So much of political analysis in the mainstream sense is comparison and analogy. This candidate is like these previous candidates, and this candidate for whom no memorable matching candidate who anyone remembers can be found is like this character from a movie. If all else fails, it's like baseball. To say that it's not always the most useful method of analysis is an understatement.
When trying to think of a historical antecedent for the Trump campaign – not that I would not relish the opportunity to never have to think or talk about it again – my first thought was to go overseas where far-right nationalist parties are well-established in most multiparty systems. They are a catch basin for xenophobes, racists, reactionaries, and all manner of dolts broadly defined. In the modern world the closest thing to Trump is a guy like J-M Le Pen in France: blatantly discriminatory, unapologetic, and obsessed with Strength and juvenile dick-waving macho image projection. In the United States the only modern equivalent would be Sarah Palin. Even AM Talk Radio sycophants are more intellectually curious than Trump's people. They have arguments, albeit stupid ones often based on incorrect versions of reality and motivated thinking. A Trump crowd is just a bunch of primates pounding their chests and flinging shit at the slightly different chimps from across the river.
The other one I've thought about a lot is Bernie Sanders. People like Hillary Clinton – mainstream middle-of-road types who are weathervanes to indicate the direction of public opinion and campaign donations – are a dime per dozen. Sanders, due to his age and overall lack of looking the part, is not something we see every election cycle. I still think Elizabeth Warren must be kicking herself, as she declined to run believing that an opportunity would not present itself with Clinton around. She was incorrect. She'd have Sanders' base but with considerably more strength as a candidate on paper.
The most obvious comparison for Sanders would take us back to the Progressive Era in the U.S., someone on the order of Robert LaFollette. Eugene V. Debs doesn't work, as the mold of labor radicals from that era has been broken. We just don't make them like that anymore. Personally I think the best comparison for Sanders comes from overseas, and from the country whose domestic politics and population are most similar to the U.S. – Australia. Sanders strikes me as an American version of Gough Whitlam.
You'd be hard pressed to find a lot of Americans who can identify that name (pronounced "Goff") but Whitlam was a left-wing PM from the Nixon-Ford years who was unapologetic and full-speed about bringing Australia into the modern world. Prior to 1970, Australia was a backwater. It was the Mississippi of the former British Empire. The White Australia Policy was in effect until almost 1970 and the country was in danger of sliding into the class of global pariahs like Apartheid South Africa. Whitlam was elected in 1972 and was out on his ass (after the fabulously interesting 1975 Constitutional Crisis, which is a story for another day) in less than four years. He was widely reviled after leaving office but in time the country has come to understand how much he did to make it the place it is today. He ended all racially discriminatory policies and made the first steps toward ending the Men's Club nature of Australian politics. He granted aboriginal land tenure. He abolished capital punishment. He championed the Aussie version of the TVA, bringing services to remote areas. He legalized birth control and no-fault divorce. He introduced equal pay legislation for women. He granted independence to colonial vestiges like Papua New Guinea. He established free medical care and college tuition (the latter since rolled back). He ended unconditionally Australian involvement in Vietnam. He quadrupled arts funding. He recognized China under Mao before anyone else.
It wasn't all sunshine and roses. Even his admirers, myself included, recognize that there were some blind spots in his ability to understand economic policy and that he foolishly tried to placate voters by cutting taxes while spending grandly on social and economic programs. But his attitude as their elected leader was, "I will do what is right and you will appreciate it later. Not now, but later." At the advanced age of 75, I think Sanders would be a similar president. Honestly, what can someone at that age care about what the public thinks in the short term? If elected Sanders would be loathed with an intensity that would make Obama look like America's most beloved citizen by comparison. But everything about his ideology has that, "You will thank me later" feeling to it. He has a long view, which is why he seems so different. Everyone else in politics has adapted the business world philosophy of doing what will yield the most dazzling results from quarter to quarter, or at least attempting to do so.
Whitlam paid a heavy political price for his approach. A huge mountain of a man, his philosophy was to charge like a bull and make as much forward progress as possible before inevitably being dragged down. He failed to revive the Australian economy, but every Western economy was in total shambles during the era of the Oil Embargo and the hangover from Vietnam. Short term thinkers complain "Gas is too expensive!" and blame the people in power. People who can take a longer view appreciate changes that will pay dividends over several decades, not in next week's paycheck.
That's what I think is appealing about Sanders, and my affinity for Whitlam might lead me to project a little. Bernie certainly isn't the imposing, commanding figure that Whitlam was in his prime. However, he seems difficult to rattle and entirely focused on the future: 10, 20, 50 years from now. Everyone else sounds petty, small, narrowly focused, and shortsighted in comparison. That's the sign of someone who belongs in a leadership position. I've given up hope that anyone is going to get elected and turn this country around in time for me to reap any of the benefits. Leading a country isn't about that, though. Yes, everyone wants the trains to run tomorrow but that simply is the day-to-day business of making government function. It's not a goal, an agenda, or a plan. Age is often cited as a key argument against Sanders, but frankly I see some very real benefits to being 75 and entering the White House. There's something to be said for being too old to give a shit what Mitch McConnell wants or what Fox & Friends say anymore, after all.