Watching Bernie Sanders roll through the Democratic primaries — he won the Nevada caucuses on Saturday by more than 25 points over his nearest rival — gives me the same sinking feeling, the same combination of dread and despair, that I felt watching Donald Trump roll through the Republican primaries four years ago. This is actually worse in some ways, because back in 2016 I naively imagined that Hillary Clinton, a sane centrist, would save America from the horror of a Trump presidency. Now, by contrast, barring a Super Tuesday miracle, there is little hope for anything but a Sanders vs. Trump election in which there is no good outcome. Do you want to risk our democracy or our economy? Trumpism or socialism? Pick your poison.
Why would the Russians support Sanders in the Democratic primaries? It’s not because they have our best interests at heart. The Russians clearly see Sanders as an agent of chaos who will exacerbate divisions in U.S. politics before ultimately losing to their preferred candidate, President Trump. And they are probably right.
Sanders divides Americans nearly as much as Trump — not along racial-ethnic lines but along class lines. He is an ideologue who denounces “billionaires” as often as Trump denounces undocumented immigrants. (Sanders used to attack “millionaires and billionaires” but now he often omits “millionaires” because he’s one himself.) The “1 percent” are for Sanders what “illegal aliens” are for Trump: objects of hatred who are unfairly blamed for all the ills of modern America while their contributions are totally ignored.
Sanders is no Trump, which is why I would reluctantly vote for him in the fall, but there are certain uncomfortable parallels. Like Trump, Sanders has a tendency toward anti-media paranoia: He hinted that The Post was pursuing a vendetta against him by reporting Russian support for his campaign. He is almost as secretive as Trump — this 78-year-old candidate who had a heart attack last year refuses to release his health records.
And, like Trump, Sanders has attracted an army of abusive and obnoxious true believers who are determined to destroy any doubters. Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state legislator who supported Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), told the New York Times: “You have to be very cognizant when you say anything critical of Bernie online. You might have to put your phone down. There’s going to be a blowback, and it could be sexist, racist and vile.” Sellers, who is African American, had some Sanderistas calling him an “Uncle Tom” and wishing him brain cancer.
I experienced my own backlash from the “Bernie Bros” on Sunday when I linked to an Atlantic article which reported that in 1974 Sanders had called for the abolition of the CIA. (This is only one of many Sanders statements likely to spell trouble for him; he once supported a socialist candidate who called for U.S. soldiers to “take up their guns and shoot their officers.”) The response from Sanders supporters ranged from “What’s bad about wanting to abolish maybe the most prolific and successful terrorist organisation in history?” to “Neoconservative war criminals like Max Boot are shaking in their bloodsoaked boots.” A candidate cannot be held responsible for his followers, but there is something in Sanders, just like in Trump, that empowers extremists.
If Trump could be elected president, almost anyone can be. But Sanders’s path will be much harder, because this is still a center-right country: Gallup reports that only 24 percent of Americans identify as liberals compared with 35 percent moderates and 37 percent conservatives. Fifty-three percent of Americans say they would not vote for a socialist.
A Sanders victory depends on record turnout from the young and the working class. As liberal analyst Ruy Teixeira explained in The Post, this is a progressive pipe dream. To prevail, Democrats need to win over middle-of-the-road voters. With his calls to abolish private health insurance, decriminalize border crossings, provide free health care to undocumented immigrants and add so many new programs that he could more than double the size of government, Sanders will be hard-pressed to do that. A Washington Post-ABC News poll last week found that Sanders has a statistically insignificant two-point lead over Trump among the college-educated white women who handed Democrats control of the House in 2018. Other Democrats all beat Trump by at least 10 points with this group.
A former Democratic governor of a major state told me the odds of a Sanders victory are 10 percent. Democratic candidates in red districts are already alarmed that with Sanders at the top of the ticket, Democrats could lose the House and fail to regain the Senate.
Unlike a lot of other independents, I’d vote for Sanders because he is not a budding dictator and because he would never get his grandiose agenda through Congress. Yet nominating him could undermine our democracy indirectly. That’s because it would make likely a Trump victory combined with Republican control of Congress. It’s hard to imagine a bigger nightmare than another Trump term without even the check afforded by a Democratic-controlled House. The Democrats deserve to lose if they nominate Sanders, but America doesn’t deserve four more years of Trump unbound.
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