Bernie and Trump

Will 2020 be a battle between a rational cult (Bernie) and an irrational one (Trump)?

It never occurred to me until recently that the Democrats might have a candidate who generates something akin to the blind loyalty of Trump supporters.

Yes, I knew that Bernie supporters were fervent, but I did not fully sense how many in his base follow the mantra of “Bernie or Bust.” My awareness of this increased in recent days, first when my thirty-six-year-old niece said that she had switched from Elizabeth to Bernie because she was so impressed with the energy and commitment of her peers’ support of Bernie. It was not the transitory type that Elizabeth had, but rather more of the “to-the-very-end” type that Bernie has. Later, another relative told me that much of her life was on hold while she was immersed door-knocking for Bernie in her home state of California, which wisely this year moved its primary from June up to Super Tuesday (March 3).

It is hard to imagine Joe Biden generating deep loyalty and, as good as Pete Buttigieg might be, he seems to have a knack for saying things that gratuitously piss other people off. If Amy Klobuchar gets the momentum that she has earned and deserves, then she may too develop followers who will go to the mat for her.

But as things stand now, Bernie is the one Democrat who has something akin to a cult following, one in which it is virtually impossibly to pry away supporters. Does that sound familiar? Well yes, the fact that Donald Trump’s popularity with his base actually increased during the impeachment process shows two clear things: (1) it is virtually impossible to get his base to waver, and (2) these things called facts don’t mean a whole lot, if anything, to his base.

This is where there is a fundamental difference between the Bernie Cult and the Trump Cult. There is a rational foundation to why Bernie has such a strong following. We can see it in two dynamics:

    1. Bernie’s policies are based on reason and empathy. Trump’s are based on insecurity and fear. Bernie wants to finish the work on the social and economic safety net for Americans that Teddy Roosevelt began, his cousin Franklin Roosevelt institutionalized, and Lyndon Johnson expanded. But the United States is unlike other industrialized democracies because there are enough Americans who resent the idea of “security for all.” For an excellent explanation why, I suggest reading Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project in the New York Times Magazine. In a nutshell, it is that many white Americans do not favor extending equality to people of color and other minorities. It might be helpful to watch a recent guest appearance of Hannah-Jones on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

  1. Unlike Trump supporters, Bernie supporters will not give their candidate a blank check to do whatever he wants. While Trump is all over the map, Bernie is consistent, perhaps to a fault. What you see is what you get. In fact, what you see is essentially what you’ve seen from him for the past forty years, with the one exception of gun control, where in his early years he [had to] pander to his gun-loving Vermont constituents. Bernie’s supporters’ commitment extends beyond him personally and stretches to the concept of a fair and just society. If he should waver in his commitments, his base would begin to unravel. If Bernie was one percent as corrupt as Trump, he would offend many in his base, and they would likely leave the reservation.

Last Friday evening, Bill Maher said on “Real Time” that Donald Trump had just had his finest week (in terms of popularity). Maher and others are becoming more scared that the dreaded “four more years” might happen.

The conventional wisdom is that the Democratic Party does not have a candidate who can go toe-to-toe with Trump. I don’t believe that. I think that the intensity of Bernie’s base support gives him a far stronger foundation than other Democratic candidates. Should it become likely that he will win the nomination, the fervor of his support could grow exponentially. It will have to, because the nastiness of his opponents will also multiply. While I have my reservations about Bernie (I don’t like being yelled at), I still think that he is our best bet (along with possibly Klobuchar).

Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, these are the cult leaders who can scare anyone who has the ability to engage in rational thinking. Trump may not have reached their levels, but he’s scary and unhinged. But perhaps in this unique moment of 2020, we have a leader who has a semi-cult following who wants to truly improve the quality of life for Americans and all global citizens. It’s odd that things have developed this way, but for the time being, we may want to go with our “semi-cult leader,” Bernie.

This post is cross-published on the Political Introverts blog.