KURT VONNEGUT ON THE DEATH OF KURT VONNEGUT Writer Kurt…
Today my state, California, votes in the 2016 presidential primary.
By the end of the day, it should be the end of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.
And I will be happy almost never to hear his name again.
What a primary season it has been! Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as viable candidates for President of the United States.
I am horrified.
I have not misjudged the temper of my country so badly since the “Charlie’s Angels” movie debuted in 2000.
A re-tread of a lame 1970s “Charlie’s Angels” TV series about three model/actresses who are secretly super detectives? “Surely nobody would pay good money to go see that!” I told myself at the time. Wrong! It was a box office hit. I was dumbfounded. I wondered if I did not understand my own country very well.
And this presidential election? First, the blowhard real estate developer and reality TV star Donald Trump turned novice politician by promising to deport 13 million people and kill the families of terrorists? “Nobody would vote for him!” I told myself. Next, a self-described “socialist” from Vermont Bernie Sanders who had never been near the pulse of American political life before?
“They are too far from the mainstream to be considered ‘viable’ presidential candidates,” I would have told you.
Wrong of the first candidate. And wrong on the second.
I agree with Senator Lindsey Graham yesterday when he described Trump as the biggest threat to American democracy since Joe McCarthy. Other veteran GOP politicians, to their credit, have used similar language. Mitt Romney has consistently denounced Trump as a demagogue, and that just confirms to me that Romney was always an honorable man, even if I did not vote for him. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan seems to have to hold his nose every time he is around Trump, even as he has to support him as the GOP candidate for president.
And in my own family, solidly Republican for the most part, nobody has anything nice to say about Trump. I am much more liberal than my father or brother, and that has caused some strain. But we are all of a mind when it comes to the fact that we would vote for almost anyone over Donald Trump. I remember thinking back when Hilary Clinton was running for a New York U.S. Senate seat back in 2002, “My God! Have we not had enough of the Clinton soap opera? Why can’t they go away already? A native of Chicago, moves to Arkansas with husband, and now she poses as a carpet bagger New Yorker? Surely they won’t fall for that? [They did.]” A hardcore Republican, my father had even stronger things to say about her and her husband.
But my dad tells me he will happily vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton over “Republican” Donald Trump. He will do it in a heartbeat. (I remember swelling with pride hearing my father say this.) As for myself, there is nothing like presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to make me revise my estimate of the politician Hillary Clinton. In contrast, she comes off as a solid choice. (“If anybody was looking for an off-ramp [for supporting Trump], this is probably it,” Graham added after declaring Trump as un-American as Joe McCarthy. “There’ll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary.”) Hillary Clinton was a U.S. Senator and Secretary of State. She is, by conviction, a centrist and pragmatist. Clinton is well within the mainstream, compared to Bernie Sanders. I know many complain of her as “corrupt,” but I have seen nothing egregious in her stay in Congress or the State Department. She is a working politician, and so within certain bounds I am willing to let her make difficult decisions and awkward compromises to get the business of state done.
I remember reading an article back in the late 2000s when the generals in the Pentagon were asked who was the politician who had done his homework and understood the complexities of Iraq, and they supposedly nodded their heads and said, “Hillary Clinton.” She was ready to read up, think deeply, and grapple with the complexities of ruling.
I have never seen that in Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. They are protest votes. A person votes for them to poke the establishment and status quo in the eye.
And for me that is maybe the take away of this political season: how much a creature of the “establishment” I am when it comes to politics.
And when Hillary Clinton smashes Donald Trump in November, I hope the general election comes to be known by this title: REVENGE OF THE POLITICAL CENTER. Enough extremist candidates running to the far left and right to solidify the “base.”
Elections in the United States are won in the center of the political spectrum, or at least they traditionally have.
And then all the twentysomething “Bernie bros” and “build the wall” Trumpistas can go back to not caring about politics and take their bumptious bumper stickers off the fenders of their cars. “Politics as usual,” they will shake their heads when the political center speaks. “Thank God!” I will say.
In my entire group of friends and family I know only one person who is a Trump supporter. And he is not really a Trump supporter but more of a person so fed up with politics and Republicans like Romney losing elections that he wants a giant protest vote. “It will be very interesting this November!” he says to me, grin on his face. He doesn’t really care if Trump is a disaster for the Republican Party. But Trump is going to end up looking like an amateur, like George McGovern did for Democrats in 1972.
Because Trump is going to get squashed in the general election, and as soon as that happens my friend will have to confront the fact that the only way one wins in politics is by the complicated and compromising tactics of not offending unnecessarily, building coalitions, and attracting the mushy center of the American electorate. Trump supporters, and Sander’s supporters, will have had their temper tantrum. Time to grow up.
And the GOP will spend years trying to repair the damage Trump has caused.
I don’t have much else to say about that carnival barker, Donald Trump. I suspect it is, as many have described to me, that Trump’s appeal speaks to the lack of education and the resentment working class whites have in this country. His hatred of “Mexicans,” Muslim immigrants, and his putting “America first” again through his supposed business acumen…. I suspect he is making this shit up as he goes just to attract votes. I never remember Trump speaking out against immigration or Mexicans before he was running for office. Bottom line: Trump would say and do just about anything to attract votes, and then do whatever he wanted when in office. Trump is a combination of Aaron Burr, Huey Long, Joe McCarthy, George Wallace, Ross Perot, and Ralph Nader. Anyone who has a college degree — or even paid attention in their high school history class — and votes for Trump will get what they deserve. Everyone else can at least explain that they were snookered. Trump’s appeal is to ethnic grievance. He is the white “working class” man’s Al Sharpton.
Bernie Sanders is a different story for me. I don’t question that he is an “honorable man,” even as I know Trump is not.
But Bernie Sanders is still a protest vote, not reality. A certain segment of the country – Burlington, VT; Santa Monica, CA; Cambridge, MA; Brooklyn, NY; Austin, TX; St. Paul, MN; Berkeley, CA; Eugene, OR – look at the socialist senator from Vermont and see in him a vision of the United States that is a “social” democracy like Denmark. High taxes, manifold public services – a “progressive” foreign policy and a welfare state.
The problem is that at this time not much of the United States outside of these “progressive” enclaves wants America to look like Denmark or Sweden. A hipster “Bernie bro” from Brooklyn might well have forgotten that the United States was founded on a tax revolt. If you think “left wing” Barack Obama was unpopular in conservative states like Texas or North Carolina, just think how the Presidency of “socialist” Bernie Sanders would go over. Sanders has run well on the liberal end of the Democratic Party, but how well would he run with independents and even moderate Republicans? How many Americans in the general election would vote for a thirty percent tax hike?
But many of these Bernie Sanders supporters just want what they want. Many are young, desire a “free” college education, and want drastic tax redistribution. Bernie Sanders has never actually tried to navigate a major reform through Congress as part of a majority effort. He has never been a decision maker in his party. Even liberal economists doubt he could pay for all the “free” services he promises. Supporters of Bernie Sanders want what they want, and they haven’t given much thought to what is good for the rest of the country or what others want. But they want it all now.
Ted Kennedy, on the other hand, had to work for decades just to get a universal health care bill passed through Congress. In fact, Kennedy was dead when the Affordable Care Act finally was signed into law in 2009. It took time and effort to do the hard labor of convincing enough Americans that health care should be a “right” paid for by everyone’s taxes. It took me a long time to look at this problem before my mind changed. Old time political activists used to call this “consciousness raising.” It requires patience.
If Bernie Sanders supporters want to make America look more like Denmark, they are going to have to start a movement. They are going to have to work for a decade or two. They are going to have to change people’s minds at a profound level. They are going to have to compromise with centrists, and even conservatives wherever they can. They will have to try and get liberal Portland, OR on the same page as conservative Louisville, KY (or at least try not to pretend conservative America does not exist). They are going to have to water down their dreams and achieve the possible when it is possible. The two steps forward and one step back. The hard work of a politician in a democracy. The messiness. They will work hard for the half a loaf and at times be lucky to get even that.
And then and only then will I take Bernie Sanders supporters seriously.
PostScript: My entire essay might be contradicted if Donald Trump wins the presidential election in November, 2016. In such a case, I will be alarmed for my country in a way that I have never been previously.
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