What Trump and Warren’s Similarities Say About America’s Two-Party System

July 30, 2016, 2:00 PM UTC
Photos by Mark Wilson & Brendan Smialowski — Getty Images

Donald Brand is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

Am I the only one who thought there was a remarkable resemblance between the indignant, morally self-righteous tone of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) speech at the Democratic Convention and Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican Convention? Moral self-righteousness is a response to perceived injustice, and both of these politicians see a world filled with injustice that must be addressed. Both see a political system that has failed to protect the average citizen because the system is rigged. According to Trump, “I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens,” and according to Warren, “People get it: The system is rigged.” Even more remarkably, both are critics of economic globalization and the trade deals that have made this globalization possible.

Trump narcissistically goes on to claim, “I alone can fix it,” but he has already secured the nomination of a major party. Warren is still concealing her own political ambitions behind her support for Hillary Clinton, but her description of the Clinton she was supporting sounded a lot more like a description of Warren.

According to Warren, “Hillary will fight to hold big banks accountable,” but this endorsement followed a policy prescription associated with Warren (“when big banks get too risky, break ‘em up”), not with Clinton. Similarly, her claim that “Hillary will fight for American workers” is preceded by a policy recommendation that “the United States should never, never sign trade deals that help giant corporations and leave workers in the dirt.” Given Warren’s criticisms of both the North American Free Trade Agreement and the still-to-be-ratified Trans-Pacific Partnership, both of which have been strongly supported by Clinton in the past, one has to wonder whether Warren is actually endorsing Clinton or trying to force Clinton to start acting more like Warren.

Trump and Warren both share a fundamental political characteristic: Their rhetoric divides us rather than unites us. Both of them identify as an “outsider” who bears fundamental responsibility for our dismal plight—a scapegoat—and both propose simplistic remedies to restore the American promise.

In Trump’s case, the outsiders are foreigners, particularly those who come here illegally: Mexican rapists and murderers who are undermining law and order and depriving us of our sense of security, and Muslims who want to come here but will not share our values and will be sympathetic to ISIS. In his eyes, undocumented immigrants have taken our jobs, driven up the costs of the welfare state, and destroyed the American dream. Once we have identified the group responsible for our problems, the solution is clear: Build a wall.


In Warren’s case, the demonized group is the wealthy. As is the case with Trump, Warren wastes no time drawing distinctions among those in the top 1%: hedge fund managers, corporate CEOs, and those who inherited their wealth vs. those who acquired it through entrepreneurial innovation. These distinctions don’t matter for Warren because she needs a group to scapegoat. The greed of the 1% was responsible for the financial collapse in 2008. She never mentions that the 1% lost wealth disproportionately during the Great Recession, nor does she consider factors like the imbalanced development of the Chinese economy that created huge dollar surpluses that could be used to fuel a real estate bubble in the United States. A more complicated explanation of the financial crisis wouldn’t lend itself to the politics of moral outrage that are her trademark. For Trump’s war against undocumented immigration, she would substitute class war here in the United States. For Trump’s simplistic build-a-wall remedy, she would substitute her simplistic plan to break up the big banks combined with punitive taxes on the wealthy.

If our major parties are increasingly susceptible to hostile takeovers of the disaffected who have been politicized and mobilized by demagogues of the left and the right, perhaps it is time to reconsider the functioning of our two-party system. Defenders of the two-party system have always argued that it produces moderate big-tent parties favoring centrist politics. If this can no longer be taken for granted, then the cause of political moderation might best be served by the creation of a third party to provide a new home for the increasingly marginalized moderates in both the Democratic and Republican parties.

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