Populism, for all its limitations, does one thing well: it causes elites to freak the fuck out.
Bernie Sanders and his popularity alarm the 1 percent and its lackeys in the professional-managerial classes, so much that the latter are unable to be objective about him, or even cover his campaign fairly. His open class war — and working-class personal style — destabilize their sense of what is possible in American politics, making them so angry that they’re often reduced to comparing him to the other public figure they most love to hate. That’s Trump, of course.
The notion that Bernie Sanders is “Trumpian” is repeated often, even insistently, by the pundit class. When Sanders pointed out in August that he doesn’t get favorable coverage from the Washington Post, and that the paper is owned by Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon, CNN contended that Sanders sounded “eerily similar to Trump.”
It is true that Trump has lambasted the Washington Post, too, for hostile coverage of him, calling it the “Amazon Post.” But you know what? The newspaper is owned by Jeff Bezos. Just because Trump makes a point doesn’t make it wrong, nor, contrary to CNN anchor Poppy Harlow’s characterization, is repeating it “dangerous.”
CNN commentator and former Democratic consultant Kirsten Powers, describing Trump’s habit of attacking all media critical of him as “fake news,” lamented that the Sanders campaign was “using that same playbook, frankly. And it would be problematic even without Donald Trump. But considering the culture that we’re in where media is under such constant attack, I think that you should be very careful about the accusations you make and you better be able to back them up.”
It isn’t, by the way, hard to “back up” the contention that the Washington Post is hostile to Bernie Sanders. Adam Johnson observed, in a 2016 article for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), that the paper had, in one less-than-twenty-four-hour period, run sixteen negative stories about the socialist candidate. That bias has continued into the 2020 campaign. Journalist Kevin Gosztola, in a piece on the newspaper’s bias against the senator, presented a list of sixteen inflammatory headlines, including “Democratic socialists can’t hide their shallowness,” and “Online agitator. Leftist know-it-all. Is the Bernie Bro back?” Still, clucking over Sanders’s accusation, CNN talking head (and Yahoo national editor) Brittany Shepherd concern-trolled, “There’s a real concern that Bernie Sanders is going to be compared to Donald Trump again and again and again and that’s not a comparison he wants.”
CNN wasn’t on a frolic of its own here. The rest of the media joined in with enthusiastic horror. In this same “news” cycle, discussing this same “event,” NPR agreed that Sanders was “sounding like Trump.” The Guardian ran a ludicrously hysterical column asking if Sanders’s attacks on the media were “Trumpian,” not only implicitly answering in the affirmative, but bizarrely connecting the Vermont senator to the violence that journalists have been facing in the United States and around the world.
Of course, there isn’t actually any direct evidence that Bezos’s ownership is the reason for the Post’s vendetta against Sanders. It could just be professional-managerial-class resistance to socialism among the writers, many of whom also live in Washington, DC, and want to remain respectable with political elites. Supporting Sanders isn’t a great way to get invited to the right parties in our nation’s capital.
But the narrative that Sanders is just like Trump is older than this recent kerfuffle. Even back in 2017, obsessed Bernie-hater, political consultant, and troll-farmer Sally Albright tweeted, “Between Trump and Bernie Sanders, it’s clear that the best way to win the votes of the white working class was to lie to them.” In June, Talking Points Memo claimed Sanders was “sounding a Trumpian note” after he told MSNBC that “some people are saying” he would have won the 2016 primary had it not been “rigged.” In July, the Washington Post accused both Warren and Sanders of “Trumpian trade protectionism,” even though, agree or disagree with tariffs, the Right has never had a monopoly on such policies.
It looks like our media-celebrity class plans to continue this line of attack.
In a September 12 tweet, David Cay Johnston called Sanders “mad as hell with Trumpian management skill.”
In a way, it’s a weird slur. There is a huge difference between Trump’s right populism and Sanders’s democratic socialism. Trump simply wants to foment resentment against liberal elites, ultimately to keep the world safe for himself and the rest of his asset-stripping, nihilistic class. A democratic socialist like Sanders — using some populist rhetoric — doesn’t just want to make us mad, he actually wants to rein in the power of companies like Amazon and billionaires like Bezos. He also wants to redistribute their wealth and power. His proposed policies, whether on taxation, unions, or health care, are completely organized around achieving that goal.
The rhetorical efforts to equate Bernie with Trump are intended to obscure these differences. Sometimes these attacks cross over into attacks on Bernie’s supporters, suggesting they are inherently reactionary people. In August, Albright tweeted, “There are lots of Bernie supporters now who are Republicans. They are a natural fit.”
When elites tag Bernie Sanders as “Trumpian,” they are trying to associate him with everything that good progressives should hate — racism, sexism, xenophobia — even though he has spent his career fighting against those things. They’re trying to make Sanders sound as narrow, provincial, and backward-looking as the current president.
But Bernie is the only internationalist in the race. He’s been outspoken in criticizing the US war machine, working across party lines to end the war in Yemen and even criticizing past US interventions in Latin America. Though he hasn’t been as radical on immigration as some supporters would like, he’s articulated a clear critique of Trump’s cruel policies. Compared to 2016, he has been far bolder about identifying as a person from a working-class immigrant family, raised by people who faced genocide abroad as well as poverty and discrimination in their chosen country.
It’s no surprise that he’s enormously popular among American Muslims and Latinos. While Trump’s war on immigrants is intended to appeal to provincial elites who disdain the global poor, and to divide the white American working class from its immigrant counterparts, Bernie’s support of immigrants represents a genuine socialist solidarity with the international working class.
Calling Sanders “Trumpian” is the best way elite media opinion-mongers can think of to discredit him, and the insult shows how afraid they are of his popularity. Some probably know better and are using it cynically. For others, the difference doesn’t matter. The slur reveals a deep terror of the public and its unpredictable passions. Just as elites during the middle of last century feared the potential mass appeal of both communism and fascism, much of our pundit class fears Bernie as much as Trump.
When they say he’s “Trumpian,” they mean that people might like him, and they’re scared.