Bernie Sanders: America’s new Opposition Leader

Since Trump’s election on November 8th, we have been inundated with a snowstorm of autopsies from pundits trying to explain the seismic shock that has just occurred. As one pundit remarked, casting a jaundiced eye over the feverish writings of his compeers, ‘the people who said this couldn’t happen are now trying to explain to us exactly why it happened’. But the question that everyone should be asking is: what happens next? Power is able to legitimise a lot of questionable acts and already people have begun to normalise Trump’s ascension to the world’s most powerful office. In their defence there are some promising signs. In his victory speech, Trump praised Hillary Clinton’s years of public service, which suggests he probably will not be fulfilling his spiteful threat last month to exercise the powers of the state and throw his former political opponent in jail. Furthermore, the Muslim ban has been scrubbed from his campaign page, which seems to imply a tacit moderation on the complete vilification of a religious group that was one of the chief policy planks in his race to the White House.

But we need to stop fooling ourselves. Donald J. Trump is dangerous. As Jon Favreau, former speechwriter for outgoing President Barack Obama remarked in the twilight hours of election night, “the Presidency doesn’t change people, it only amplifies who they already are”. And who is Donald Trump? Since declaring his run for the Presidency, Donald Trump has belittled women, minority groups and disabled people, he has encouraged violence amongst his supporters, even going so far to offer to pay their legal fees, and he has threatened to break international law and American law to get his way. This is a man who said the innocent families of terrorists should be killed, that wants to be “unpredictable” when it comes to nuclear deterrence and intends to immediately slap a 45% tariff on Chinese goods, kickstarting a tumultuous trade war between the two largest economies in the world. In the best case scenario, the absolutely best case scenario, the Republican Establishment will turn Trump into a compliant puppet-king and advance their own agenda: cutting healthcare for 22 million Americans, scrapping the EPA and ripping up the hard-won Paris Treaty on climate change just for a start.

How did we get here? Earlier this year I saw the signs for myself when I volunteered for Bernie Sanders during his New Hampshire campaign in the primaries. I met countless working class Americans, and perhaps entranced by the way in which my antipodean accent seemed to stretch every vowel to breaking point, had the privilege of discussing their political views with them. The easiest voter to sway? The Trump supporter. There was a sense of disappointment underlying every conversation I had, a deep distrust of Washington, and, in the wake of the Iraq War, a general weariness with the outside world. My naivety about the state of America was symbolically reflected in my clothing. On my first day, jet-lagged and a little gun-shy, I slipped and tripped my way up long, snowed-under driveways in my soaking wet Converse shoes, wondering rather wistfully to myself whether my frost-bitten toes would have to be sawed-off. Fortunately, I’m a quick study: the next day I got a pair of snow-proof hiking boots and eventually I even got used to the guns.

But perhaps the most difficult adjustment I had to make was exactly how amenable these people were to a self-confessed socialist’s policy platform. Even the die-hard Republicans that I encountered, who weren’t afraid to throw the odd racist epithet about Obama into the conversation, agreed with Bernie’s fundamental argument: that it was simply inexcusable that an American citizen in this day and age could work 40 hours a week and still not have the means to provide for his or her family. But there were still those who thought even Bernie’s radical prescriptions were not enough; if Washington was to change, it needed something more explosive to shake up its rotting scaffolding. “I’m voting for Trump because he’s unpredictable!” a man gleefully hollered before slamming the door in my face.

When I touched down at JFK airport, New York, the Bernie Sander’s campaign was still seen as little more than a quixotic protest. Hillary Clinton looked indomitable and most pundits seemed to believe Bernie’s intent was to try and gently steer the Clinton juggernaut to the left as much as he could. But under the cover of the media’s blanketed silence, Bernie’s campaign staff and volunteers were slowly chipping away at Clinton’s lead and there were clear signs of weakness; weaknesses that would follow Clinton into the General Election. We began to recruit disgruntled unionists who clandestinely disobeyed the union bosses’ overwhelming support for Hillary Clinton; much like during the general election when, with no other alternative, they would once more disobey their bosses and vote for Trump. Meanwhile, the Hillary supporters I met were ardent but highly defensive of their candidate and her record. They and the campaign would keep burning valuable energy playing defence right up until November 8th of this year.

“She opposes the TPP now” a woman named Anna told me, as I sat across from her, munching on one of her freshly baked cookies. Anna was a lovely middle-aged woman, middle-class, white, the archetypal Clinton supporter, and had about a dozen cats occupying various parts of the house. Her father was your run-of-the-mill Republican: a gaunt, cantankerous World War Two veteran, who sat in the corner of the living room and muttered pithy statements such as, “this country started going downhill the day JFK died” while the conversation flowed from the kitchen. I had been campaigning for a month by then, day in, day out and I had all my lines prepared. That’s not to say there was anything mercenary about what I said, because every time I said them I spoke with the intoxicating power of complete sincerity and conviction. “The thing is, Bernie Sanders cannot be bought”. In a country where it seemed every aspect of politics could be bought, where this was simply a given, where the leading candidate of the Democratic Party could take millions of dollars in paid speaking fees from the financial monolith of Goldman & Sachs, that line pierced through the walls of protest. By the end of our conversation, Anna’s doubting husband was proudly sporting the Bernie badge I’d given him whilst Anna, her former unassailable faith now shaken, assured me she’d look into Bernie’s policies before making up her mind on polling day.

It was hard to fathom but during that time in New Hampshire Bernie Sanders was like a rock star, the same age as the Rolling Stones but with twice the gall. I saw him four times during the two months I was there. His arms soared above his messy white nest of hair, glasses slightly askew, a ferocious Brooklyn accent punching the air. “The Koch brothers want to return to a time when we simply let our poorest fellow Americans starve on the streets”, “women don’t want 79 cents to the dollar. They want the whole damn dollar!”, “if a financial institution it too big to fail, it is too big to exist!” People cheered, roared and joined in spontaneous chants of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” This battle-scarred septuagenarian’s conviction, his sheer audacity to say these things, to campaign against the Clintons, to campaign without even the necessary support of a SuperPac, was irresistibly infectious. People knew where Bernie stood and when he ducked out of the hall to the sounds of John Lennon’s ‘Power to the People’, he always left behind a room of rabid converts. Here was the unlikely successor to Obama, someone who could take up the mantle of change and hope at a time when the United States of America was on the verge of despair.

And the Clintonites should have known the game was up on February 9th when Bernie stormed to an historic victory: the second highest percentage of votes in the history of the primaries, and only because JFK’s lone rival in the Granite State’s 1959 primary had been an obscure owner of a pen factory. Just eight years ago in the same state Hillary had squeaked out a victory against Obama which set off their six month duel for the nomination; yet Bernie had captured the hearts of the white working class voters of New Hampshire and had pulled off the biggest upset in primary history. The quixotic protest had become a mass movement.

I watched the rest of the primaries back home in Australia, my Facebook feed a digital fly on the wall as my American friends on the campaign zipped and darted across America to continue the fight. Of course we all know how this ends: even with 22 states and $228 million raised from individual contributors, everyday Americans who had finally found their champion, Bernie Sanders failed to secure the nomination. Though there seems to have been some foul play on the part of the DNC, the truth is, the Bernie Sanders campaign, caught in the dizzying maelstrom of their own success and just as surprised as the pundits who reported on it, struggled to establish the apparatus of a nation-wide campaign with the limited time available, nor were they ever able to find a way to connect with older black voters in the South. This ‘Southern Wall’ effectively locked Bernie Sanders out and allowed Hillary Clinton to sail onward to the nomination.

In the wake of Trump’s miraculous victory, we can only wonder what could have been. Similar to Trump, Bernie’s message clearly resonated with white, working class Americans with the exception that he constantly and fiercely promoted a sense of American identity proudly based upon its very diversity. Yet we all know what finally transpired. Despairing for their jobs and their lives, which had been stripped away from them by pro-corporate free trade deals and offshoring, the white working classes of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan turned from the Democratic Party and the woman whose husband had proudly signed NAFTA, and instead chose the human hand grenade. It is the ultimate middle finger to the Washington Establishment, the last, desperate and malevolent act of a hopeless rabble. And it will cost all of us, even here in Australia, very dearly. To paraphrase Obama’s election slogan from 2008: over the next four years we’re going to get a whole of lot of change, but hope will be scant.

However we need to be hopeful more than ever. People who care about progressive values, indeed people who care about basic human decency, are going to have to fight a destructive, narcissistic tyrant who wields all the power in his hands. The people who caused this to happen, the Clintonites, the Republicans and the corporations are either going to try to slink away or appease Trump in order to achieve their own ends, leaving those groups whom Trump has constantly bedeviled since announcing his run on the 16th of June 2015 to fend for themselves. It is an unfortunate, but perhaps inevitable, state of affairs that these groups are some of the least able to hold up much in the way of resistance.

But there is hope. Already cities across America have been seized up in protest against Trump. But spontaneous acts of destruction and violence are not the solution. We need a rallying point. The Senator from Vermont is in an unique position. As Ralph Nader has proposed, Bernie Sanders, perhaps the only presidential candidate left standing with his reputation still intact, should stage rallies across the nation and bring protesters together. Rather than leading an aggressive campaign on President Hillary Clinton’s flank to ensure the fulfillment of the now defunct Policy Platform of the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders will have to stand as de facto Opposition Leader to Donald Trump and his odious cronies. Bernie Sander’s sway over millennials is unimpeachable but in the years ahead he will have to gather other groups, groups that didn’t necessarily embrace him during the primaries, to form an effective resistance. And he will have to win away the white working classes in the Rust Belt from Trumpism. The miraculous primary challenge is no longer Senator Bernie Sanders’ greatest legacy, but merely a prologue to the story that will unfold in the years ahead.