In his Fox News town hall appearance Thursday night, President Trump — apparently now resigned to Joe Biden’s primary victory — casually revealed his now-moot plan to run against Bernie Sanders. “So mentally, I’m all set for Bernie. Communist, I had everything down, he’s a communist.”
A communist! We all thought Trump’s plan was to call Bernie a socialist, a label that’s politically toxic enough. But why would Trump say something that’s actually true?
Trump’s probably-now-hypothetical red-baiting campaign against Bernie would have stood a strong chance of working, because there is a lot of confusion about Sanders’s political identity. The New York Times has a report on his Soviet-era freelance diplomacy. Sanders participated in a “sister city” program, and the Times finds Soviet-era documents showing that the government considered this program a propaganda tool to shift blame for the Cold War onto the United States. But while that may be true, the sister city program was not considered subversive or even radical. Even Ronald Reagan supported it.
And while it is unfortunately easy to confuse socialism with communism, the two are not synonymous. As you move left on the ideological spectrum, liberalism bleeds into socialism, but it is difficult to define a fixed point where one ends and the other begins. (The Socialist Party’s program from a century ago is now largely uncontroversial not only among Democrats but Republicans.) But the divide between democratic socialism and communism is fairly clear. Communism envisions political change occurring through revolution, followed by the establishment of a one-party state, that party representing the sole political organ with a claim to political legitimacy.
Sanders has rejected this theory his entire political life. In a speech 30 years ago, while extolling socialism, he distinguished his creed from communism:
Yes, it is true that a result of the tremendous political ignorance in this country created by the schools and the media, there are many people who do not know the difference between “socialism” and “communism.” Yes, on more than one occasion, I have been told to “go back to Russia.” But, if we maintain a strong position on civil liberties, express our continued opposition to authoritarianism and the concept of the one-party state, I am confident that the vast majority of the people will understand that there is nothing incompatible between socialism and democracy.
Sanders has also applied this principle in the domestic arena. He condemned a gunman who attacked Republican members of Congress (“Real change can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values”) and efforts by some campus leftists to shout down or cancel hostile speakers (“I don’t quite understand why anybody thinks it is a good idea to deny somebody else the right to express his or her point of view”). His campaign recently affirmed this stance: “Bernie believes, fundamentally, that people have a right to speak and students have a right, if they are on a college campus, not to attend … Bernie does not believe we should be afraid of somebody coming on a campus or anyplace else and speaking or that we should deny somebody else the right to express his or her point of view.”
Sanders’s idea of a “political revolution” is metaphorical. He wants to reorder American politics by inspiring the public to vote its economic interests but does not see such a revolution as the endpoint of history or an event that would foreclose his political opponents from contesting future elections.
It is true that Sanders has expressed a lot of naïve views about various left-wing dictators. He tends to phrase his criticism in muted ways (“the Sandinistas make their share of mistakes”; Cuba is not a “perfect society”) But these habits, however alarming, do not set him apart from the political mainstream. Many American presidents have soft-pedaled the brutality of their Cold War allies and have continued this ugly tradition into the modern era with the Gulf Kingdoms. Michael Bloomberg recently denied Xi Jinping is a dictator. Sanders’s impulse to downplay communist brutality stems from a foreign-policy impulse — making a case against American intervention — rather than citing these governments as a domestic model.
There is, however, a prominent American politician who does praise dictators as an aspirational model: Donald Trump. The president has for decades praised a rogue’s gallery of the world’s most brutal dictators. Trump does not merely overlook or soft-pedal their authoritarianism, as many politicians do out of geopolitical strategy. He specifically praises their brutality as qualities to admire. He was saying this of the Chinese in 1989 (“When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak.”) And he has been saying this of Vladimir Putin to the present day (“I respect Putin. He’s a strong leader.”)
It was Trump’s overt authoritarian tendencies that caused many conservatives to initially oppose his candidacy. Some of them have highlighted Sanders’s alleged communism, or philo-communism, as a sort of parallel. Casting Bernie as the left’s answer to Trump, they demand liberals disavow him just as the “Never Trumpers” disavowed their populist strongman.
National Review’s Kevin Williamson makes a version of this case. “In 2016, there was a groundswell of conservative and Republican opposition to Donald Trump, led in no small part by this magazine,” he writes. “In 2020, there is not much sign of a comparable movement among Democrats in opposition to Senator Bernie Sanders, the socialist from Vermont from Brooklyn who is running for the presidential nomination of a party to which he does not belong as a confessing socialist calling for revolution.”
There are numerous fatal problems with this parallel. One is that the majority of Never Trump conservatives, especially the ones highlighted by Williamson’s magazine, decided either after Trump won the primary, or after he won the general election, that “never” actually meant “not at this precise moment in time.” Some original Never Trumpers became Trump’s most slavish defenders.
Secondly, the Never Trump proposition for those who didn’t immediately capitulate after the primary was that conservatives were better off supporting Hillary Clinton, a normal Democrat and believer in the rule of law, than Trump. The “Never Bernie” proposition today does not ask Democrats to choose, say, a Mitt Romney or a John McCain over Sanders. It asks them to support right-wing authoritarian Donald Trump. So even if one were to grant the moral equivalence between Sanders and Trump, his parallel is perfect nonsense.
Liberals have plenty of good reasons not to nominate Sanders. His policy ideas are often unrealistic or unworkable, and his political strategy is a fantasy. But the attempt by anti-Trump conservatives to liken him to their party is a smear, motivated by a desire to convince themselves that Trump’s authoritarianism is not a phenomenon rooted in their own party but equally shared. Whatever his flaws, Bernie Sanders is a democrat.