This election year will be remembered as the one in which two candidates rallied the indignation of millions against the establishment. Both Trump and Sanders actually call it that. The reflexive response of the establishment – proof of its existence, if you needed proof – has been its uniform portrayal of the two. Trump and Sanders alike are called ‘loud’, ‘boisterous’, ‘blustering’; they ‘shout’ or ‘bellow’, and ‘gesticulate’. They are, in short, stirrers up of strife.
Trump has played on anti-immigrant prejudice with appalling consistency, but he has also said the Iraq War brought more harm than good and that the avoidable attack of 11 September 2001 stemmed from the incompetence of George W. Bush. Sanders, for his part, mentions with pride his vote against the Iraq War and his aim of delivering national healthcare to all Americans. The extreme positions and the truths that can’t be spoken are uneasily mixed in these candidates. The extremes are different, however, and it is hard to say in what proportions the establishment is rebuking the noxiousness of one extreme and the unattainability of the other. Certainly it is punishing both for the embarrassing plainness of the truths.
The Sanders candidacy emerged in part from fatigue and depression at the long day’s end of the Obama presidency. When he began his run, we hardly realised how discouraged we were; and his appeal is warmest and widest with young voters. A large reason for this is his realistic emphasis on the coming catastrophe of planetary climate disruption, an issue on which, thanks to his courage and tenacity, he stands alone among living American politicians. But in other ways too, Sanders represents something fresh, something younger at heart than either Obama or Hillary Clinton. When you come to think of it, he is as unlike Obama as it is possible for a man of the left to be: passionate, but without any theatrical dimension in his show of passion; angry at economic injustice, but with an anger that rises above the intimation of suppressed parental rage. The official statement by Obama in April 2009 that no American citizen would be punished for practising torture, and the unofficial statement by his attorney general that the leaders of the ‘too-big-to-fail’ money firms were too important to be punished, rankled with many citizens who believe in one law for rich and poor alike and would like to believe that justice goes all the way into the long driveways of the power elite. Sanders has said that ‘too big to fail is too big to exist,’ and he believes that wickedness in high places ought to be punished.
He fits the definition of a free man given by Thoreau (among others): he has no trouble saying what he thinks, and this affords some assurance that he will do what he says. With 35 years of service – first as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, then as a member of Congress re-elected seven times, and finally as a senator – he entered the presidential contest with more first-hand political experience than Obama or Mrs Clinton had in 2008. Besides, the rejection of the establishment by his followers is not to be mistaken for a rejection of politics. To set oneself above the political process itself (and the codename for politics is ‘Washington’) has long been a favourite pose of the ambitious: Carter, Reagan, Clinton, the younger Bush and Obama all ran against Washington and, so far as possible, they kept running against it even as president.
By contrast, the establishment that Sanders runs against isn’t vague. It has two branches, which he speaks of without euphemism: Wall Street and the military-industrial-security complex. Sanders dwells on them in that order of importance, betraying here a characteristic weakness of Democrats as well as social democrats: namely, the refusal to recognise that foreign policy (and above all war) sets a determinate limit on what is possible in domestic affairs. By naming Wall Street first even so, he draws attention to the continuity of major decisions made inside the White House by officials whose provenance or destination was the firm of Goldman Sachs. This pattern has held true from the Bill Clinton to the George W. Bush to the Obama presidency, and it explains why radical critics like Cornel West have resorted to the old word ‘plutocracy’, from the era of Progressive reforms. ‘Oligarchy’ is a word Sanders deploys without embarrassment.
On the whole, he has adopted a chivalrous stance towards Clinton: in an early debate, for example, he passed up an obvious chance to score points on the scandal of her personal server being used for government documents. ‘People,’ he said with genial irritation, ‘are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.’ Clinton has reciprocated unchivalrously by pretending that Sanders’s belief in equality ignores the special needs of black people; by alluding to the fact – a favourite charge of the mainstream media – that he comes from a ‘white state’; and by claiming intimate association with the person and policies of Obama. In a more alert news culture, this would lead commentators to remark that the worst disaster of Obama’s presidency – the Libya war and its endless aftermath: the flow of refugees from North Africa; the weapons pipeline to Syria; the rise of Isis in Iraq and Syria and now inside Libya – was a catastrophe designed and supervised by Clinton.
As late as November, she had the temerity to boast that ‘Libya was smart power at its best’; and only lately has Sanders mounted a serious challenge on that flank, saying he worries that Clinton is ‘too into regime change’. But once again, that is a generous understatement. She voted for the Iraq War, pitched for the enforcement of a no-fly zone in Syria (though Isis has no air force) and has won almost-endorsements from neoconservative admirers like Robert Kagan, a leading propagandist for the Iraq War. Yet if foreign policy lies at the edge of Sanders’s concerns, he can count on the general knowledge that Obama’s presidency, especially in the first term, was largely a third Bill Clinton term: Rahm Emanuel, Lawrence Summers, Tom Donilon, Leon Panetta, John Podesta and Hillary Clinton were called back and held over. The interlude of subsequent personal enrichment by Clinton, trading on her prestige and inside knowledge, has drawn attention in recent days, after the revelation of her large speaking fees on Wall Street and her refusal to release the texts of the speeches. Doubtless they were innocuous demonstrations of broad competence by an able associate in a related sphere; but, by the very acceptance of the invitations and payment, she was indicating that the Wall Street alliance would continue in a Hillary Clinton White House.
After the scare of her decimal-point victory in Iowa, Clinton did a bluff imitation of the Sanders voice, and of his message, too. With a hoarse affected anger she told an audience in a high school gym: ‘We’re going where the money is, the money is where the wealthy are, we’re gonna change the tax code and make them pay for all of the benefits they’ve got here in America!’ She said nothing remotely like this in the preceding 68 years of her life; a canny journalist, Chris Matthews of MSNBC, summed up her South Carolina victory speech on 27 February as an assurance that ‘I’m more like Bernie Sanders than this contest may have made us seem.’ How long can she keep up the versatility unrebuked?
Sanders gave a rough idea of what he means by ‘establishment’ in a debate on 12 February when he took up Hillary Clinton’s laudatory review of the latest book by Henry Kissinger. ‘I happen to believe,’ he said, ‘that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country. I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend … Kissinger’s actions in Cambodia when the United States bombed that country, overthrew Prince Sihanouk, created the instability for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to come in, who then butchered some three million innocent people.’ Stunned for a moment, Clinton could only reply, ‘we have yet to know’ whom Sanders listens to on foreign policy. Sanders: ‘Well, it ain’t Henry Kissinger.’
Moderators of future debates will go far to avert any return to that subject; their attitude is summed up in the thought: who in the world wouldn’t want to have lunch with Dr Kissinger? Meanwhile Trump is tearing down a different establishment, with a less decided aim. The following items appeared in rapid succession over an internet news feed after a rally in Fort Worth on the day Trump received his endorsement by the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie: ‘Make Texas Great Again’; ‘Don’t Be Commie Scum’; ‘Trump Christian Warrior’; ‘These Pundits Are Garbage’; ‘Light the corpse fires and start the meat grinders’; ‘All Jews are Paedophiles.’
On 1 March, the day of the ‘Super Tuesday’ primaries, Clinton and Trump took seven states each, mostly in the South; and while Sanders’s total of four showed enough stamina to keep him in the race, she now has twice his number of delegates. Tactics that proved halfway effective against Sanders, however, won’t work with an opponent like Trump, who plays only for victory and follows no rules whatever. And Trump will be the Republican nominee unless his rivals, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, can force a brokered convention. They are getting help from a wave of neoconservative opinion-makers who have declared their preference for Clinton over Trump – along with a Wall Street blitz of personal anti-Trump ads to destroy him in Florida – but these are not the people his followers normally listen to. Look again at the torrent of tweets from the Fort Worth rally. We are in for a bumpy ride.