group and Other-Group formation. Although Other-Group formation and Us-Group formation are separated within this study, they are a part of the same process. One could argue that the act of delineating what a group is not helps to establish what a group is, which could help explain why both candidates have low ratios of Us-Group formation.

Figure Two: Donald Trump’s Issue References in Populist Rhetoric Note: Donald Trump had no instances of using: Gender, Social Security, Climate, College Affordability, or Voter Suppression issues in populist rhetoric within the speeches sampled.

Figure Three: Bernie Sanders Issue References in Populist Rhetoric Note: Bernie Sanders’ references to Religion, American Values, Social Security, Undocumented Immigrants, Gun Control, Voter Suppression, Foreign Powers, and Social Security were all equal or less than one percent of the populist rhetoric used and were excluded from this chart.

As for the policy issues used within each candidate’s rhetoric, Donald Trump had a much more varied method. Although referencing other issues throughout his transcripts, Bernie Sanders primarily focused on Class Divide. He created Us-Groups through calls to working-class Americans, referenced issues such as income inequality, and held the billionaire class responsible for most of the country’s issues.

Donald Trump’s approach was different. His most frequently referenced policy area was undocumented immigrants; however, the high level of rhetoric regarding undocumented immigrants that was recorded is a result of the coding criteria used for the undocumented immigrant policy area. Donald Trump frequently referenced both undocumented Mexican immigrants as an economic danger, and he referenced undocumented Islamic immigrants as a terrorist threat. Trump rarely focused on any particular policy area with his rhetoric. Instead, he focused on the antagonization of Other-Groups, with the only common factor being references to Hillary Clinton. In addition, as seen in Table Two, the rhetoric that he used for Us-Group formation and Popular Demand was equally varied.

Table One: Most Commonly Used Types of Rhetoric for Bernie Sanders

When looking at the most frequently used political issues used for the three elements of populist rhetoric, again, Bernie Sanders was focused primarily on the issue of Class Divide. Almost all of his populist rhetoric was economic in nature, whether it be through comments on the billionaire class or general calls to revitalize the American economy. Politically speaking, he also frequently made reference to the need for a “political revolution” and described his supporters as the people who were willing to lead it. He also referenced race issues, such as the Black Live Matters movement for the purposes of Us-Group formation and Other-Group formation. The Us-Group consisted of the supporters willing to fight for the Black Lives Matters movement, while the Other-Group were people (typically Republicans) whom Sanders stated would not fight for such movements.

Table Two: Most Commonly Used Types of Rhetoric for Donald Trump

The issues most commonly referenced by Donald Trump were Trade Policy issues. These comments were primarily vague remarks regarding how Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama mishandled NATO and how Trump would renegotiate it. His Us-Group formation was done mainly through references to general American values and religious references. These religious references were almost entirely related to “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” and described his supporters as the people who were willing to stand against this brand of terror.

Donald Trump’s rhetoric was more akin to that of a traditional populist. He established an Us-Group using vague concepts, such as American values, opposition to terrorism, and fear of undocumented immigration. He frequently referenced the absolute disaster that would befall the country if his political opponent was elected. Moreover, although his Other-Group formation touched upon several policy areas, such as foreign powers, undocumented immigration, and class divide, these areas all only served as different means to antagonize Hillary Clinton. He frequently cited her perceived failures as Secretary of State in international relations, framed her as a representation of Wall Street and the political elite, and described the unfettered immigration typhoon that would descend on the country if she was elected.

The comparisons that depict Bernie Sanders as the “Left’s Donald Trump” are misleading. Although both politicians use populist rhetoric to gain the support of their political base, their political goals, ideology, and even the type of populist rhetoric that they use are fundamentally different. Bernie Sander’s campaign revolved around the concrete and noted problem of income inequality in America, and his entire platform was based upon measurable economic trends and genuine political issues. Donald Trump’s campaign had no such clarity.


The differences between the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are extensive. Their ideologies and policies are as divergent as they come. Even their use of populist rhetoric, which is the one attribute that they allegedly have in common, has been shown to be completely different. Claiming that Bernie Sanders is the “Left’s Donald Trump” based solely on their shared use of populist rhetoric is misleading.

Nonetheless, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump represent the global trend of resurging populist politics. The cause of the resurgence of populism is still debated within political science, but for the purposes of contextualizing this research, Francis Fukuyama’s explanation will be used. Fukuyama views the resurgence of identity politics—with populism being a variation of identity politics—as a result of diminishing communal identity, i.e., the aspects which were once crucial to constructing an individual’s identity are decreasing in modern society. Specifically looking at the United States, the influence of religion in society is decreasing, urbanization and the heroin epidemic are leading to the erosion of small town America, and globalization is influencing every aspect of society at a rapid pace. The societal pillars that individuals once used to conceptualize their identities have withered, leaving a population that is far more susceptible to alternative forms of identity formation, such as populism and identity politics.

But what does this mean for American politics? The most crucial observation is that until a greater American identity is revitalized, Americans will remain susceptible to populist movements. To apply this to current American politics, let’s consider the 2020 election. The impacts of populism are actively tipping the scale against Joe Biden. It was only during the depths of the COVID-19 crisis that Donald Trump’s political base, which has loyally supported him through numerous political scandals, are beginning to stop supporting him. The last four years have done nothing but prove that Donald Trump’s political base is astoundingly resilient, and even now, it will be difficult for Biden to overcome this ingrained political support. This difficulty is compounded by the populist legacy of Sanders, wherein Sanders has established a political base that is more loyal to him than the Democratic Party, with many of his supporters unsure if they will support Biden in 2020.  

It is unclear how these hurdles will affect Biden’s 2020 campaign. However, until a new, greater American identity is created, individuals will continue to be susceptible to populist movements, as the traditional foundations of American indentity continue to erode.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.