[Publisher’s Note] Suicidal Strategy, by John R. MacArthur | Harper's Magazine

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[Publisher’s Note]

Suicidal Strategy


“The Times has used every opportunity to present Sanders as an obstacle to Trump’s eventual overthrow.”

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on May 6, 2019. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

Given the controversy that’s been ignited by the Mueller report—Yes or no? Should impeachment procedures be initiated against a president who’s practically a madman?—I come back to the fundamental question that has never stopped troubling me: Is the Democratic Party up to the task of responding to the ongoing calamity that has afflicted the nation since January 20, 2017?

I admit that I’ve got mixed feelings about the best way to constrain or punish this preposterous president as long as he remains in office. I never believed in a Trump–Russia conspiracy, but I take seriously his unsuccessful efforts to fire Robert Mueller and obstruct his investigation. Those who would like to weigh the pros and cons of “principles” as opposed to “practical politics” can listen to the April 21 debate, broadcast on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS (Zakaria is a former intern at Harper’s Magazine), between Laurence Tribe, a scholar and professor of constitutional law at Harvard University, and Robert Bennett, an attorney who was part of President Clinton’s legal defense team during the Monica Lewinsky affair. In this discussion, both men agree that, although Donald Trump might be impeached by the House of Representatives, the Republican-majority Senate would almost certainly acquit him at the subsequent trial. Why bother, then, to pass articles of impeachment in the House? According to Tribe, allowing Trump to escape the sanction he deserves will encourage future presidents to behave like criminal thugs; Bennett doesn’t suggest otherwise, but it seems that he’s afraid that the legal pursuit of Trump will make him a martyr and have the effect of favoring his reelection in 2020. There’s no doubt that both commentators have a valid argument.

Here’s the reality: Trump must be defeated at the ballot box next year. And if he’s not? To underline my sense of urgency, I’ll borrow Trump’s own panicked expression, as cited in the Mueller report: if he’s reelected, we’re fucked.

Nonetheless, the opposition party seems content to keep going about its usual humdrum routines, indifferent to the obvious danger to the republic. As I write this, the barons of the Democratic Party’s dominant faction are acting a little like Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean in reverse. Instead of lifting the wagon that’s crushing Trump’s innocent victims (as Jean lifts the wagon off Fauchelevent in Les Misérables), the party establishment is trying to crush the candidate who has the best chance of beating Trump: Bernie Sanders. This began, well before Sanders launched his second presidential campaign, with leaks and anti-Sanders articles published in the New York Times, the voice of the great “center” of a party still dominated by the Clintons and Barack Obama. Sanders’s 2016 campaign was accused of sexism by female staffers, and Sanders himself has been criticized for his alleged inability to convince black voters of his good faith. A headline in the Times’ April 7, 2018, print edition reads, “Sanders, in Courting Blacks, Is Tripped Up by Notion He Slighted Obama.” The article itself, however, a report on a speech Sanders gave to an African-American audience in Mississippi, contains not a single mention of the insult with which he’s alleged to have stung the former president. Sanders simply notes the decline of the local Democratic Party in spite of Obama’s success, calling him an “extraordinary candidate” and a “brilliant guy.”

Since then, the Times has used every opportunity to present Sanders as an obstacle to Trump’s eventual overthrow. According to the newspaper, Sanders is perceived by the electorate as being too far to the left. In fact, the “reports” on the Sanders campaign turn out to be merely anti-Sanders editorials. The preferred candidate of the Times is Joe Biden, Obama’s two-term vice president and a reliable member of the wing of his party that supports the banks, big business, and free-trade agreements.

Outside the biggest media centers, the anti-Sanders current is even more apparent. “Are the Democrats going to commit political suicide by picking a leftist candidate to challenge President Trump in 2020?” asks Andrés Oppenheimer, an opinion writer for the Miami Herald, in a conversation described in his March 20 column. His question is addressed to the Democratic congresswoman Donna Shalala, whose congressional district includes a large part of the city of Miami. Shalala, a loyal part of the Clinton machine, replies, “I do not think that the candidate will be to the left of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama . . . I think most [contenders for the nomination] will be like me, safety-net capitalists. . . . The party knows that we cannot win the Midwest, we cannot win Florida, we cannot win any state in the South unless we have a candidate that is not too far to the left.” Translation: not too independent of the party machinery of patronage and fund-raising, of which Biden is a master.

There’s a real suicidal strategy for you. Hillary Clinton, cautious to a fault, a centrist, a friend of Wall Street and Walmart, lost every state included in Shalala’s regional list, except for Minnesota, Illinois, and Virginia. By contrast, thanks to his anti-NAFTA position, Sanders had defeated Clinton in the Wisconsin and Michigan primaries; those two states are filled with ex-Democrats who suffered under Clinton’s and Obama’s free-trade policies and crossed over to the Trump camp. It’s logical to think that Sanders, who’s been constant in his support of a working class deprived of jobs by factory relocations, would likewise win against Trump in Ohio and Pennsylvania. If we add those states’ 64 electoral votes to the 232 Clinton won in 2016, Sanders comes out the winner, even without Florida.

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