Opinion writer

One of the “digs” on Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the 2016 presidential campaign was that he was all about himself — insufficiently attuned to concerns about unity, quick to lash out at critics and exceptionally thin-skinned. Those concerns surfaced again in Democratic ranks when he hired a rabid social media hit man, David Sirota (who hadn’t initially disclosed his affiliation with the Sanders camp).

Now he has gone into full attack-and-destroy mode, targeting in a vitriolic letter the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank that has advanced, for example, a health-care plan that expands Medicare but is distinct from the Sanders Medicare-for-all plan, and CAP Action Fund, CAP’s political arm.

His letter takes issue with a posting by Think Progress, which is editorially distinct from CAP, that made issue of his millionaire status, including this video:

Sanders claims without example that CAP’s chief Neera Tanden has been “maligning my staff and supporters and belittling progressive ideas.” He also claims other progressives (including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker) have been maligned as well and ominously warns he is going to tell his supporters all about CAP’s role. He says if CAP were to “evolve” (cheer his socialist platform?), he would reconsider his views.

Well, nothing like a high-decibel harangue based on no specific evidence to remind average Democrats that Sanders becomes unhinged at barbs over relatively minor issues. (How in the world would he get through a campaign against the master of insult, President Trump?)

CAP’s spokeswoman responded in writing, confining her comments to the attacks on Think Progress. “The Center for American Progress is a research institution focused on ideas and policy,” she wrote. She explained that Think Progress is part of CAP Action, not CAP, which “do not suggest, edit, approve or see their stories before publishing. And, in this particular instance, no one at CAP or CAP Action knew about this article or video’s existence before publication.” The statement continued, “Indeed, ThinkProgress publishes articles with which we disagree. We cannot and will not muzzle ThinkProgress, an editorially independent journalistic enterprise, and we believe it’s wrong for any political leader to demand it do so.”

What’s the reason for his letter? One can surmise it’s about “working the refs,” trying to intimidate others from criticizing his ideas or him. Sanders’s effort is downright bizarre, when you think about it. Imagine if Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) railed at the New York Times editorial page, demanding more praise, or if Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) demanded the Nation be more friendly. A Democratic veteran of many campaigns (not associated with CAP) observes, “This is disgracefully Trumpian, as Sanders desperately tries to create a fake controversy to change the subject on the eve of the release of his tax returns. … If he can’t take some accurate, fairly lighthearted ribbing from a progressive source, he’s proving that he’d be incapable of weathering the general election hurricane that Trump would unleash.”

As for his reaction to his millionaire status, Sanders did in fact respond defensively, snapping at those who pointed out he has inveighed against millionaires, telling them that you, too, can be a millionaire if you write a best-selling book. (He apparently fails to find the irony in defending the essence of capitalism — reaping the rewards of your labor when you successfully produce something for which there is demand.)

Bernie’s brand of socialism evidences many qualities we see in populist movements, left and right, around the world — the promise of an easy fix, the assertion that the system is rigged, the failure to grapple with the nitty-gritty results of their grand schemes (Brexit, anyone?) and the notion that the leader of the movement embodies the popular will. There’s a danger when you attribute evil motives to all opponents.

William A. Galston has explained:

When populists distinguish between the “people” and the “elite,” they depict each of these groups as homogeneous. The people have one set of interests and values, the elite has another, and these two sets are not only different but fundamentally opposed. The divisions are moral as well as empirical. Populism understands the elite as hopelessly corrupt, the people as uniformly virtuous—meaning that there is no reason why the people should not govern themselves and their society without institutional restraints. And populist leaders claim that they alone represent the people, the only legitimate force in society. . . .

Presuming the people’s monopoly on virtue undermines democratic practice. Decision making in circumstances of diversity typically requires compromise. If one group or party believes that the other embodies evil, however, its members are likely to scorn compromises as dishonorable concessions to the forces of darkness. In short, populism plunges democratic societies into an endless series of moralized zero-sum conflicts; it threatens the rights of minorities; and it enables over-bearing leaders to dismantle the checkpoints on the road to autocracy.

We already have a president who can’t take the rough and tumble of politics and wants to silence critics. I find it hard to imagine that Democrats want someone who might be just as touchy and intolerant of criticism.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: The unspoken assumption behind the vow of outreach to Trump voters

Elizabeth Bruenig: If you’re bothered by Bernie’s millionaire status, vote for him

Dana Milbank: Bernie Sanders has emerged as the Donald Trump of the left

The Post’s View: Democrats are attacking Trump’s Medicare ‘cuts.’ But Bernie Sanders’s ‘Medicare for all’ requires them, too.

Jennifer Rubin: Bernie is being Bernie, and plenty of Democrats don’t like it