Americans Divided: Why Some Bernie Sanders Supporters Would Turn to Trump

“If Bernie Sanders doesn’t get the nomination, I’m voting for Donald Trump. That’s all there is to it.”

I’d struck up a conversation with a woman in downtown Washington, DC. Given the political nature of the city and the constant presidential primary election coverage in the news, the topic of conversation wasn’t so unusual. Yet I was stunned by her words. As presidential candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and businessman Donald Trump seem like polar opposites. How could anyone who supported Bernie Sanders even consider voting for Donald Trump?

When I asked this woman to explain her position, she firmly declared that while she favored the Democratic senator’s political positions over those of the Republican mogul’s, ultimately, she distrusted the power brokers in both major parties. More than anything, she wanted a candidate who was running a campaign not funded by corporate donors. In the general election she’d prefer to cast her ballot for Sanders. But if Sanders wasn’t an option and Trump was, she would use her vote to support an anti-establishment candidate who wasn’t beholden to either party, both of which she saw as equally enmeshed in the pockets of Wall Street corporate billionaires and their lobbyists, not to ordinary, working Americans.

I had that discussion in February, and since then I’ve met a surprising number of people who share her opinions. Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist blog even shared sentiments from humanists and atheists who feel similarly. A significant portion of Americans seem to feel that something is fundamentally flawed in both parties, and so they’re looking for someone, anyone, with outsider status who will make a radical break from politics as usual.

Cynics often claim that there is little difference between Democrats and Republicans in the two-party political system of the United States. On some issues, such as church/state separation, this assertion appears inaccurate. Humanists know all too well that when legislation crops up to erect religious monuments on public land or institute the Bible as the state book, the GOP is almost always behind such efforts to erode Jefferson’s wall in an effort to appeal to their evangelical Christian base. However, Democrats are far from perfect when matters of keeping God out of politics arise. has previously noted Hillary Clinton’s frequent appeals to people’s “God-given potential” during the primary debates, and Barack Obama has issued proclamations supporting the National Day of Prayer.

On economic issues that affect working-class and middle-class Americans, the differences between Republicans and Democrats are becoming even more miniscule. Though the media frequently reports on the current gridlock between Congress and the president, Obama and many Republicans were united in their support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal criticized by the Center for Economic and Policy Research as exacerbating our country’s income inequality. Republicans frequently call for cuts to welfare and other social benefit programs, but President Bill Clinton is responsible for some of the biggest slashes to welfare that disproportionately disadvantage people of color.

US corporations give generously to both parties, and the Nation reports that the 400 richest Americans have more wealth than the bottom 61 percent. Thirteen percent of men and 16 percent of women in the US live in poverty, and even more Americans are struggling to make ends meet, although their incomes exceed the poverty threshold. Since Occupy Wall Street’s rhetoric of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent has entered common parlance, many ordinary Americans have felt left out of the political process entirely because they don’t have the same influence over their leaders as do the wealthy.

Americans who feel disillusioned with our current political system blame both parties for failing to recognize their needs. The Sanders supporters who would vote for Trump under certain circumstances are fed up with politicians entrenched in their parties’ apparatuses. To them, Sanders, who was until recently an Independent, and Trump, who has switched his registration between both the Democratic and the Republican parties, represent new perspectives in the political process. For people currently suffering under the status quo, any change, no matter how strange it may appear, would be an improvement.

As a result of this disillusionment, both parties appear to be splitting. Some Democrats are supporting Clinton, who represents her party’s modest social reforms combined with support for free trade agreements, while others are backing Sanders, a progressive social democrat who favors a robust social safety net and tighter government oversight of banks and corporations. Some Republicans are vying for Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) or Ohio Governor John Kasich, who both have Tea Party support, while others are turning to Trump, whose authoritarian message is doing particularly well in states where low-income, white Americans are facing faster mortality rates. Trump’s base, much like that of Sanders, is made up of people who feel they’ve been abandoned by establishment Democrats and Republicans.

What these splits will mean for the long-term future of both parties remains to be seen. Some Sanders supporters seem to hope that they can make the Democratic Party more progressive, while others threaten to leave the party entirely if Sanders fails to secure the nomination. In the Republican camp, if Trump doesn’t win the nomination, he may choose to run as a third-party candidate, which could divide the GOP even further. The Republican Party may even be headed toward a deeper division between the vastly different economic interests of its donors and its working class, evangelical Christian base.

Wherever this election takes us from here, one can clearly see that many Americans are disillusioned with the status quo in ways that will affect our politics well beyond this election. Now more than ever, our nation needs to be guided by reason, empathy, and compassion, the values that form the bedrock of humanist philosophy. Whatever their political persuasions, it is imperative that humanists vote in their primaries (after all, one has to think the electorate can sway superdelegates if one wants to stay sane) and in the general election. Rationality is currently lacking in our political discourse, as is sympathy for those in need. Humanists, now more than ever, should become politically engaged so that as our country undergoes these deep divides, we can hopefully find our way to a more just and equitable society.