A Weekend with Bernie
I followed Bernie Sanders as he went to Ohio and explained to crowds how Democrats could win back Trump voters.
Photo via Bernie Sanders Flickr
By the time I got to interview Bernie Sanders, he was very tired, and honestly so was I—not that I could really complain. The Vermont senator had spent the wee hours of Saturday morning on the Senate floor watching his Republican colleagues pass a tax bill that Sanders called "the biggest act of thievery in the modern history of this country." After sleeping only two hours, Sanders hopped on a flight to Dayton, Ohio, to speak at the first rally of the day. It was part of his weekend-long "Protect Working Families" tour, organized by progressive organizations MoveOn and Not One Penny. He then journeyed to Akron to speak at another rally and got back to the hotel around 11 PM Sunday, where he got in a little shuteye before sitting down for our interview the next morning for breakfast with his staff.
Sanders ordered a single English muffin, lightly patting his belly as he remarked to the table, "I've been eating too much lately." In an hour, the 76-year-old was flying to Philadelphia, then going to Reading, Pennsylvania (in a county Trump won by 18,000 votes), where he would deliver his final speech of the weekend.
I began the interview by summarizing the past two days before asking, "So, uh, how do you do it?" He burst into a long, hearty laugh, bringing some energy to a table full of tired people who (him included) hadn't even had their coffee yet. "You know, I got a job to do, and I do it," he said matter-of-factly. "We believed the bill was going to be voted on Thursday night, and that’s why we arranged for Louisville on Friday evening and Ohio on Saturday and Philadelphia on Sunday... When I make a commitment, I like to keep it, and we had a very good turnout in Louisville and thought we would in Ohio, so I felt it was important to keep that commitment, so I got up early, and we did it."
Sanders's weekend tour, which had the hectic feel of the campaign trail, was just as much about pushing back against the Republican tax plan as it was about looking ahead, presenting voters with a platform that extended beyond, in Sanders's words, merely "saying no to Trump." He advocated for the policies that are familiar to anyone who followed the 2016 campaign: raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, expanding Medicare to cover everyone, raising taxes on the wealthy, expanding Social Security, switching to clean energy, ending mass incarceration (which he pointed out disproportionately affects people of color), closing the gender pay gap, and standing with immigrants.
What was new, however, was Sanders's emphasis on extending compassion to working-class Trump voters. The three states on his tour all went for Trump in 2016, and it seems likely that Democrats will have to take back at least Pennsylvania, and possibly Ohio, to win in 2020. After the Akron audience booed when he mentioned Trump voters, he said, "Let's not boo anybody. Maybe except Trump." (He was completely OK with the crowd booing Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, however.)
"The reason [Trump] won Ohio and many other states in this country... [is that] there are millions of people who are hurting," Sanders told the crowd, before emphasizing that Trump campaigned on bald-faced lies—but, hey, we've all been tricked before. In my interview with him the next day, he elaborated on why it's so important to him to address Trump voters with compassion.
"It is clear that there is an element of Trump supporters who are racists, sexists, homophobes, and there’s nothing I’m going to say that’s going to appeal to them," he said. "But I think that the vast majority of Trump supporters are people who are in pain, who are struggling economically, who are worried to death that their kids are going to be in even worse shape economically than they are, and they turned to Trump because Trump said things that made sense. He said he was going to take on the establishment, and he was going to provide healthcare to everybody. You know what, it’s pretty much what I said."
The difference, of course, is that Sanders seems to have a plan to provide benefits like health insurance to large swathes of Americans. The question—which may not be answered until 2020—is whether Trump spoke to those voters because of his vague populist promises or because of his willingness to embrace the nastiest aspects of the culture war.
Sanders, evidently, thinks that it's the former. He has obvious compassion for subsection of Trump supporters, an undeniably practical perspective to have—while some on the left might be giddy about writing off the 62,979,879 Americans who voted for the guy, Sanders wants to win them over with his populist, anti-elitist platform.
“We are winning the fight for the future of America," he told the audience in Dayton. "Please never forget we’re the vast majority of the American people.”
It was a necessary reframing, at least for me. After I half-woke up at 5 AM Saturday morning, I made the critical error of checking my phone for the time, where I was rudely flooded with a slew of notifications informing me the tax reform bill had passed the Senate, something I assumed would happen when I fell asleep the night before. The magnitude of the whole thing hit me extra hard so early in the morning, and I went down a rabbit hole of despair I have learned to largely avoid as someone who writes about politics for a living.
The tax bill the Senate passed stands to disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Americans, lowers the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent, repeals the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate, and would likely increase the national debt by $1 trillion over ten years. (It's not clear how closely the final bill passed by Congress as a whole will be to the Senate version.) The bill was unpopular, and the vast majority of economists said that it wouldn't grow the economy the way Republicans claimed. It was rushed through the Senate so sloppily that revisions were written in the margins of the bill's text. This seemed to be evidence that no matter what the left did, no matter what the American people wanted—only about a third of Americans are in favor of the bill, according to a recent poll—the right, funded by Koch brothers and other billionaires, would be able to advance a radical agenda.
But as Bernie addressed the crowded theater of 1,300 in Dayton, proclaiming, "This is class warfare, and we're gonna stand up and fight!" I was like, OK, maybe we're not completely doomed. It's rare you hear any senator talk about the extremism of the GOP as "class warfare," never mind calling his Republican colleagues "employees" of the Kochs.
I might've felt exhausted by the GOP's unabashed greed, but the crowds at the Sanders's rallies were bursting with energy. At each rally, activists from the surrounding areas spoke before Bernie. In Dayton, Portia Boulger, a Sanders delegate from Appalachia who self-identified as a "Bernie bro," bellowed, "Power to the people! No justice no peace!... We will not yield!" to uproarious applause from the audience, many of whom were supporting Bernie gear.
During his Dayton speech, Sanders warned that in the coming months, Republicans might suggest cutting Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security in order to offset the billions and billions their tax bill would add to the national deficit. “One of their ideas is to raise the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare,” he said, prompting emphatic boos from two older people sitting a couple of rows in front of me.
"I could never understand, as the Koch brothers do, having $90, $100 billion, and feel the need to lower their taxes," Sanders said in Dayton. “There is something weird and wrong about people who need more and more, and are willing to step over the elderly and the sick [to get it].”
In Akron, the crowd of 1,100 rose to their when Sanders proclaimed, “We have to guarantee healthcare to every man, woman and child in this country.” Half of them began chanting "USA! USA! USA!" while others began a "Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!" chant.
At breakfast, I asked Sanders how he avoids feeling demoralized when the Republicans control every branch of government. "What goes on in the White House and what goes on in the extreme right-wing leadership of the Republican Party concerns me every single day," he told me. "But we just don’t have the time to be demoralized. The stakes are much too high."
"I get a lot of very positive energy from these rallies," he told me. "As I have said many, many times, if we are successful, it’s not about one person, it is absolutely not about one person, it’s about millions of people beginning to stand up and understand that they have power in a democracy and they can make change. That’s what the goal is."
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