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Bernie Sanders is on the Trump track to the White House. Here’s why he’s not a ‘leftist Trump.’ | Will Bunch

Like Trump in 2016, Bernie Sanders defies pundits and party elites by surging in Dem primaries. But here's why Bernie isn't "leftist Trump."

A smiling Senator Bernie Sanders greets supporters at the end of his 2020 Rally at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School on Nov. 16, 2019 in Los Angeles. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
A smiling Senator Bernie Sanders greets supporters at the end of his 2020 Rally at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School on Nov. 16, 2019 in Los Angeles. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/TNS)Read moreGenaro Molina / MCT

Four years ago, Joanne Beer — then a transplant from Portland, Ore., studying for her Ph.D. in bio-statistics in Pittsburgh — was part of that younger, educated cohort that backed Sen. Bernie Sanders in his upstart presidential bid as it fell just short of the Democratic nomination.

Since then, a lot has changed for Beer, now 38, who moved across the state to Philadelphia for her postdoctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania. Arguably, less has changed for Vermont’s Sanders, who’s still running for president and still bashing billionaire elites in the same language he’s used for more than 40 years. In 2020, many campaign pundits were quick to write off this Sanders sequel as old news, weighed down by his age (78) and news of his recent heart attack.

But while the Beltway elites looked around for a new flavor of the month, Beer and her new friends in the group Philly for Bernie, which she cochairs, rolled up their sleeves and went to work. They staged phone banks to call voters in Iowa, drew a big crowd to their debate-watch party last summer, and have watched a man who’d be America’s oldest-at-inauguration president cement his stranglehold on the youth vote.

» READ MORE: Not ready for 2020: A ‘look back’ at America’s worst year before it even starts | Will Bunch

Beer told me on Wednesday that Sanders’ amazing political consistency since he first ran as an obscure third-party candidate in the early 1970s shows “that he’s not going to waver in his integrity — and young people find that appealing. It doesn’t seem like he’s some technocrat, talking down to young people.”

There’s been a lot going on these days, including the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump that’s absorbed most of the oxygen from the news atmosphere, so maybe you haven’t noticed — but Bernie Sanders is surging, and at exactly the right time.

With the first votes of a seemingly endless campaign finally to be cast Monday night in snowy Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, the latest polls show the lifelong democratic socialist poised to claim the victory in the Hawkeye State that eluded him by less than a percentage point when he faced Hillary Clinton in 2016. What’s more, Sanders is also in a good position to win the next week’s New Hampshire primary (which he won in a landslide four years ago), and historically every Democrat who’s pulled off this Daily Double has gone on to the nomination.

Clearly this is not a done deal. National polls tend to show former Vice President Joe Biden clinging to a lead over Sanders, aided by his strength with two critical (and overlapping) groups, older voters and African Americans. Billionaire late entrant Mike Bloomberg, who clearly sees a Sanders nomination as an anathema, is spending tens of millions of dollars, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren is hoping for yet another comeback with the endorsements of the Des Moines Register and (half of) the New York Times and an appeal to courage in finally electing a woman.

But as someone who’s covered 10 presidential elections and struggled to make sense of 2020′s utterly bizarre campaign, the Sanders surge feels like the first moment of clarity, and the first time I’ve seen a candidate with a path to July’s convention in Milwaukee ... and beyond. Bernie’s blowout support from the 18-to-34 voting bloc cuts across racial lines, and as a result he’s also the leading candidate for the Latinx vote while second and gaining among black Democrats.

But there’s something interesting about the Sanders spike, and I’m far from the first to notice this. He’s on an electoral path that seems strikingly similar to the way Donald Trump shocked the world and captured the White House in 2016. Let’s call it the Trump track.

Just like Trump, Sanders has spent much of the yearlong run-up to Iowa with the punditocracy convinced there’s no way that he could ever win the nomination, that the party machinery would somehow coalesce around a more centrist candidate as it usually has ever since the liberal George McGovern lost in a 1972 landslide (ironically, or perhaps fittingly, to Richard Nixon). Yet also much like 2016′s GOP standard-bearer, a large field of alternative candidates has divided the anti-Sanders vote among pols who do nothing for their party’s angry, change-seeking base.

Some of the parallels are striking. In 2016, the Republican big-money crowd quickly coalesced behind Jeb Bush, whose disastrous campaign (“Please clap”) was rightfully defined by Trump as “low energy.” That’s a term that could also easily be applied to Biden, the darling of the Democrats’ 2020 donor class. The folks anointed by TV talking heads as their party’s rising stars quickly came and went in 2016 (Scott Walker, Marco Rubio) and in 2020 (Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris).

In 2016, there was talk of a stop-Trump movement all the way to the party convention until it was clear that it was an optical delusion. In 2020, the stop-Bernie talk is just beginning from Democratic elites, but for now it also seems to be just that — talk. While Trump didn’t need money from party elites because he was spending his own (or so he claimed). Sanders’ remarkable ability to raise money from small donors at that $27-a-pop rate also shields him from establishment pressure.

Sanders continues to draw huge crowds at his rallies, just like Trump. Both have fanatical supporters that have been known to cause offense, including Sanders’ notorious online “Bernie Bros," and both candidates are highly distrustful of the mainstream media. And each man is, in his own way, a populist — drawing strength from the anger of an American working class that’s watched factory jobs dry up and wages stagnate while college and medical costs soared, and which harbors resentments toward the elites they blame for making that happen.

Given all these similarities, it’s not hard to see how the pundit class — the same folks, remember, who saw neither Trump nor Sanders coming in their rearview mirrors — is also convinced that a President Bernie Sanders would govern as a “Trump of the left,” and govern badly. They see a Sanders presidency as radical and, more important, uncompromising — with a rigid POTUS unable to get his Medicare for All or Green New Deal plans through Congress and causing gridlock (which somehow is worse than what we have now? ... but I digress.)

Here’s how the New York Times editorial board — a fairly good barometer of elite opinion, no? — dismissed Sanders in its now infamous editorial endorsing both Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar: “Only his prescriptions can be the right ones, even though most are overly rigid, untested and divisive.” The only problem with this frequent knock on Sanders is that he’s been in elected office since 1981 and his record is nothing like that.

When Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington, Vt., as an unapologetic socialist, he had essentially no allies on his city council or business community, and yet he figured out ways to work with them on issues from building low-income housing to attracting a minor-league baseball team. Time magazine — not exactly a socialist house organ — cited Sanders as one of America’s best mayors. The Times editorial and other critics also pretend that as a congressman he hasn’t compromised — or taken some heat for it — on matters like gun control or the 1994 crime bill.

The “Trump of the left” has never faced serious corruption allegations despite a long career in the public eye, while the actual Trump has left a trail of business bankruptcies, unpaid bills, fraud settlement, and paid-off mistresses and is now using the presidency to enrich himself. The packed arenas at a Trump rally and a Sanders rally might look the same in pictures — but at only one of them are they chanting hate toward refugees at the border or for locking up a president’s political opponents, or cheering when dissenters are roughed up.

Yes, Bernie Sanders is a populist, and Donald Trump is a populist — but not all populism is created equal. There is right-wing populism in which a demagogue manipulates the anger of everyday people and steers it away from the CEO who got a huge bonus for eliminating their job and toward The Other — Mexican migrants or women or even the disabled. And then there’s the kind of populism that addresses struggling people by trying to solve their problems.

“Other candidates have absorbed a lot of Bernie’s talking points — because they’re popular,” John Zimmerman, a 34-year-old reform-minded Democratic committee-person from South Philadelphia and another Philly for Bernie activist, told me — implying that young voters don’t want a copy when they can vote for the original.

» READ MORE: The stakes have never been higher. Here’s who I plan to vote for in April’s Dem primary | Will Bunch

Regular readers of this space know that my head isn’t at exactly the same place as Beer or Zimmerman. I wrote recently about my intention to vote for Warren when the primaries come to Pennsylvania in late April, because I think she’d be a tad better than Sanders at getting progressive things done and because I see my vote as a statement against the fear and misogyny that grip America. And I’m still hoping her message of courage can catch fire. But I also think the idea that Democrats should “stop Bernie” if he can truly rally young people and Walmart workers and Uber drivers and other disaffected voters to his cause is utterly ridiculous.

If Democratic elites truly wanted to “stop Bernie,” there was a way — and a time, long passed — they could have done that. They could have gotten behind a $15-or-more living wage years ago, and they could have done a lot more to strengthen labor unions during that brief window that Democrats controlled the federal government. They could have shunned big money — especially from the vultures getting rich off fossil fuels — and worked more aggressively to get health care and a college diploma in the hands of more people.

The powers-that-be missed that opportunity, and now to twist the surface similarities between two very different kinds of populism into a myth that a Sanders presidency would simply be “Trump of the left” reveals where their true loyalties lie. Stop Bernie? Seriously? It may be that not stopping Bernie may be the only way to stop Trump on Nov. 3.