Bernie Sanders is on the come back trail, no question about that. He’s raised $18.2 million in the year’s first quarter, and at a recent rally where eight Democratic candidates were present, only he was lustily greeted with cheers of “Bernie! Bernie!” when he took the podium. But there’s a difference between now and 2016. In 2016, Bernie was the populist contender, polling 43% against the front runner, Hillary Clinton. Now, in the age of Trump, Bernie is the other populist contender, i.e. the Donald Trump of the left and that is certainly an appellation worthy of serious contemplation. While other candidates are already showing weak spots, most notably Joe Biden, suffering from accusations of inappropriately touching women (a rumor that ostensibly was started by the Bernie Camp) Bernie soars above the fray. Washington Post:
Meanwhile, Sanders himself remains untouchable, in a Trumpian way. Claims of mistreatment by male staffers from women who worked on his 2016 campaign? Yawn. His resistance to releasing his tax returns? Whatever. The idea that Democrats need a unifying figure to lure disaffected Trump voters in key states? Never mind.
Sanders isn’t Trump in the race-baiting, lender-cheating, fact-avoiding, porn-actress-paying, Putin-loving sense. But their styles are similar: shouting and unsmiling, anti-establishment and anti-media, absolutely convinced of their own correctness, attacking boogeymen (the “1 percent” and CEOs in Sanders’s case, instead of immigrants and minorities), offering impractical promises with vague details, lacking nuance and nostalgic for the past.
Sanders’s supporters hope he’ll fight Trump’s fire with fire, refusing to be conciliatory (the way Biden and O’Rourke are), or to be goaded by Trump the way Warren was into taking a DNA test. Maybe answering belligerence with belligerence will work; Trump-era predictions are worthless. Either way, the support for Sanders shows that the angry, unbending politics of Trumpism are bigger than Trump.
Now here’s the scary part. Bernie Sanders, at least this go around, is sounding exactly the same notes as Trump. Trump demonizes immigrants — Sanders, the 1%. Trump identifies as a “nationalist” — Sanders as a “socialist.” Most chilling of all, Trump never really was a Republican and Bernie Sanders is no Democrat.
And take a listen to how Sanders sounded just the other night, dissing the “establishment,” and God forbid, the media:
“The crisis that we are facing today is not complicated. . . . We have a government that ignores the needs of the working people . . . yet works overtime for wealthy campaign contributors and the 1 percent.” He mocked those who questioned ideas such as Medicare-for-all (“the establishment went crazy, media went nuts, still is”), and he celebrated his prescience. He channeled rage at the “vulgarity” of a “grotesque” and “corrupt” system, the “absolute hypocrisy” of Republicans, corporations that “lie” and billionaires who “buy elections.” Of the wealthy, he said, “Many of them are bandits,” and he said if Republicans “don’t have the guts to participate in a free and fair election, they should get the hell out of politics.”
Wow. Two thoughts: Maybe the only way to beat Trump is to fight fire with fire. And beating Trump is the goal, no ands, ifs, or buts about that. But, the larger question is, has American politics morphed into populist demagoguery, and is that where it’s going to stay? Because there is no message of unification in Sanders’ words, only the same vitriol that Donald Trump pours out, except aimed at different groups. But the message is the same.
If that’s the case, so long civility, let alone nuance. It looks like 2020 is gearing up to be the blood bath that people have predicted. This is very sobering, because if we have two populist demagogues vying for the White House, it portends an all out cultural war and tribal identity like never seen — or at least not since the Civil War.
Sanders may have a good shot at the nomination, as may Joe Biden. This strikes a lot of people as totally incongruous, because the Democratic party is majority-female, and ethnically diverse, not to mention the party of the young. Be that as it may, both Biden and Sanders have one thing going for them that the other candidates do not: visibility. Never lose sight of the fact that the American electorate is, for the most part, comatose when it comes to politics. Every four years there’s a presidential election and people bestir themselves to watch the political circus and vote for the candidate with the most visceral appeal, and telegenic presence. This is who we are in the age of television, and why we’re in the mess that we’re in.
I’m not taking a stance for or against Sanders, at this point. I personally want to see how all the candidates weigh in and figure out what’s what. All that I want to point out is that 2020 needs to be different from 2016. We need to exalt substance over form, and savvy over style. Getting our country back, is the important thing, not introducing a different flavor of political extremism and tribal identity into the White House.
Keep a sharp eye on how the Sanders campaign shapes up, because this may be the direction we’re going. And truth be known? If he wins the nomination, I’ll move heaven and hell to get him elected, and so will every other person I know, because we’ve got to be rid of Donald Trump. Maybe the antidote for the toxic Trump presidency, which has poisoned our culture, is a little hair of the dog. Maybe we need to be Donald Trump in order to beat him.