With Bernie Sanders on a track to emerge as the Democratic Party’s delegate leader, if not the outright presumptive nominee by the time that the party gathers in Milwaukee to bestow its imprimatur upon a presidential candidate, the rationalizations have already begun. Among the more apparently soothing ways in which Democrats and their allies have comforted themselves is the notion that Sanders is in some ways their party’s version of Trump.
Sanders is a populist, like Trump. And while he represents a radical departure from much Democratic orthodoxy, those departures are for the most part limited to tone and affect rather than policy. The party will surely unite behind his candidacy just as Republicans rallied around Trump, if not out of affection for the candidate then out of distaste for the other guy. Like Trump and the Republican Party, a President Sanders would rely upon the Democratic Party’s governing class, many of whom are veterans of more conventional Democratic administrations. That which Sanders cannot do through executive action, he’d be forced to ask Congress to ratify—limiting the prospects for revolutionary changes to the social compact.
While the Trump-Sanders analog has some merit, it’s a mistake to confuse these two political actors for two sides of the same coin. The distinctions between a populist opportunist with few ideological moorings and a true believer like Sanders are not superficial.
In 2016, the journalist Salina Zito coined a heuristic to help seasoned political observers understand the nature of Donald Trump’s support. “The press takes him literally, but not seriously,” she wrote. “His supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” So when then-candidate Trump offered divisive and dubious proposals such as a database of Muslims in America, a “deportation force” to remove 11 million illegal residents from the country, a pledge to impose “some form of punishment” on the women who have abortions, and a promise to “take” the oil from nations like Iraq and Libya, the press went about litigating the relative merits of these proposals while his voters only heard emphatic positioning statements that reflected the urgency of their circumstances.
That was a useful device for evaluating a campaign led by a figure who has few core convictions. It is, therefore, far less instructive when evaluating Bernie Sanders. No one needs a decoder ring to understand what he really believes or what his supporters see in him. He’s been ideologically consistent throughout his adult life.
Bernie Sanders was a ripe 38-years-old when he joined the Socialist Workers Party—unmodified by the adjective “democratic”—and served as a 1980 presidential elector for a candidate who had previously said that American soldiers should “take up their guns and shoot their officers.” This was no momentary dalliance. Sanders was back again in 1984, supporting the SWP presidential ticket to provide voters with “fundamental alternatives to capitalist ideology.”
In 1980, Sanders also joined his socialist colleagues in affixing his name to a press release stating that “I fully support the SWP’s continued defense of the Cuban revolution.” Sanders’s affections for Cuban Marxism are equally sincere. As late as 1989, as the Communist Bloc was being dismantled by its own oppressed citizenry, Sanders heaped praise on the “misunderstood” Castro regime, which had “solved many important problems” and was “more successful than almost any other developing country in providing health care for its people.” Sanders’s qualified support for Cuban Communism is on display even today. In an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes broadcast Sunday, Sanders launched into an unprompted digression about how “unfair” it was to condemn Castro, whom he praised for implementing a “massive literacy program” when he “came into office.”
Sanders was equally sanguine about the socialist experiment being conducted by the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. In the 1980s, the then-mayor of Burlington, Vermont, was treated to a tour of that Central American nation, where he was invested in establishing sister-city relations. After his tour, Sanders expressed admiration for the “gentle, loving” and “impressive” Sandinista leadership, and conspicuously dismissed questions about the regime’s ethnic cleansing of Miskito Indians. In 1985, when Daniel Ortega declared a national emergency that led to the mass arrest of regime critics and the shuttering of media outlets, Sanders not only refused to condemn these actions but traveled to New York City to meet with the Nicaraguan president in an ostentatious display of solidarity.
Sanders is just as invested in rehabilitating the Soviet Union’s ideological model. In tapes uncovered from his 1988 “honeymoon” in the archetypal Marxist state, Sanders extolls the virtues of Soviet culture and its commitment to collective action, and he denigrates American capitalism. Sanders traveled to the USSR as a full-throated advocate of what the Los Angeles Times described as “traditional socialist goals—public ownership of oil companies, factories, utilities, banks, etc.” And while the former Soviet Union has matured since then, Sanders has not. “It is time to begin thinking about public ownership of major utilities,” Sanders declared as recently as last September.
Unlike Trump, Sanders is not a malleable figure who can be convinced to abandon his beliefs on pragmatic grounds. Nor will a Sanders administration have to settle for political appointees who do not share their boss’s convictions. To the extent that Trumpism had its advocates with experience in government, they were relegated to obscure think tanks or midlevel posts in congressional offices. Sanders will not be similarly bereft of socialist talent.
The Democratic Party has spent the last decade incubating a cadre of young ideologues who have dedicated their careers to crafting what looks like workable semi-socialist policy if you squint hard enough. From a federal job guarantee to minimum and maximum guaranteed incomes; from a government mandate to provide housing to “free” education designed to transition Americans from the career of their choice to the occupations that please the state; from the functional nationalization of the $900 billion annual health insurance industry to transforming the Post Office into a state-run bank—the intellectual infrastructure for Democratic Socialism is alive and well within the existing Democratic Party.
Democrats are beginning only now to confront the prospect that Bernie Sanders will run against Donald Trump and lose, but this is a failure of imagination. They should be just as scared of the potential for a Bernie Sanders victory. It has taken Donald Trump nearly four years to remake the GOP in his own image. In fact, to judge by the regular assertions from the press that the Republican Party is well and truly Donald Trump’s party, that is an ongoing project. It would take Sanders considerably less time to transform the Democratic Party into a Democratic Socialist Party. And when that project begins, one or the other of these two largely incompatible adjectives will have to go.