Bernie Sanders is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. It is true that the primary has entered a stage where the standings could become very fluid, very quickly. It is also the case that Sanders continues to lag behind Joe Biden nationally. But recent polls have shown Sanders either ahead or a close second in Iowa and the other early states, and his campaign has raised an extraordinary amount of money. With a victory in Iowa, Sanders could well have the momentum and funds to tear through the rest of the primary calendar.
Democratic strategists and commentators late to appreciating Sanders’s viability have spent the past few days diligently making up for lost time, as a cascade of critical stories has appeared in the press. But Republicans, anticipating the general election, are also beginning to take Sanders’s potential nomination more seriously. “There is no mistaking,” a Trump campaign official told Fox News on Monday, “that Bernie Sanders has to be considered the front-runner now.” At an Ohio rally Thursday, President Trump added his own personal touch to that conclusion. “Bernie is going up,” he said. “He’s surging. Crazy Bernie is surging.”
Some of the rhetorical threads Republicans might pursue against Sanders if he’s nominated are already fairly clear. Last week, for instance, the Trump campaign issued a lengthy statement berating Sanders as a “wealthy fossil fuel-guzzling millionaire,” living a life at odds with his messaging on inequality, and criticizing his campaign’s use of jets and office products bought from Amazon. “[H]e’s just another Hollywood-style hypocrite who demands working class Americans make sacrifices while he plays by his own rules and enjoys a lavish lifestyle,” it read. “But Sanders isn’t a celebrity at the Oscars or Golden Globes—he’s the Democrats’ leading candidate for president!”
Republicans have also taken an interest in Sanders’s criticism of the Trump administration’s assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, the subject of a strident tweet from the Trump campaign on Sunday. “An Iranian terrorist who killed Americans and orchestrated an attack on our embassy in Iraq was brought to justice,” it read. “But @BernieSanders thinks the terrorist should still be alive, and free to plot more attacks!” On Monday, the campaign told Fox News Sanders is “an apologist for the Iranian regime,” willing to “appease states that support terrorism.”
Outside groups are jumping into the game as well. On Tuesday, James O’Keefe’s ersatz investigative reporting outfit, Project Veritas, perhaps best known at this point for attempting to undermine and discredit The Washington Post’s reporting on the sexual abuse allegations against Roy Moore, posted video of a random Sanders field organizer who speculated about unrest at the Democratic National Convention and defended political imprisonment and reeducation in the Soviet Union.
The substance of these attacks hasn’t been meaningful, interesting, or unexpected, but it should be noted how belated they are. For well over a year, Republicans have managed to invoke the dangers of socialism and the threats to the American way of life purportedly embedded in proposals like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All without doing much to invoke America’s leading socialist by name. Instead, new figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar have dominated conservative headlines and the president’s speeches.
Last April, the progressive media watchdog Media Matters reported that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had been mentioned over 3,000 times on Fox News in the preceding six weeks. Only a handful of those published excerpts, including claims that her positions amounted to “fascism” and “civilizational suicide,” mention her in relation to Sanders, with whom she shares most of her stances. Ocasio-Cortez and the other members of the House’s “squad” of progressive Democrats also made a number of cameo appearances in speeches and clips at last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, including an introductory video that featured several more snippets of Ocasio-Cortez than it did of Sanders—or, in fact, any of the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination. Ocasio-Cortez was, additionally, the subject of her very own panel at the event: “AOC’s Green New Deal: Debunking the Climate Alarmism Behind Bringing Full Socialism to America.”
By contrast, when Republicans have referred to Sanders up until now, they have conjured the image of an old, quixotic, but oddly endearing fool—dangerous, yes, but more misguided than malicious. This idea has been embedded not only in Trump’s chosen moniker for Sanders, “Crazy Bernie,” but also in the criticisms Republicans have made of Sanders’s treatment in the 2016 primary. “Hillary Clinton colluded with the Democratic Party in order to beat Crazy Bernie Sanders,” Trump tweeted in 2017. “Is she allowed to so collude? Unfair to Bernie!” Trump’s position on this question was essentially that the Democratic Party should have brought a candidate representing an ideology that would destroy the country closer to the presidency.
As Sanders’s numbers rise this time around, Republicans have tweaked the idea to fit our current headlines. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, for instance, has been insisting that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had the Democratic primary in mind when she withheld the House’s articles of impeachment from the Senate: the better to delay the trial and force Sanders off the campaign trail ahead of the Iowa caucuses, given that all senators are required to sit for the proceedings. “Senator Sanders actually has a chance to win,” he said solemnly at a press conference Monday. “But not now that Nancy Pelosi has held these documents. There was nothing gained. It goes against everything she said, but look at the true political nature of why—to harm one campaign and give a benefit to another.” He went on to urge Vice President Biden to suspend his own presidential campaign while Sanders participated in the trial.
The insincerity at work here is obvious, but it’s well worth asking why Republicans have been demonstrably more willing to grant rhetorical charity to Sanders, a socialist who could well win the presidency and who won 13 million votes in the last primary, than to Ocasio-Cortez, a House freshman from New York City who won just over 100,000 votes in her election. Logically, Sanders would seem to pose a greater threat to America than not only her but the last Democratic president, a capitalist whom the right nevertheless spent eight years denouncing as a Marxist in disguise. At long last, an actual Marxist has arrived. Until a week or so ago, the Republican Party greeted him with a conspicuous and profound ambivalence.
There’s a simple and compelling explanation for this: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Barack Obama might not have shared the same ideological space, but they were people of color, and Sanders is not. The Republican Party has worked, not only over the course of the last decade, but over the course of a generation, to create the impression that nonwhite Democrats, even more than their white peers, are ideologically radical, psychologically unhinged, and possessed of values foreign to this country, especially if the Democrats in question are women.
The Trump era alone has been saturated with examples of this—from Trump’s obsession with Maxine Waters to his tweet last year urging members of the squad to “go back to the broken and crime infested places from which they came,” even though all of its members are American citizens and only Omar was born outside of the United States. Sanders, by contrast, is a less frightening boogeyman for Republican voters than even nonwhite people outside of politics. Last week, Republican Senate candidate Bradley Byrne ran an advertisement featuring images of progressives in flames. “It hurts me to hear Ilhan Omar cheapening 9/11, entitled athletes dishonoring our flag, the squad attacking America,” he said in a voice-over. “Dale fought for that right, but I will not let them tear our country apart.” That ad included not Sanders, but quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Republicans have not run against a white man for the presidency in 16 years. It seems possible that anxieties about learning to do so again partly explain the Trump administration’s desperate efforts to gather information about Hunter Biden. The anti-Sanders machine has taken longer to warm up, in part because a growing cadre of heterodox conservatives prefer him to and positively contrast him with other progressives. In November, The New York Times’ Ross Douthat wrote a “Case for Bernie” premised in part on the idea that Sanders is less beholden to identity politics than his rivals. “For the kind of American who is mostly with the Democrats on economics but wary of progressivism’s zest for culture war,” he wrote, “Sanders’s socialism might be strangely reassuring—as a signal of what he actually cares about, and what battles he might eschew for the sake of his anti-plutocratic goals.”
This week, Tucker Carlson made a similar point, comparing Sanders to Ocasio-Cortez in a monologue that falsely claimed Ocasio-Cortez had gone after the DCCC for being “insufficiently woke.” “Ladies and gentlemen, it sounds like sexism—maybe racism, too,” he said mockingly. “Bernie Sanders, being older, is trying a different approach, a more substantial approach if we’re being honest.” He went on to praise Sanders for criticizing Biden’s support for the war in Iraq and for his independence. “He is the least beholden to his own party,” he said. “He’s made it clear for years that he wants to overturn the entire American system. Now, that’s appalling. It’s without precedent. But keep in mind, this is a country where a lot of people are suddenly fed up with the system. And because of that, Sanders’s position gives him power. In fact, at this point, he is the most credible change candidate in the Democratic Party. And in 2020, that could make him the most formidable challenger.”
Again, Sanders doesn’t substantively differ much on social policy from Ocasio-Cortez or any of the other figures the right tends to frame as “woke.” He just doesn’t look like them. The right’s populists might wise up to this eventually. Even if they don’t, most are sure to take Trump over Sanders at the end of the day, settling on a rhetorical approach, along with the rest of the GOP, that shreds everything positive anyone on the right has ever said about him. We will hear a lot about the Soviets and home values. And Republicans will try to graft all of the shopworn racial and cultural anxieties that have driven their politics onto Sanders as best as they can. On Monday, President Trump retweeted a photoshopped image of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Muslim garb. “The corrupted Dems trying their best to come to the Ayatollah’s rescue,” a caption read. It’s easy enough to photoshop a turban onto Bernie’s head, and it’s assured someone will.