Paging Superman: Voters looking for a savior

Story highlights

  • Trump and Sanders offer simplistic and demagogic solutions to our problems, writes Frida Ghitis
  • The campaign echoes the 1930s, she writes
  • Trump appeals to our worst instincts; Sanders is running honorable but mistaken campaign, Ghitis says

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)It's too bad Superman is not running for president of the United States; this would have been his year. Americans, as we have discovered, are angry, frustrated, disillusioned -- and yearning for a savior.

This happened before, almost a century ago in Europe. It was a time of despair; a time when the old models didn't seem to be working, when the world was changing in confusing ways, and hyperconfident individuals proposed a way out by blaming scapegoats and promising exciting, almost miraculous change. The results proved catastrophic.
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    No, America is not 1930s Germany, not by a long shot. But the images of Europe after World War I keep coming to mind. The parallels are not precise, but we hear the echoes, see the shadows. We should heed the warnings.
    Who would have thought that in the 21st century, American voters would be seriously considering as presidential candidates a neofascist and a neosocialist -- throwbacks to the old, failed utopias? Talk about fashionably retro!
    Looking at Donald Trump stoking his supporters into a frenzy, attacking "them" -- whoever "they" happen to be at the moment -- vowing to return American to greatness and then flashing his self-satisfied smile, the mind harks back to those grainy newsreel images of Benito Mussolini, the theatrical Italian "Duce," the leader, who became the central figure of fascist Italy a century ago.
    Is Trump a fascist? No, not quite. In fact, Trump doesn't propose anything close to a coherent ideology. He's a Trumpist. And we're only learning what that means, along with him, as he makes it up.
    Fascists viewed the nation as an organism superseding the needs of the individual. That does not match Trump's rhetoric. But fascists also ridiculed and suppressed the opposition, and they embraced a level of authoritarianism that we can only hope Trump would reject. But who knows?

    Cult of personality

    One distinct similarity between Trump and the populist politicians of the 1930s is his ability to create and draw power from a cult of personality. The Republican front-runner's main campaign platform is that he will make everything OK. Trump will fix it. Trump will make America great again. How? That's not clear. He will do it by the power of his Trumpness. And we know it will work because look at him; look at how successful he is. Look how strong and fearless he is. There's very little in the way of substance. There's just a lot of Trump.
    And to prove how much America needs him, he reminds voters that America is in deep, deep trouble. He hints at nefarious conspiracies; he highlights every problem and every threat, making it sound as ominous as possible. And then he vows to tackle it without mercy, even if it means committing war crimes, violating the Constitution, and expelling millions of people from the country. That, incidentally, would create the digital color version of those 1930s deportations: armed U.S. security forces (very armed) leading frightened people to the trains. (Or would he make them walk across the border?)
    Charisma is a dangerous power in the wrong hands. When combined with popular discontent and disorienting change it can make a travesty of democracy and it can disfigure a society.

    Validating prejudices

    Trump has an uncanny ability to bring out the worst instincts in people. He validates the prejudices that people try to erase from their hearts. Trump seems alarmingly reluctant to distance himself from support from the KKK. Instead of debating ideas and policies, Trump insults and mocks people. He routinely appears to advocate violence against protesters, another disturbing throwback to the 1930s, and he draws a sharp distinction between "us" and "them."
    We don't know what kind of a president he would be. It's hard to imagine he would continue to speak of punching people in the face, or that he would continue to mock people with disabilities, or follow through with any of his illegal or nonsensical proposals as a head of state. But there's no telling. He has already defied all predictions.
    In a new turn of events since Thursday's GOP debate, Trump's opponents, who had seemed intimidated by Trump's savaging of Jeb Bush, have finally decided to take him on. It's good to see them challenging his empty offerings, but it's unsettling to see Sen. Marco Rubio also resorting to personality-driven attacks, eliciting uproarious laughter from his supporters. Despite the laughs, it's a sad sight.

    Sanders found a scapegoat

    Then there's the other end of the political spectrum: Sen. Bernie Sanders, the longtime Independent socialist politician now running as a Democrat.
    Sanders is no 1930s Marxist. He is not advocating the takeover by the state of the means of production and the abolition of private property. But in the spirit of his socialist convictions, he too has found a scapegoat for all that ails America. Sanders would squeeze the rich, for whom he does not hide his contempt. In the manner of a demagogue, he declared, "Fraud is the business model of Wall Street."
    Sanders proposes social programs containing the seed of potentially useful ideas, and he undoubtedly points to very real flaws in the system. But his overall approach, if it could ever be implemented, has the makings of an economic disaster. We know that because it was already tried.
    Hillary Clinton's overwhelming victory in South Carolina may mark the beginning of the end for the Sanders movement, perhaps a sign that voters know Sanders' idealistic offerings, no matter how appealing, are disconnected from what is possible.
    His plans would create deficits so large that there are not enough zeroes in calculator displays to hold them. His plans would produce deficits of between $18 trillion to $30 trillion (with a T) from new spending. You can squeeze the Wall Street billionaires as hard as you want. Even they don't have that much money. And while you're at it, see what happens to the economy if you impose the taxes required to even start those programs.

    Sanders running honorable but mistaken campaign

    Both Trump and Sanders are advocating granting much greater powers to the government. To be sure, Sanders appears to be aiming to force discussion of important issues in the campaign, and, unlike Trump, has run an honorable, throughtful and respectful campaign.
    Trump would apparently expand government to secure the country from enemies and from immigrants. Sanders would do it to pay for social plans. Both positions carry a faint whiff of Nirvana, telling voters who feel unsettled -- by growing inequality, expensive unwon wars, and a sense that America is starting to fall behind -- that they have an answer to repair the country, to make them feel safe.
    Again, this is not Europe in the 1930s, but the European experience carries a warning: Beware of politicians offering easy fixes. Rousing speeches are no guarantee of a better future.
    When Europe came under the sway of utopian ideologies, the children of European immigrants living in the United States created Superman. By then, the world desperately needed a superhero.