Bernie Sanders’s insurgency for the Democratic presidential nomination brings out me in ways that just the whiff of the word “conspiracy” has not. I am skeptical of politicians, and absolutely loathe conspiracy theories. For what it’s worth, I am not convinced the PBS public broadcasting affair was a conspiracy, just a difficult and disappointing one.
I am also skeptical of politics, especially of politics that tempts naivete. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that President Clinton was perfectly capable of persuading another popular president to do his bidding. What’s more, I believe that in his actions in office, Ronald Reagan in all likelihood did what I think any presidential leader in a world of democracies is supposed to do: establish a personality cult around himself. I do not care in particular for his stand in favor of the Italian prime minister’s own personal fate, nor for his particular brand of “Argentinian Spring” talk. But again, these things were not very recent. And if this sounds a bit too conspiratorial, I assure you that President Reagan did not arrange for military action to benefit his own or any other foreign friend.
In other words, I could see a president who thought it was important to go to war in Honduras against the military junta in order to accomplish a policy goal, an act that is noble and honorable even in a violation of the law. I do not think those are the actions of a President who thought he should use an alleged otherworldly conspiracy to impose a political agenda.
I also think it would be a grave error to underestimate how much a president — particularly one with an imposing personality — can control the state of a society, both its education and its intellectual climate. I think there is very strong evidence that when such a man is in power, groups of people’s opinions often become organized around him. That is not to say these groupings provide “instant obedience” to him. But when the first President Trump explains his plan to tax the water used by Mexicans, people will take note. And he will have success of a kind.
But I must concede, when I see Sanders or whoever in the Oval Office, a few things come over me. There is something troubling, even manipulative, about his implicit assumption that the people are to be led. At times, I think he seems to operate as if he thinks that because he is wearing the sash of the Republican Party, his policies are in fact conservative, and conservatives are his natural constituency. That is not entirely true. But what I see is the desire for popularity, and to gain the nomination of his Party. That seems incompatible with conservatives.
There is more to it. I also see two things. One is the feeling that he is an almost imperious presence, and even garrulous. I know that the sense of entitlement that comes when one has ascended to the highest office in the land can be strangely irresistible. But the sheer arrogance, with his appearance and attitude, seems out of step. It is not part of a history of history that is filled with such behavior, most of all when the ball looks entirely in his court.
The second thing is something more insidious: His doing things that I think are out of step with modern Republican attitudes. There are some whom I could imagine being enthusiastic supporters of a no-choice health insurance mandate for all citizens, though I could not imagine any regard for this among the party’s rank and file. But they have been discouraged from so much by the image of the GOP being nothing more than a party of white, male working-class men. The modern Republican establishment has routinely made it clear that its priority is attracting the kinds of working-class people who, unless they are being dragged to Republican events, would not vote Republican.
Of course, I do not expect anything that would interest me from a progressive; that is why I am not one. But it is by no means necessarily a good thing to be afraid. It does not matter whether the accusations that befall your enemy are true or false. What matters is the indignation, the feeling that the other side is bigger and more powerful than you are. It is this feeling that Sanders has given me. That is what drew me to radical movements in the past. It is this feeling that will draw me to radical movements in the future. And it is this feeling that I worry about.