The Bernie Sanders I Thought I Knew Is Gone

Meeting his flock

How must it feel to feel like a god? Bernie Sanders knows. At the end of each of his debates with Hillary Clinton, he never turned toward her or the news anchors. He always turned to his cheering, adoring fans, soaking up the sunbeams of their love each and every time. Who wouldn’t?

Who is the real Bernie? Is he not the guy I once thought he was? The guy whose videos I watched, who was always ready to give voice to the anger many of us felt whenever Republicans blocked any progress Democrats tried to make? I begin to ask myself: How could that guy be getting so few endorsements from his colleagues anywhere in Congress? Why does this Bernie Sanders act like he doesn’t have a son? Why does this Bernie Sanders treat his own wife so disrespectfully? Finally, why does this Bernie Sanders seem unable to face the reality that he has lost the primary to Hillary Clinton?

The past several years, Bernie Sanders had been a beacon of truth in the Senate, the one guy many of us liberals — progressive or otherwise — turned to as a kind of true North. We passed links to his speeches around and held him in the highest regard. That Bernie is gone. In his place has emerged another Bernie — probably the real Bernie — the one who was never satisfied with just being a reliable “yes vote” in Congress, the one with dreams of being a revolutionary that had never been realized.

For Bernie Sanders — mostly dismissed or largely unnoticed in the 35 years he held political office, living comfortably off the good graces of taxpayers — to at last have massive numbers of people listening to him must feel like a very big deal. This is a guy whose ideological purity had found little traction in a bipartisan government that exists through collective compromise and evolves through incremental change.

The famously obstinate and “holier than thou” temperament Sanders projected was off-putting to his colleagues. Well, to most of them. Not, as it turns out, to an ally who is now the sole focus of his ire — Hillary Clinton. Clinton was a Senator who COULD work with everyone, and still does. As fellow senators, they were on cordial terms, voting along the same lines 93% of the time. They remained friends for over a decade — until the pain of losing to his former colleague became too much for Sanders to bear. It wasn’t just that he was being beaten “by a girl.” It was that he was being beaten by the woman he had first encountered when she was the wife of Bill Clinton, the woman who had the gall to achieve what he couldn’t — delivering a near-socialist healthcare package to Capitol Hill as First Lady. That effort wasn’t pure enough to suit Sanders, the man who never compromised. Too many forces stood in opposition for the Clinton health care plan of 1993 to prevail. Hillary Clinton, though, was undaunted by such roadblocks — she was and is a doer.

All the same, it must have irked Sanders that this woman who had gained prominence as the wife of Bill Clinton rose so fast to be elected Senator from New York and then swiftly proceeded to get things done. She was only in the Senate for two terms, but she accomplished more in that time than Sanders had done during twice as many years in D.C. He would claim that’s because she’s “establishment” — he’d say they’re all establishment, everyone but him. Yes, they are. That’s our government. That’s how it was designed in the Constitution. Three branches, very much established. You can lay blame or credit for solidifying that establishment on FDR, who was as establishment as they come. (You, Senator Sanders, are no FDR).

After 8 years of GOP obstructionism, the stage was set. “Run Bernie Run!” The far-left progressives said, since they felt no shame or culpability in turning their back on President Obama when the going got tough. They were happy and content to blame him. He wasn’t progressive ENOUGH. But Bernie WAS. Bernie would do what Obama couldn’t. He could somehow force the Republican Congress to pass single-payer health care because Obama couldn’t. He could impose higher taxes on the other half of America who did not want more social programs. He could compel Wall Street speculators to foot the bill for free college nationwide. He could dismantle America’s financial system to break up the big banks. Even though he has no earthly way to pull any of that off.

Like Trump, whose entire campaign has been based on four catch-phrase words: Make America Great Again, the Sanders campaign latched onto a few key terms that are easy to chant: Oligarchy, Billionaires, Wall Street, Goldman Sachs. He cleverly distinguished himself from Clinton and other Democrats by making them not Trump, the enemy. Essentially trying to equate Democrats with the GOP. In consequence, Hillary Clinton came to represent, to Bernie’s followers, all those things that he railed against — he did his best to depict her as the walking embodiment of everything wrong with America.

Because the Clinton campaign was taken aback by Bernie Sanders’ “artful smear” that quickly turned into a full-blown campaign of destruction, and because her long-term goal was party unity, she avoided branding Sanders with insidious words meant to injure. Her supporters would not stoop to the level of Trump supporters or, as it turned out, Bernie supporters to match insult for insult. Just as Trump has “Crooked Hillary,” Bernie stans have labels like $hillary or Hildebeast. As of now, the only thing that really separates your average Bernie supporter from your average Trump supporter is one word: Benghazi. Trump supporters, as far as I can tell, are the only ones who still resort to that slander. Where once a fake scandal like the email investigation would remain the purview of the right-wing attack machine, it is now fair game in Bernie’s “anything to win” campaign.

Though tensions might have run high in 2008, as poll numbers show us, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama ever engaged in such sloppy, cruel, abusive and destructive “anything to win” tactics. They both maintained a level of dignity and civility — a nicety Sanders has conveniently abandoned in the cry for “revolution.”

Though it will take some time for his most rabid supporters to be deprogrammed, what will finally stand as the biggest stain on the Sanders legacy is the way he directly tried to undermine Clinton on the same day she went after Donald Trump most forcefully — in what will certainly be remembered not only as her best speech to date, but probably among the best political speeches ever given.

You see, for Bernie, it’s still all about Bernie. It’s still about a god’s rise. He can’t accept Hillary’s rise and triumph — even if his denial risks the fate of the country. Has any politician in recent memory ever abandoned so much to achieve so little?

The old Bernie many of us once respected is gone. He doesn’t exist anymore and maybe he never did. Maybe he has always been someone we all wanted him to be.