What Exactly is an "Anti-Establishment" Candidate?

Created: 26 January, 2016
Updated: 16 October, 2022
4 min read

There has been an inordinate amount of press coverage dedicated to the term “anti-establishment” during this election cycle. But have we stopped to think about what exactly this word means?

The term itself denotes a bifurcated world where wealthy, powerful elites (the “establishment”) are actively fighting any individuals who are striving to mitigate their financial and political hegemony (the “anti-establishment”).

This year’s crop of presidential candidates apparently exist in a dichotomous realm where they are either “establishment” or “anti-establishment.” How one earns such a label is still left to be determined — some have it bequeathed by the media, while others simply self-identify as so.

Whether this perceived quality is favorable or not depends entirely on one’s political leanings. However, no candidate actively campaigns as the “establishment candidate.” That would be the equivalent of candidates proclaiming they are “anti-choice” or “anti-life.” The term is pejorative in nature, so being associated with the establishment is uncouth.

This categorization has now reached ridiculously arbitrary lengths due to a recent interview between Rachel Maddow and Bernie Sanders. When asked about competing for endorsements from various well-established political groups like Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign, Sanders responded:

“We’re taking on not only Wall Street and the economic establishment, we’re taking on the political establishment. So, I have friends and supporters in the Human Rights Fund , in Planned Parenthood. But you know what, Hillary Clinton has been around there for a very, very long time, and some of these groups are in fact part of the establishment.”

Obviously, being a part of the establishment is considered bad in Bernie Sanders' world. However, taking on two very prominent organizations with significant clout within his voter base doesn’t appear to be a risky move in his mind. (You can already envision the attack ad that lumps together Sanders with the Republicans who were fighting to defund Planned Parenthood.)

However, by his own logic, if longevity is an indication of one’s establishment credentials, the Vermont senator is by the far the most establishment of them all. He was elected mayor of Burlington in 1981, to the House of Representatives in 1988, and finally to the Senate in 2006. One would think that 34 years in politics would earn a place in the establishment, right?

Perhaps being anti-establishment entails more of a mental state of being. It involves a revolutionary mind that is defiant of traditional party politics. After all, Sanders is — with the exception of the presidential run — an independent.

However, the reason that Sanders made the transition to the Democratic Party so seamlessly is that he has consistently caucused and

voted alongside Democrats 98 percent of the time during his career. He also endorsed pretty much every major Democratic nominee. Sanders has made the record very clear that he refuses to run as a third party candidate, out of fear of taking votes away from the Democrat running for office.

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Please explain to me how one maintains anti-establishment street cred while continually bowing to the interests of one of the major parties of the establishment.

Then, there’s “The Donald.” No conversation about the establishment would be complete without chatting about the Republican frontrunner.

Like Sanders, Trump is often lauded as the “anti-establishment choice” for Republican voters. Considered an outsider to the party with all of the moxy in the world, Trump butts up against Republicans on a number of issues, policy stances, and outlandish comments trumpeting from his campaign.

Or does he?

With the exception of Trump’s request to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, his platform demonstrates many conventional GOP platitudes: mass deportation of illegal immigrants, building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, full-scale military assault on ISIS, tax reductions, opposition to gun control, opposition to same-sex marriage, escalation of the domestic surveillance, etc.

If Trump is predominately toeing the party line, when exactly does he become anti-establishment?

Furthermore, as Sanders pointed out, there are different kinds of establishment figures. Couldn’t Trump—a real estate mogul and entrepreneur whose net worth is valued at $4 billion—be considered a part of the aforementioned “economic establishment”? If not, at what value does one earn a place within the establishment?

Maybe it’s because Trump is a “Washington outsider.” He’s from Queens, not the Beltway, right?

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Well, that isn’t necessarily true either. It isn’t like Trump has been sitting on the sidelines of politics for the last 20 years. Trump has actively campaigned for and donated to Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and several other political candidates regardless of political party. He even once stated that in 2008 that Hillary Clinton — the ultimate establishment candidate — “would make a great president or vice president.”

Up until 2015, Trump appeared to be very much in favor of the establishment. Considering the fact that he donated to both major parties, one could argue that he is twice as establishment as anybody else.

So why again are the two most “anti-establishment” candidates seemingly the most engrained in — what many objective observers would call — the establishment? Most likely, because these two campaigns are striving to develop a unique narrative that attracts voters — that’s it.

Being “anti-establishment” is the new “maverick” or “hope and change”; it’s nothing more than a marketing scheme. And if you are buying their schtick, then maybe the establishment has got you fooled altogether.

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