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A Republican friend of mine rolled his eyes (and maybe even licked his chops) at the possibility that Democrats would nominate Bernie Sanders.

"Have they learned nothing from Jeremy Corbyn?" he asked.

"Maybe not," I acknowledged. "But they've learned a lot from Donald Trump."

Corbyn, of course, led the Labour Party in Britain to a whopping defeat by Boris Johnson and the Conservatives. He lost for many reasons, but his leftist politics were in the mix. He calls himself, well, a democratic socialist.

I needn't provide such a primer on Trump. But I should point out that while he didn't initially command broad support within his party, the backers he did have were loud and proud to the point of fanaticism (and remain so).

He promised to explode the status quo. He and his followers practiced (and aced) absolutism: You stood with or against them--there was no squishy in between--and America could be sorted neatly into villains and victims. He dispensed with the usual political etiquette, chafed against the ill-fitting political party in which he'd garbed his ambitions, and insisted that the system was rigged.

Sound like any senator from Vermont you know?

You can analyze Sanders and assess his prospects in terms of how liberal many of his positions are: the end of private health insurance, the dismantling of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, free tuition at public colleges regardless of a student's economic circumstances. By that yardstick he's Corbyn, and, in my view, a hell of a general-election risk.

Or you can focus on his irascibility, his grandiosity, and the bellicosity of his believers. Through this lens he's Trump. And what better way to topple the current president than with his ideologically inverted alter ego?

That's a theory of the case--fight fury with fury, one messiah with another--that I hear frequently as Sanders cements his front-runner status in the Democratic primary and as Democrats, desperate to defeat Trump, wrestle with the wisdom or folly of giving Sanders that assignment.

Sanders is a populist of the left as surely as Trump is a populist of the right, with a familiar distaste for compromise and a comparable appeal to Americans disgusted by politics as usual.

He, like Trump, breaks the mold and defies the laws of political gravity: He had a heart attack last fall, at the age of 78, and it didn't scare away voters or slow his stride. While Trump claims leadership of "a movement the likes of which the world has never seen," Sanders spearheads a "revolution," to be brought about by "the most unprecedented campaign in the modern history of this country."

Look closely and you see the spirit and lessons of Trump all over the Democratic primary and the Democratic Party. You see it in the Biden campaign's questioning of the legitimacy of the Iowa results days before The Times discovered and reported on specific irregularities. You see it in Mike Bloomberg's merciless trolling of Trump with commercials that make him look fat and unhinged, and statements that would be shockingly juvenile but for their mimicry of Trump's taunts. Julie Wood, a spokeswoman for Bloomberg's campaign, recently called the president "a pathological liar who lies about everything: his fake hair, his obesity and his spray-on tan."

You see it in Nancy Pelosi's theatrical ripping up of her copy of Trump's State of the Union address. And you see it in the dive bar in Iowa where, on the eve of the caucuses, one Sanders supporter led others in a crude call-and-response, as recounted by Shawn McCreesh in Rolling Stone.

As for the argument that Hillary Clinton's defeat proves the inefficacy of an establishment or center-left nominee, well, Clinton won the popular vote by about 3 million ballots and lost the Electoral College by only about 77,000, despite Russia, despite James Comey, despite a relentless focus on her emails and despite her own uniquely heavy political baggage. Subtract all of that and you get a winner--a winner who looks nothing like Bernie Sanders.

But when you go back exactly four years ago, you're reminded that Trump was causing utter panic among his party's standard-bearers. He was too idiosyncratic, too provocative--too much. Any responsible political analyst could see it. And almost every political analyst saw it wrong.

Editorial on 02/12/2020

Print Headline: Trump theory of Bernie Sanders


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