It’s the night of the New Hampshire primary. Trump is in the Oval Office watching the results come in, gleefully rubbing his hands together and cackling maniacally as Fox News announces that Bernie just clinched another one. His GOP campaign advisers rush in with Cognac and cigars. They’re all ecstatic.
Vladimir Putin calls to congratulate him. Trump tells him everything is going according to the plan and says “Spasibo, tovarisch. Dasvidaniya” into the receiver before hanging up.
As absurd as this scene is, it’s not too far off from the fever dream that grips the minds of so many moderate liberals.
Bernie Sanders’ prospects are looking mighty good—his odds of winning are three times as high relative to his next-closest competitor—and the liberal commentariat is palpably nervous that he might just pull it off. The thought of it damn near broke the brain of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who launched into an unhinged rant about mass executions in Central Park.
In a last-ditch effort to put the brakes on Sanders’ momentum, a series of nearly identical columns were published in top outlets stoking fears about his electability and cynically exploiting public anxiety over the possibility that a Sanders nomination might mean four more years of Trump.
They all say that Trump is licking his chops at the idea of facing Sanders in the general.
Predictably, they point out that Trump will hammer Sanders for being a socialist despite the fact that liberals and conservatives alike have been red-baiting him constantly for decades. His favorability hasn’t faltered one iota and his poll numbers continue to climb.
Even though muckrackers have already uncovered just about every damaging article and speech by or about Sanders in the past half century, they speculate that there’s some super-secret cache of oppo somewhere that the Republican are saving until the national convention is over.
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This is the usual combination of bad faith and projection. They want Bernie to be unelectable, so they make the case that he is based on attitudes and prejudices that they imagine the electorate to have. But the pundit class is in many ways even more provincial than the people in “flyover country” that they view as rubes and presume to know the minds of.
Many point to the fact that Trump’s campaign advisors are ostensibly salivating over a Sanders nomination and that they’re even mustering Republican to vote for him in open primaries. But that just shows they’re equally as bad at their jobs as their liberal counterparts.
The exact same people who thought a Trump win would be impossible are the ones saying the same about Sanders. Jonathan Chait, who recently played Chicken Little over the prospect of Sanders losing to Trump, wrote a column back in 2016 about why liberals should support Trump’s nomination.
The oft-cited New York Times article where Republican strategists identify Sanders is the “ideal opponent” hints at some reasons why that might not be true.
Republican operatives like the idea of running against Sanders because they think they know how to deal with him—red-baiting—just like Clinton’s campaign assumed the same old battle-tested lines of attack would work against “Dangerous Donald.”
However, the Times notes:
The advisers say that in their voter research Mr. Sanders registers with his own supporters as authentic — the same quality that Mr. Trump’s base ascribed to the president in 2016. They view Mr. Sanders as a more difficult opponent than Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, but less of a challenge than Mr. Biden.
There are also signs that Trump himself is worried about Sanders. The Daily Beast reported that he was “privately obsessed” with Sanders. An analysis of Trump’s tweets done by the The Intercept also points to a singular fixation with Sanders, that has grown in tandem with his position in the polls. In January, he mentioned Bernie eight times more than Biden.
He apparently regards Sanders as enough of a threat to devote part of his State of the Union address to a direct xenophobic attack on Medicare for All, the centerpiece of Sanders’ platform. Trump said it would “bankrupt our nation by providing free taxpayer-funded health care to millions of illegal aliens, forcing taxpayers to subsidize free care for anyone in the world who unlawfully crosses our borders.”
Paul Krugman gave a bit more nuanced take on the Third Red Scare that pundits are predicting if Sanders is the nominee. While he acknowledges that the right will do its worst to paint Bernie as a dangerous pinko radical, most of platform is palatable to the average American:
[S]caremongering over socialism is both silly and dishonest. But will it be politically effective? Probably not. After all, voters overwhelmingly support most of the policies proposed by American “socialists,” including higher taxes on the wealthy and making Medicare available to everyone.
A poll by Democratic consultants Tulchin Research found that Sanders still beats Trump in three industrial battleground states Clinton lost in 2016 even after respondents were given a simulated negative campaign message claiming that Bernie is a “socialist” who “will do to America what socialism did to Venezuela,” “increase government control over your lives” and “raise your taxes by trillions to pay for his extreme agenda.”
Given Trump’s weakness on policy relative to Sanders, he’ll have to rely on attack ads, creating a flipped version of the dynamic that worked against Hillary Clinton in 2016.
A study of Clinton’s ads found that they were almost entirely dedicated to negative messages rather than policy solutions, whereas Trump’s were a mixture. This go-round, Sanders will be the one with the clear policy focus, while Trump will be running Clinton’s “Dangerous Donald” campaign against “Crazy Bernie.”
Sure, Sanders will be attacked for being a socialist, but all the other leading contenders are each vulnerable in their own way. A few other candidates poll better against Trump on average, but not by much more than a few points, and they have flaws that just as easily exploited.
In the grand scheme of things, “communist” is no better a smear than “Creepy Joe.” There’s no evidence that one will be more effective than the next. Which resonates on a visceral level more: An ad that points out Sanders endorsed some Trotskyist for governor 40 years ago or one that shows Joe Biden hovering over a visibly uncomfortable teenage girl?
Trump’s reality show style of politics isn’t about facts—it’s about narrative. To use a metaphor that’s become hackneyed because it’s so apt, he’s a wrestling heel who shifts his story to position himself as the foil to whoever his opponent is.
Not to give him too much credit, but one of Trump’s more clever plays in the 2016 election was insinuating that Hillary Clinton came to his wedding because he donated to her. In doing so he was simultaneously able to cast Clinton as venal and himself as above corruption.
That line of attack is open against someone like Biden or Pete Buttigieg, both of whom have more than 40 billionaires backing them, but not against Sanders. In the past, Republicans have attacked Biden repeatedly for his close ties to Delaware-based credit card companies, which earned him the moniker “The Senator from MBNA.” A new survey also found that 57 percent of independents considered it a scandal that Biden used his connections to get his son Hunter a job at the Ukrainian company Burisma. Nearly 30 percent considered it a “major” scandal.
Because he has no real beliefs or principles, Trump can also attack centrist opponents from the left on certain issues as he did with Clinton on Iraq. Trump’s $11 million Super Bowl ad touting his criminal legal reform measures was aimed at both Biden, champion of Clinton’s Crime Bill, and Michael Bloomberg, whose name is synonymous with “stop-and-frisk” policing.
Sanders’ weapon is his consistency. It’s much harder for Trump to maneuver this way against someone like Bernie who voted against the Iraq War and was speaking out against mass incarceration around the same time Trump was campaigning to have five falsely accused black youth executed.
Lastly, Sanders is also a greater threat than any of the others because “he has real followers,” to quote Trump himself. No other Democratic primary candidate can boast the kind of enthusiastic, loyal base and grassroots movement that Sanders has.
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He has an unprecedented 1.8 million individual donors, many of whom give recurring monthly contributions. About as many are working for the campaign as volunteers engaged in crowd-sourced online text and phone banking as well as canvassing. Unlike Trump supporters, many of these people are also seasoned activists attached to groups like the Center for Popular Democracy, the Democratic Socialists of America and the Sunrise Movement. Add to that more than half a million union members.
His base is significantly younger than Trump’s— respectively under vs. over 40 — and is thus better equipped to do the physical labor of campaigning. His ground game, another fatal shortcoming for Democrats in 2016, has already proven formidable in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Beating Trump won’t be easy, and he’ll have plenty of ammunition to use against him. But, to paraphrase an old saying: Sanders is the worst candidate—except for all the others.