What if Bernie Sanders is way better at capitalism than President Trump?
It's very possible.
Sanders, the senator from Vermont, is America's best-known democratic socialist, while Trump has sold himself for decades as the epitome of capitalist success. But The New York Times reported Tuesday that the president's businesses lost $1 billion between 1985 and 1994. His best year during that period was 1987, when he lost only $4.5 million.
"In fact," the Times reported, "Mr. Trump appears to have lost more money than nearly any other individual American taxpayer."
Meanwhile, Sanders' tax returns show he's become a self-made millionaire thanks to royalties from the three books he's published since he first ran for president in 2016. And despite a decades-long career of railing against the power of moneyed interests, he's proud of himself.
"It comes from a book I wrote, pretty good book," Sanders said last month after his tax returns showed income of more than $1 million in 2016 and 2017. "If anyone thinks that I should apologize for writing a best-selling book, I'm sorry, I'm not going to do it." If money is a way of keeping score, as Trump has said, Sanders just might be the winner. How splendidly unexpected.
We can't make a final proclamation on this matter, unfortunately, for a couple of reasons. First, we're not comparing apples to apples: We know about Sanders' income because he disclosed his tax returns, while the basis of the Times story came from data passed along by a tipster "who had legal access" to Trump's info. (A presidential lawyer, for what it's worth, says the Times report is "highly inaccurate.") We're also comparing different time periods: Sanders' information is relatively fresh, while the newest data on Trump's finances is a quarter-century old.
But the Times report is certainly in keeping with a pile of evidence that Trump's pose of hard-earned success is something of a mirage. Previous reports have suggested the bulk of his wealth was inherited from his father, Fred. Despite that advantage, he has declared multiple bankruptcies over the years. The president, by most reputable accounts, was born on third base — and has spent the last 30-plus years telling the world he hit a home run.
Money isn't the only way to keep score, though.
It can be argued that Sanders has come closer to meeting the platonic, Adam Smith ideal of capitalism than Trump has. Sanders, after all, created something — a book — and sold it. His wealth came from a product that people wanted and were willing to pay for. In other words, Sanders made his money the old-fashioned way: He earned it.
Trump, on the other hand, has spent the last few decades selling Trump. He's slapped his name on buildings owned by other people and starred in plenty of television commercials. His casinos failed. So did his airline, and his football team. He couldn't even sell steaks. His biggest success in private life was to make people believe he was a success — a process that mostly involved wrapping himself in gold while inflating and misrepresenting his actual accomplishments. It's galling, then, that so many Americans have bought into the myth of Trump's economic mastery.
Sanders may be less flashy than Trump, but his victory in the marketplace appears to be more substantial.
None of this should come as a surprise. Despite decades of right-wing fear-mongering about socialism, the left in America has never really been in the business of creating a state-planned economy. Instead, it has worked to save capitalism from itself — the singular accomplishments of both former presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama — while urging the country's relatively free markets to distribute their rewards more broadly and fairly throughout society. Democratic presidents have also tended to produce stronger economic records than their Republican counterparts. The left, it seems, is better at capitalism than capitalism's self-proclaimed avatars in the GOP.
So yes, of course Sanders really is a better, more successful capitalist than Trump. Could he be a better president, too?