Like most journalists who write about national politics, I was multitasking Monday night — my right eye on the ever-flowing stream of bile, with the occasional floating pearl, known as Twitter, and my left eye on cable news. There, a stream of mostly Boomer-era commentators could only talk about one thing: Could any Democrat can find the mojo — for the love of God! — to stop the party from nominating Sen. Bernie Sanders in Milwaukee?
But on my laptop screen was something jarring — the kind of story that you’d think might dent these news channels that have to fill up 24 hours of airtime … and yet somehow never does. In Charlotte, N.C. — the city where President Trump will be crowned by the GOP for a second term in August amid boasts of a booming economy — a downtown auto dealer has begun letting homeless people sleep in his unsold cars.
It’s hard to say what was more striking about the Charlotte Observer piece on Kiplin Automotive Group and its compassionate general manager James Charles — that about a dozen folks, some with children, have been allowed to sleep in their cars on his lot. Mst of them are off gone by 7:30 a.m. Why? Because most have jobs. These homeless people, including a number of young people starting their careers, simply can’t afford the rent in a booming Sunbelt metropolis.
I don’t know if any of these souls will be voting in North Carolina’s upcoming Democratic primary, let alone whether they’d back the leading leftist choice in that race, Vermont’s Sanders. But I do know this: The sense of fundamental unfairness in this country — epitomized not just by the unhoused sleeping on car seats in a supposed “boomtown,” but also by staggering college debt, medical bankruptcies, and a lack of child care — is fueling a political revolution that has put Sanders on a White House trajectory.
In three contests so far, Sanders got the most popular votes in the weirdly arcane Iowa caucus. He won huge victories in the New Hampshire primary and Saturday’s Nevada caucus, where he showed that he’s expanded his reach from his 2016 run to include more black and brown voters and others beyond his initial base of young white progressives. By Super Tuesday — just one week away as I write this — the 78-year-old with the wild white hair could be well on the way to the nomination. (Or, given the Democrats’ convoluted rules and the determination of $60-billion-man Mike Bloomberg to stop Bernie, toward mayhem in Milwaukee.)
Either way, Bernie’s rise — and the everyday people fueling it, from college students to first-time Latinx voters to fed-up warehouse workers and Uber drivers — is a hell of story. It’s just not the story the elite mainstream media — the dominant cable outlets and national newspapers that are largely led by Baby Boomers (full disclosure: my own generation) and which employ the now aging veterans of their favorite campaigns as anchors and pundits — wants to tell.
To many of the TV talking heads — for whom the mere mention of any form of “socialism” makes them want to run underneath a desk and “duck and cover” from Khrushchev’s incoming nukes — the notion of Sanders as America’s 46th president is a bridge too far. The worst offender, who made national headlines with his tirade, was Philly’s own 74-year-old Chris Matthews, a child of the ’50s who went all Joe McCarthy in his MSNBC reaction to Sanders’ Nevada victory.
“I think it’s a little late to stop him, and I think that’s the problem,” Matthews opined on Saturday, the start of a fraught analogy that compared the rise of the Vermont senator to the Nazis overrunning France in 1940, rendered even more bizarre by the fact that Sanders would be America’s first Jewish president.
Matthews — facing calls for his resignation from viewers suggesting, understandably, that the pol-turned-pundit is out of touch — apologized on Monday. But the thing is, Matthews’ comments really weren’t that far out of step with a number of Democratic Party leaders and longtime commentators — veterans of past campaigns like Bill Clinton’s or Barack Obama’s, or alleged “Never Trumper” Republicans who now say they might vote Trump over Sanders — having a meltdown over a possible November choice between Bernie and The Donald.
Nicolle Wallace, the former George W. Bush and Sarah Palin adviser who reinvented herself on MSNBC as a “Never Trumper,” called Sanders’ base a “squeaky, angry minority,” while a range of pundits from the recently reanimated Democrat James Carville to the once (and possibly future) conservative Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post looked as if they might literally explode on live TV.
Personally, as I watch the nascent “Never Bernie” movement flailing over a possible November choice between Bernie and The Donald, I have just one thought:
Here we go again.
There are two things I remember well about the first funereal days after Trump was elected on Nov. 8, 2016. Beyond the shock of America now spearheading a global movement toward authoritarianism, there was also the endless hand-wringing from a news media that had been so overconfident that Hillary Clinton would win that night.
How, many journalists asked, did we not see the anger in so many Rust Belt communities in Wisconsin or Michigan or big chunks of Pennsylvania, with their barren factories and boarded-up Main Streets? Why, wondered people who spent so much time in TV “green rooms” that there was no time left to escape their coastal bubbles, do these aggrieved people hate us in the media even more than they love Trump?
“Did Donald Trump’s sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters?” New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and executive editor Dean Baquet asked in a much-discussed note to readers. “What forces and strains in America drove this divisive election and outcome?” It was the memo that launched 1,000 trips — to Formica diner tables in southern Ohio or West Virginia, as the ensuing genre of “Trump Lovers Still Love Trump” articles became the thing of parody.
The weird thing about the “let’s-leave-the-green-room-and-visit-Trump-diners” movement is it just meant that going into 2020, there were now two bubbles instead of one. Neither were that helpful. Not to dismiss some very insightful journalism I’ve read in the last four years, the let’s-quote-Trump-voters genre often barely scratched the surface of the deep roots — from deindustrialization to fear of a nonwhite majority — of right-wing populism.
At the same time, many political pundits of the center-left and center assumed the Trump movement would be crushed in 2020 by the people they talked to on the checkout line at Whole Foods — well-off whites who hated the crudeness and corruption of the Trump era and desperately wanted a return to civility and order. Incredibly — or perhaps predictably, some would argue — there was no effort to talk to the forgotten Americans in “the other heartland.”
I’m talking about the big cities where there are lot of jobs if you can pay $2,000 a month for an apartment, the 20-somethings who may never get married because of college debt, the urban poor who get fired when their kid is sick because there’s no child care, the gig workers and the baristas with bachelor’s degrees living paycheck to paycheck. The kind of people who squeeze out a couple hours to attend a packed, sweaty Bernie rally because finally here is a leader who says he will fight for them, and who cares if he’s a 78-year-old dude with two stents?
The young and the marginalized (and their allies) who gave Bernie the most votes in Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada don’t really care about his temperate praise for some social programs under Cuban communism (and should they, given that both the current president and free-spending rival Mike Bloomberg love so many dictators and authoritarians?). They’re not flustered by the math on Medicare for All. They take Bernie seriously, not literally.
These voters hear Bernie Sanders talking about how he’ll solve their real-world, 21st-century problems. Then they turn on their TV and hear the children of the Cold War screaming “How can this man be stopped?” It all makes you realize that the popular-for-15-minutes put-down — “OK Boomer” — was way too kind.
The elites who populate the highest levels of media punditry, run the Democratic Party, or get paid ridiculous sums to design nonworking apps or buy off Instagram meme-makers to pretend that Bloomberg is cool still don’t have time to talk to everyday voters about why they are so angry. They are instead busy searching for a messiah that will let them go back to their Sunday morning mimosas without worrying about a president who might start a nuclear war with a tweet. They are missing the real revolution — again!
My own belief, as regular readers know, is that there’s another candidate in the Democratic field who’s addressing the same problems as Bernie, and who is maybe more electable against Trump and would be better as president at getting stuff done. But the media’s erasure of Elizabeth Warren is a story for another day. The odds right now are that Sanders will be the nominee.
All the big-shots screaming for his movement to be squashed could have prevented Bernie’s nomination decades ago — if they’d channeled even a fraction of that energy into making sure that billionaires paid their share and dialed down America’s obscene war machine, and that the United States joined the rest of the civilized world in universal health care and higher ed, as well as child care, family leave, and living wages.
It’s also quite possible — likely, really — that the Beltway 500 will wake up on Nov. 4 insisting that they don’t recognize an America they never bothered to look for in the first place. A.G. Sulzberger and Dean Baquet will begin drafting another apology about how Bernie’s “unconventionality” caused them to miss his appeal. Then we can all sit down in 2022 to read the 500th dispatch from a Fishtown coffee joint: “Bernie Voters Still Love Bernie.”