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Opinion Bernie Sanders and the populist conceit

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) campaigns in Salt Lake City on Monday. (George Frey/AP)
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Populist leaders are not terribly creative. Contempt for a free and vigorous press, resort to executive fiat (i.e., denigrate the legislative branch), portrayal of opponents as inauthentic, and insistence that only the leader’s motives are pure are not unique characteristics of President Trump or even of right-wing nationalists. While Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is not by any stretch of the imagination morally or politically equivalent to a president who celebrates war crimes, snatches children from their parents, peddles in racism and congenitally lies, the socialist firebrand unfortunately deploys several of the same techniques we have seen in Trump.

Sanders has taken to berating the “corporate media” — his “fake news” — for critical coverage. After The Post broke the story that Sanders had been briefed a month earlier on Russian efforts to assist his campaign, he lashed out at The Post as if its revelation was evidence of some deep bias. (“It was The Washington Post? Good friends,” he sneered.) On Monday, he was at it again. At a news conference in Utah, he snubbed a question from The Post’s reporter with a terse “No,” then called on another reporter. Just as Trump tangles with CNN as a way of riling up his base and making an example of an obstreperous outlet, Sanders, not to mention his staff and “Bernie Bros” supporters, do the same.

Sanders has grand plans, some of which he intends to enact without input from Congress. The Post reported: “The list of potential executive orders includes unilaterally allowing the United States to import prescription drugs from Canada; directing the Justice Department to legalize marijuana; and declaring climate change a national emergency while banning the exportation of crude oil.” The report continued, “Other options cited in the [Sanders campaign] document include canceling federal contracts for firms paying workers less than $15 an hour and reversing federal rules blocking U.S. funding to organizations that provide abortion counseling.” He has taken to promising he would repeal all marijuana laws by executive order.

Sanders refuses to acknowledge that there are Democrats of good will who do not agree with him and do not support him. It is not enough for him to decide to boycott the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference this week; he felt compelled to accuse AIPAC of spouting “bigotry” as scores of Democrats were attending and speaking to the group. He does not lose elections as in South Carolina. “Corporate Democrats” are against him. Does he really think so little of working class, mostly African American voters in South Carolina who voted overwhelmingly for former vice president Joe Biden?

Paul Taylor is a corner store cashier in an impoverished area of Charleston, S.C. He is gay, black and a Democrat. And he may vote for Trump. (Video: The Washington Post)

And finally, when convinced that you have a monopoly on virtue, you are likely to resort to arguing that your opponents are “corrupt” (as a prominent supporter said of Biden, without evidence) and that you do not need to adhere to the rules others abide by — such as sticking to promises to release health-care records or showing your math on a health-care plan. Indignant and thin-skinned when challenged yet ready to assume the worst of others is a tried and true formula for rebuffing criticism and escaping accountability. When your motives are pure, aides and supporters who viciously attack others on social media get a pass.

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Sanders has not just started behaving this way; he has operated this way for years, as do many firebrands who essentially play the role of backbencher. You know the type: Never responsible for accomplishing much of anything, ever the attack dog and determined to impugn others rather than argue on the merits. Aside from the substance of his views, Democrats need to decide if this Trumpian tone is one they want to mimic.

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Max Boot: Bernie Sanders is a risk we can’t run at this moment of national peril

Paul Waldman: Democrats, stop freaking out about Bernie Sanders

Karen Tumulty: Bernie Sanders is the candidate to beat. Will it last?

Dana Milbank: Is Bernie Sanders really happening?

Colbert I. King: Is Sanders an election-year disaster waiting to happen?

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