With the rumble of an avalanche, something new in politics shook loose from the snowy crags of New Hampshire, having little to do with the D’s or the R’s. Strong showings by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders–each won by more than 50,000 votes–represented the utter inundation of the political parties. The outsiders who won owe nothing to nobody; party leaders huddled like demoralized Romans as the Visigoths sacked their city. New battle lines were drawn for primaries in South Carolina and beyond: not left vs. right, not red against blue, but insiders and outsiders. For now, the anti-Establishment is winning on both sides of the ballot.
Sanders, 74, and Trump, 69, entered the campaign last year as Don Quixote and P.T. Barnum, but they tapped a rebellious energy that has transformed them into revolutionaries. So different on the surface, they are echoes of one another too. Both are New Yorkers. Each one has an immigrant parent. (Trump’s mom was from Scotland, Sanders’ dad from Poland.) Each has been overlooked or underestimated in his public life; both are outsiders to presidential politics. Yet both have found large audiences in places where veteran pols would have told them not to bother looking. And both are, for now at least, on top.
Like frogs on the stove, the establishments in both parties failed to notice that things were reaching the boiling point, what with the long and unpopular wars, the global unrest and the brutal recession that seemed to separate the fortunes of the rich from the larger fate of the nation. Even when Trump and Sanders began drawing huge crowds, the professional political class wrote them off as minor temper tantrums on the part of voters who would soon take their seats quietly and resume coloring inside the lines.
That may still be the fervent hope of Hillary Clinton, John Kasich, Jeb Bush and other campaigners as they rally their forces for the next fray. But there is no putting these voters in time-out; they demand to be heard. The question is whether it’s too late for the old-school pols to start listening.
Donald and Bernie have more in common ideologically than either might care to admit. They rail against the elites who have gridlocked the government. In varying rhythms and very different keys, they blame bankers working in collusion with lobbyists, bad trade deals written in secret and a ruling class gone soft in the head on foreign policy, immigration and taxes. Each man’s pitch strikes a distinct conspiratorial note–and though they jab at one another, they do it gently. “We’re being ripped off by everybody,” Trump said. “And I guess that’s the thing that Bernie Sanders and myself have in common.”
But they are different in important ways. Sanders’ revolt recalls a drama staged regularly by the Democrats with a leftist hero in the featured role. Think of Henry Wallace’s rebellion against Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1940s, and George McGovern’s insurgency in the 1970s. Sanders is producing his revival in modern dress, and the underlying theme works best in Iowa and New Hampshire. No one has yet managed to take the show national.
Trump, on the other hand, appears to be a new, new thing, a collision of the cult of personality with the age of Twitter. No one has any idea how this story ends. Could he ever reconcile with opponents he has belittled so mercilessly? Not anytime soon: Trump’s opera is composed in death metal, and the next show will play in South Carolina, where politics is a blood sport even in quiet years.
Whatever you call this divide–insiders and outsiders, haves and have-nots–it makes for messy endings. Excitement drove turnout in Iowa, and voters in New Hampshire jammed winding roads with endless lines of unmoving brake lights. Will it leave America, nine months hence, with a shaken government and a redrawn political map?
That is the question set loose by the outcome in the Granite State.
This appears in the February 22, 2016 issue of TIME.
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