It’s not like all is well on the right. Functionalist conservatives and others are once again confronting authoritarian populist (in its present incarnation, the “Tea Party”) hysteria—this time over Planned Parenthood—and the prospect of yet another vote-losing government shutdown at the same time as Donald Trump appears increasingly likely to be the Republican Party nominee for president in 2016.
“[A]s much as 44% of the conservative electorate is now open to the single-payer system that Bernie Sanders advocates because Mr. Trump says it ‘works incredibly well in Scotland,'” gasps Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel. Actually, Trump also said that it wouldn’t work in the U.S. but that only goes to show that functionalists are just as capable of freaking out as anyone else.
While it is widely believed that Republicans will some way, somehow eventually manage to shut Trump’s candidacy down, or that he will some way, somehow self-destruct, and despite evidence that Bernie Sanders may be a winning candidate, there is no sign Democrats are willing to position themselves to take advantage by ditching a seriously fading Hillary Clinton and backing Sanders.
It’s important to understand precisely how it is that Sanders might be a winner. And I have to emphasize that I still think this is only an outside chance. But it’s a chance.
My first premise is that Trump leaves the picture. He has signed a pledge not to run as a third-party or independent candidate and while Joan Walsh doubts that this pledge is worth the paper it’s written on, I share a view that his credibility would suffer if he went back on his word. There is also reason to suspect that a third-party or independent candidacy would serve to split the right-leaning vote, throwing the election to Democrats no matter who they nominate, which is a problem with the two-party system.
But the Republican Party establishment is surely by now getting a clue that they have a serious problem with the authoritarian populist insurgency. They are reminded of this every time the possibility of yet another government shutdown arises in the House of Representatives. That, and doubts about Trump’s electability in the general election, means they need to shut down his candidacy. Their problem lies in the fact that Trump has managed to capture the anger, fear, and resentment that lies at the heart of three conservative tendencies—authoritarian populism, paleoconservatism, and social conservatism—that make up the Republican Party’s “base.” Given a pervasive anti-establishment mood, I doubt that they can succeed in shutting down Trump’s candidacy without alienating at least some of that base.
That pervasive anti-establishment mood is why—my second and most dubious premise—I think Sanders might attract some right-wing votes. Thomas Frank repeatedly writes about the betrayal of authoritarian populists by mainstream politicians in both parties. Sanders appeared to appeal to authoritarian populists when he dismissed so-called ‘open borders’ as a Koch Brothers (more precisely, capitalist libertarian) proposal, saying “[i]t would make everybody in America poorer — you’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that.” And Sanders has reliably opposed so-called “free” trade that has fueled white working class (read authoritarian populist) resentment, a class resentment they express more as an issue of “authenticity” than of socioeconomic status, and that accounts for at least some of the support for Trump. And then there’s Strassel’s claim—she doesn’t cite her source—that “as much as 44% of the conservative electorate is now open to the single-payer system that Bernie Sanders advocates because Mr. Trump says it ‘works incredibly well in Scotland.'”
My third premise is that Joe Biden will not enter the race. He is said to be giving a candidacy serious consideration, and he would not suffer some of Clinton’s deficiencies. But only some; he would be running on Obama’s legacy just as certainly as Clinton and there’s reason to suspect that his name is being floated so aggressively and preparations for his possible candidacy are being so earnestly made precisely in order to preserve his viability in the event that the Democratic Party establishment should finally be persuaded that Clinton is not a viable candidate. But I also think he means it when he talks about how the emotional impact of his son’s death may mean he isn’t ready to run. I really don’t believe we would be hearing about this emotional impact if it weren’t very, very real. Certainly, Trump, who has made a point of being—to put it entirely too mildly—rude and even bullying, would make mincemeat of it if Biden actually does enter the race, and if Biden is anything less than sincere about his hesitation, that will emerge to seriously undermine any sympathy Biden now enjoys. More seriously, Biden is no answer to the anti-establishment mood that now propels both Sanders and Trump.
For my friends who continue to insist on the present system of social organization as a means of profoundly necessary change, the trouble here lies first in the likelihood that even if elected, Sanders would succeed in manifesting that change; second, in the low likelihood that the Democratic Party establishment will even allow him to be nominated; and third, in entirely reasonable doubts about his ability to prevail in the general election. Let’s be clear: Of the candidates running for the Democratic nomination, I think Sanders is the only one who has a chance of prevailing in the general election. I think that any estimate of another candidate’s viability rests on entirely too rosy a view of Obama’s presidency. But I also very strongly doubt that mainstream Democrats are prepared to recognize the cost of pursuing neoconservative and neoliberal policies as they have done since the 1970s.
Update, September 14, 2015: As of the time I published this post, I had not yet seen a Washington Post/ABC News poll that shows the Republican race narrowing to just two candidates: Donald Trump, and another outsider, Ben Carson. Hillary Clinton’s support continues to drop as questions continue about her use of a private email server while serving as Secretary of State and as majorities doubt that she and Trump are “honest and trustworthy.” A poll of California voters is a bit more favorable for Clinton but also shows the Republican race as essentially being between Trump and Carson.
Meanwhile, it is hard to imagine Bernie Sanders being more obvious about seeking to poach right wing support than by delivering a convocation address at the socially conservative Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell. Sanders reportedly “hopes to find common ground with them ‘about the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in our country, about the collapse of the middle class, about the high level of childhood poverty, about climate change and other issues.'” This aspiration will surely seem counter-intuitive to anyone who recalls Falwell’s alliance with neoconservatives in supporting Ronald Reagan’s campaign for the presidency. Neoconservatives, it should be recalled, endorse neoliberalism as a morality system.
- Kristina Peterson and Siobhan Hughes, “John Boehner and His Patience Are Tested Anew by GOP Lawmakers,” Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/john-boehner-and-his-patience-are-tested-anew-by-gop-lawmakers-1442179120↩
- Jennifer Agiesta, “Poll: Donald Trump surges to 32% support,” CNN, September 10, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/10/politics/donald-trump-ben-carson-cnn-poll/index.html; Kimberley A. Strassel, “The GOP’s ‘Whatever’ Moment,” Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-gops-whatever-moment-1441928540↩
- Kimberley A. Strassel, “The GOP’s ‘Whatever’ Moment,” Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-gops-whatever-moment-1441928540↩
- Kim Chipman and Ali Elkin, “Trump: U.S. Single-Payer Health System Probably Wouldn’t Work,” Bloomberg, August 4, 2015, http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2015-08-04/trump-u-s-single-payer-health-system-probably-wouldn-t-work↩
- Ross Douthat, “Donald Trump, Traitor to His Class,” New York Times, August 29, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/30/opinion/sunday/ross-douthat-donald-trump-traitor-to-his-class.html; Kerry Eleveld, “The Kochs try to bottle up Trump’s candidacy,” Daily Kos, July 29, 2015, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/07/29/1406895/-The-Kochs-try-to-bottle-up-Trump-s-candidacy; Leonard Pitts, Jr., “Here’s hoping cooler heads prevail in GOP,” Miami Herald, July 18, 2015, http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article27531262.html; Robert Reich, “The Revolt Against the Ruling Class,” August 2, 2015, http://robertreich.org/post/125702366950; Eugene Robinson, “Attacking Donald Trump seems to only make him stronger” Washington Post, July 20, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-questionable-strategy-against-godzilla/2015/07/20/66b58220-2f17-11e5-8353-1215475949f4_story.html; Niall Stanage, “Trump’s success annoys GOP,” Hill, July 22, 2015, http://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/248757-trumps-success-annoys-gop; Kenneth P. Vogel and Cate Martel, “The Kochs freeze out Donald Trump,” Politico, July 29, 2015, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/07/kochs-freeze-out-trump-120752.html↩
- Bill Curry, “The destruction of Donald Trump: How the billionaire with a rage problem became the frontrunner — and then fell apart,” Salon, August 10, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/08/10/the_destruction_of_donald_trump_how_the_billionaire_with_a_rage_problem_became_the_frontrunner_and_then_fell_apart/; Jeff Greenfield, “What If Trump Wins?” Politico, August 4, 2015, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/08/trump-wins-2016-gopination-120994.html; Peter Grier, “Donald Trump soars to big poll lead. What’s going on?” Christian Science Monitor, July 21, 2015, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/Decoder/2015/0721/Donald-Trump-soars-to-big-poll-lead.-What-s-going-on; Tom McCarthy, “Here’s why Donald Trump won’t win the Republican presidential nomination,” Guardian, August 22, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/aug/22/donald-trump-wont-win-republican-presidentialination; Eric Owens, “From Immigration To Guns, Longtime Democrat Donald Trump Must Reckon With His Progressive History,” Daily Caller, August 26, 2015, http://dailycaller.com/2015/08/26/from-immigration-to-abortion-longtime-democrat-donald-trump-must-reckon-with-his-rich-progressive-history/; Nigel M. Smith, “Forget Donald Trump – Megyn Kelly won the Republican debate,” Guardian, August 8, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/aug/08/donald-trump-megyn-kelly-republican-debate; Niall Stanage, “Can anything bring down Teflon Trump?” Hill, August 8, 2015, http://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/250639-can-anything-bring-down-teflon-trump↩
- H. A. Goodman, “Almost Every Major Poll Shows Bernie Sanders Challenging or Defeating Clinton and Republicans. Here’s Why,” Huffington Post, August 5, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/h-a-goodman/almost-every-major-poll-shows-bernie-sanders_b_7937906.html; Zaid Jilani, “Latest National Poll Shows Bernie Sanders Beating Scott Walker, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush,” Alternet, July 27, 2015, http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/latest-national-poll-shows-bernie-sanders-beating-scott-walker-donald-trump-jeb-bush↩
- Dan Balz, “What have Bush, Clinton learned from voters’ attraction to the outsiders?” Washington Post, September 5, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/what-have-bush-clinton-learned-from-voters-attraction-to-the-outsiders/2015/09/05/3500ba66-532e-11e5-8c19-0b6825aa4a3a_story.html; Philip Bump, “Hillary Clinton hits a new low in the polls — but this time it’s not Bernie Sanders’s fault,” Washington Post, September 8, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/09/08/hillary-clinton-hits-a-new-low-in-the-polls-but-this-time-its-not-bernie-sanderss-fault/; Chris Cillizza, “It might be time for Hillary Clinton to start panicking,” Washington Post, September 10, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/09/10/it-might-be-time-for-hillary-clinton-to-start-panicking/; Nick Gass, “Hillary Clinton’s favorability numbers have gone under water,” Politico, September 2, 2015, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/09/poll-hillary-clinton-2016-favorability-213251; Jennifer Rubin, “Democrats’ dilemma: Can’t live without Hillary Clinton, can’t win with her,” Washington Post, September 2, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2015/09/02/democrats-dilemma-cant-live-without-hillary-clinton-cant-win-with-her/; Greg Sargent, “What Hillary’s sinking poll numbers really mean, in one chart,” Washington Post, September 2, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2015/09/02/what-hillarys-sinking-poll-numbers-really-mean-in-one-chart/; ↩
- Ezra Klein, “Bernie Sanders’s biggest problem, in one sentence,” Vox, August 13, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/8/13/9145091/bernie-sanders-problem↩
- M. J. Lee and Chris Moody, “Donald Trump signs RNC loyalty pledge,” CNN, September 3, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/03/politics/donald-trump-2016-rnc-pledge-meeting/index.html↩
- Joan Walsh, “Donald Trump’s empty loyalty vow: Man with three marriages, four bankruptcies reportedly pledging fidelity to GOP,” Salon, September 3, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/09/03/donald_trumps_empty_loyalty_vow_man_with_three_marriages_four_bankruptcies_reportedly_pledging_allegiance_to_gop/↩
- Caitlin MacNeal, “Poll Shows Trump Is By Far The Least Favorable GOPer Among Hispanics,” Talking Points Memo, August 25, 2015, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/polltracker/donald-trump-gallup-poll-hispanics↩
- Michael Barbaro, Nate Cohn, and Jeremy W. Peters, “Why Donald Trump Won’t Fold: Polls and People Speak,” New York Times, August 22, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/23/us/politics/why-donald-trump-wont-fold-polls-and-people-speak.html; Ross Douthat, “Donald Trump, Traitor to His Class,” New York Times, August 29, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/30/opinion/sunday/ross-douthat-donald-trump-traitor-to-his-class.html; Jeet Heer, “Donald Trump Is Not a Populist. He’s the Voice of Aggrieved Privilege,” New Republic, August 24, 2015, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/122590/if-you-think-donald-trump-populist-you-dont-know-your-history; Kathleen Hennessey, “GOP strategist talks to Trump supporters and comes away believing he could win the nomination,” Los Angeles Times, August 25, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/la-na-trump-supporters-20150825-story.html; Mark Hensch, “Trump: I’m winning because Americans are ‘tired of being the patsies’,” Hill, August 29, 2015, http://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/gop-primaries/252250-trump-im-winning-because-americans-are-tired-of-being-the; Ray Nothstine, “Who Are the Evangelicals Supporting Donald Trump?” Christian Post, August 30, 2015, http://www.christianpost.com/news/who-are-the-evangelicals-supporting-donald-trump-143997/; Evan Osnos, “The Fearful and the Frustrated,” New Yorker, August 31, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/31/the-fearful-and-the-frustrated; Alex Pappas, “‘Nothing Disqualifies Trump’ — What A Focus Group Tells Us About His Supporters,” Daily Caller, August 24, 2015, http://dailycaller.com/2015/08/24/nothing-disqualifies-trump-what-a-focus-group-tells-us-about-his-supporters/; Joan Walsh, “Donald Trump’s Southern strategy: What his Alabama pep rally revealed about the right’s new racial politics,” Salon, August 24, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/08/24/donald_trumps_southern_strategy_what_his_alabama_pep_rally_revealed_about_the_rights_new_racial_politics/↩
- Dan Balz, “What have Bush, Clinton learned from voters’ attraction to the outsiders?” Washington Post, September 5, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/what-have-bush-clinton-learned-from-voters-attraction-to-the-outsiders/2015/09/05/3500ba66-532e-11e5-8c19-0b6825aa4a3a_story.html; Kevin Cirilli, “GOP contenders take turns bashing Wall Street,” Hill, June 14, 2015, http://thehill.com/policy/finance/244859-gop-contenders-take-turns-bashing-wall-street; Economist, “Republicans go hog-wild in Iowa,” June 6, 2015, http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2015/06/2016-race; Robert Reich, “The Revolt Against the Ruling Class,” August 2, 2015, http://robertreich.org/post/125702366950; Ken Thomas, “It’s hearts versus heads for many in unions as they decide whether to back Clinton or Sanders,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, August 19, 2015, http://www.startribune.com/labor-unions-facing-tricky-choice-in-democratic-primaries/322301031/↩
- Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005); Thomas Frank, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (New York: Metropolitan, 2012).↩
- Ezra Klein, “Bernie Sanders: The Vox conversation,” Vox, July 28, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/7/28/9014491/bernie-sanders-vox-conversation↩
- Frank Balsinger, “War and economics: where is Bernie Sanders’ 12th step?” Scholars and Rogues, June 7, 2015, http://scholarsandrogues.com/2015/06/07/war-and-economics-where-is-bernie-sanders-12th-step/; Ezra Klein, “Bernie Sanders: The Vox conversation,” Vox, July 28, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/7/28/9014491/bernie-sanders-vox-conversation↩
- Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005); Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006).↩
- Michael Barbaro, Nate Cohn, and Jeremy W. Peters, “Why Donald Trump Won’t Fold: Polls and People Speak,” New York Times, August 22, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/23/us/politics/why-donald-trump-wont-fold-polls-and-people-speak.html; Ross Douthat, “Donald Trump, Traitor to His Class,” New York Times, August 29, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/30/opinion/sunday/ross-douthat-donald-trump-traitor-to-his-class.html; Mark Hensch, “Trump: I’m winning because Americans are ‘tired of being the patsies’,” Hill, August 29, 2015, http://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/gop-primaries/252250-trump-im-winning-because-americans-are-tired-of-being-the; Kathleen Hennessey, “GOP strategist talks to Trump supporters and comes away believing he could win the nomination,” Los Angeles Times, August 25, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/la-na-trump-supporters-20150825-story.html; Kathleen Hennessey, “GOP strategist talks to Trump supporters and comes away believing he could win the nomination,” Los Angeles Times, August 25, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/la-na-trump-supporters-20150825-story.html; Suzanne McGee, “The US economic system is unjust. Says who? Says billionaire Donald Trump,” Guardian, September 6, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/sep/06/donald-trump-us-economic-system-unjust; Evan Osnos, “The Fearful and the Frustrated,” New Yorker, August 31, 2015, Ray Nothstine, “Who Are the Evangelicals Supporting Donald Trump?” Christian Post, August 30, 2015, http://www.christianpost.com/news/who-are-the-evangelicals-supporting-donald-trump-143997/; Alex Pappas, “‘Nothing Disqualifies Trump’ — What A Focus Group Tells Us About His Supporters,” Daily Caller, August 24, 2015, http://dailycaller.com/2015/08/24/nothing-disqualifies-trump-what-a-focus-group-tells-us-about-his-supporters/; http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/31/the-fearful-and-the-frustrated; Kimberley A. Strassel, “The GOP’s ‘Whatever’ Moment,” Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-gops-whatever-moment-1441928540↩
- Kimberley A. Strassel, “The GOP’s ‘Whatever’ Moment,” Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-gops-whatever-moment-1441928540↩
- Maggie Haberman, “Joe Biden Isn’t Sure Family Is Ready for Run,” New York Times, August 26, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/27/us/politics/joe-biden-isnt-sure-family-is-ready-for-run.html; David Lawder, “More Democrats crack open door for Biden presidential run,” Reuters, August 23, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/08/24/us-usa-election-biden-idUSKCN0QS0RZ201508; Michael A. Memoli, “Would a presidential run by Joe Biden aim to knock Hillary Clinton out or serve as a standby?” Los Angeles Times, September 4, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/la-na-biden-decision-20150904-story.html; Colleen McCain Nelson and Carol E. Lee, “Joe Biden Supporters Ramp Up a Campaign-in-Waiting,” Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/joe-biden-supporters-ramp-up-a-campaign-in-waiting-1442186886; Jennifer Rubin, “Why the Democrats need Biden,” Washington Post, August 24, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2015/08/24/why-the-democrats-need-biden/↩
- Jonathan Allen, “Donald Trump’s new misogynistic low: Fox’s Kelly had ‘blood coming out of her … wherever’,” Vox, August 7, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/8/7/9119897/donald-trump-blood-wherever-Fox; Christian Datoc, “Fox News Boss: Trump’s Kelly Attacks ‘Crude And Irresponsible’,” Daily Caller, August 25, 2015, http://dailycaller.com/2015/08/25/fox-news-boss-trumps-kelly-attacks-crude-and-irresponsible/; Jeet Heer, “Donald Trump Is Not a Populist. He’s the Voice of Aggrieved Privilege,” New Republic, August 24, 2015, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/122590/if-you-think-donald-trump-populist-you-dont-know-your-history; Betsy Rothstein, “Donald Trump Agrees That Megyn Kelly Is A ‘Bimbo’,” Daily Caller, August 7, 2015, http://dailycaller.com/2015/08/07/donald-trump-agrees-that-megyn-kelly-is-a-bimbo/; Ben Schreckinger, “Donald Trump’s war on Megyn Kelly,” Politico, August 7, 2015, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/08/donald-trumps-war-on-megyn-kelly-121171.html; Tierney Sneed, “Univision Prez Slams Trump: Treatment Of Jorge Ramos ‘Beneath Contempt’,” Talking Points Memo, August 27, 2015, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/donald-trump-univision-statement↩
- Dan Balz and Scott Clement, “Poll: Trump, Carson top GOP race; Clinton leads Dems but support drops,” Washington Post, September 13, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/poll-trump-carson-top-gop-race-clinton-leads-dems-but-support-drops/2015/09/13/7961a820-58c2-11e5-8bb1-b488d231bba2_story.html↩
- Cathleen Decker, “California Republicans echo U.S. trends, favoring outsiders Donald Trump and Ben Carson,” Los Angeles Times, September 13, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/local/politics/la-pol-prez-poll-president-20150913-story.html↩
- Nick Corasaniti, “Bernie Sanders to Visit Liberty University to Preach to the Other Side’s Choir,” New York Times, September 14, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/09/14/bernie-sanders-to-visit-liberty-university-to-preach-to-the-other-sides-choir/↩
- Alexandra Homolar-Riechmann, “The moral purpose of US power: neoconservatism in the age of Obama,” Contemporary Politics 15, no. 2 (2009): 179-196, doi: 10.1080/13569770902858111↩