The term “anti-establishment” has lost all meaning in this year’s US presidential race

Not so different after all.
Not so different after all.
Image: Quartz via Reuters/Jim Urquhart/
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

On January 25, Donald Trump, the millionaire-by-birth turned billionaire GOP frontrunner, released a video called “The Establishment.”

“The establishment, the media, the special interests, the donors—they’re all against me,” he proclaimed. “I’m self-funding my campaign. I don’t owe anybody anything. I only owe it to the American people to do a great job. They are really trying to stop me. Everybody knows it, everybody sees it!”

On February 4, Hillary Clinton, another career politician and player in a political dynasty, denied that she represented the establishment: “Honestly, Senator Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment,” she said. “And that it is really quite amusing to me.”

A few weeks later, after being trounced by Hillary Clinton in the primaries on April 28, career politician Bernie Sanders said he was challenging “the entire Democratic establishment and the most powerful political organization in this country… The establishment will always tell us that real change is impossible. It can’t happen! Don’t think big, think small, think incrementally. You really have no power!”

The 2016 election is unprecedented on a number of levels. The two candidates with the most delegates, Clinton and Trump, are the two least-favorably rated front-runners in American history. They are disliked not only by the traditional opposition, but by members of their own party. Left-wing websites like Salon are encouraging readers to vote for Trump against Clinton and right-wing Fox News is encouraging voters to back Clinton against Trump. The number of independents voters has soared since 2008, and now stands at a record 43%, constituting the largest group of voters.

With party loyalty flagging and reliable alliances hard to come by, the only consistency in the 2016 election has been a bipartisan loathing for “the establishment”—an entity each candidate desperately tries to distance themselves from. But in an election powered by voters weighing the lesser of two evils, does speaking out against the establishment–whatever that is—really mean anything anymore? And if not, why does the act of doing so continue to enjoy such widespread appeal?

Reflecting on the rise of anti-establishment rhetoric in the tumultuous 1960s and early 1970s—an era that saw a similarly rancorous presidential election in 1968 and a rise in independent voters—Howard Zinn, in his book A People’s History of the United States, cites political scientist Samuel Huntington:

“To the extent that the United States was governed by anyone during the decades after World War II, it was governed by the President acting with the support and cooperation of key individuals and groups in the executive office, the federal bureaucracy, Congress, and the more important businesses, banks, law firms, foundations, and media, which constitute the private sector’s ‘Establishment,'” wrote Huntington.

Zinn expounded on this definition to include “Republicans, Democrats, newspapers, television”—all of whom he believed ignored the will of the public in favor of private interests benefiting from war.

But by this logic, Clinton, Trump, and Sanders are all part of the establishment in one way or another. Clinton may be a woman in a man’s world but she’s also a multi-millionaire former first lady, senator, and secretary of state who has been a 25-year media fixture and an ally of powerful businesses and foundations. Sanders may talk of revolution but he’s been entrenched in the US political system for as long as Clinton, serving as a congressman for 16 years and a senator for 10.

Trump’s tirades against the establishment, meanwhile, are rooted in his total lack of political experience and ability to self-fund his campaign. Like Clinton, Trump has been a media and entertainment fixture for decades and understands that the two industries are no longer separate, deftly manipulating cable news into granting him more coverage than any other candidate. That being born wealthy—and increasing that wealth through a series of sometimes-shady business ventures—has become an acceptable definition for anti-establishment shows just how much the term has been drained of clear meaning.

Trump is American aristocracy posing as a serf; Sanders and Clinton, at least, come from relatively humble beginnings. But none of these three candidates are outsiders. They all fit both conservative Huntington and leftist Zinn’s definitions of the establishment. This should really surprise no one, given that the US campaign finance system essentially eliminates the possibility of someone without independent wealth and/or experience in an elected office launching a successful campaign. Anti-establishment is not a useful metric to measure a candidate’s integrity, because the establishment demands you be swallowed to survive.

Why, then, do so many people want an outsider candidate? Because they themselves are outside the establishment—and not necessarily by choice. Since the Great Recession, the number of Americans who self-identify as lower class has risen, jumping from 35% to 48% in 2015. In the minds of this segment of Americans, the establishment is made up of the people who eliminate your job, evict you from your home, and erase your voice from public life.

The candidate who opposes the unseen, malicious forces that work against the average working American ostensibly understands the pain of exclusion. Clinton emphasizes exclusion by gender; Sanders emphasizes exclusion by class; Trump emphasizes exclusion from the political system. Trump’s exclusion, of course, was until recently voluntary—but his rhetoric still resonates with followers who feel similarly let down by their representatives, much as Clinton’s and Sanders’ tales of exclusion resonate with their own supporters.

Ultimately, this debate is really a referendum on vulnerability. For most people, distance from what they view as the mainstream or the elite is involuntary—exclusion due to race, gender, class, geography, and other factors beyond one’s control. The dwindling fortunes of average Americans is a source of private shame, as writer Neil Gabler noted in an article confessing he was among the 47% of citizens who could not come up with $400 in an emergency. Americans rail against the establishment while at the same time desiring its benefits and security, its resources and opportunities

This widespread sense of panic, exclusion, and vulnerability needs a name—and anti-establishment is a good one. It implies one is taking action instead of meekly accepting one’s fate. A candidate who promises to crush the establishment paradoxically carries the promise that, someday, the average American may experience the ease of life that members of the establishment do. Clinton promises this through incrementalism, Sanders through revolution, and Trump through force.

They are all members of the same entity, selling the promise of sweeping change to Americans struggling for stability. Secure in their status and wealth, they have what the average working American does not: permission to rebel.