Donald Trump exhibits such vileness, such putrescence, that his decay can obscure other, equally harmful instances of rot among those so-called decent people who oppose the president. Although anti-Trump media outlets proclaim their disgust at each new revelation about Trump’s effort to manipulate Ukraine—an affair that likewise makes obvious the corruption in the Republican Party—a violent drama that may prolong the Trumpian nightmare is occurring within the Democratic Party.
This drama is surfacing, oddly, on the left, a segment of the political and ideological spectrum generally ignored in the United States. If you’re on the left in American politics, it’s usually seen as an admission that you’re not serious—that you take positions on principle and not in the hope of actually coming to power. Save for Communist support for the New Deal in the mid-1930s, there has never been a sustained Popular Front in American history, no Léon Blum or Jean Jaurès (as in France), no Ernest Bevin or even a Harold Wilson (as in England). Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were sometime leftists, but they were leftists of necessity not of philosophy.
However, the breakthrough of two overtly left-wing presidential candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, has ignited a furious conflict in a party that claims to be on the side of workers but, for the past twenty-five years, has been dominated by the interests of Wall Street and large corporations. So far, the Democratic Party barons haven’t dared to confront Sanders directly, for fear of offending his supporters. But behold Hillary Clinton, doyenne of the old regime, who has just declared war on the insurgent faction in her party with an attack against Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Hawaii and also a candidate for the presidency. Mrs. Clinton’s accusation, announced on a podcast, seems surprising, not to say absurd. Gabbard, according to Clinton, is a “favorite of the Russians” whom the Republicans “are grooming . . . to be the third-party candidate” in 2020 in order to again destabilize our election and thus hand Trump a second term. Clinton wants people believe that she was beaten in 2016 because of Russian interference rather than for the more obvious reason that blue-collar workers in the Midwest were disappointed in the Democratic Party generally—and in Clintonian neoliberalism especially.
Although Gabbard is a marginal candidate, Clinton’s tactics are, upon consideration, understandable. Gabbard (a major in the Army who served in Iraq, which Clinton voted to invade) is very much opposed to military intervention and supported Sanders’s 2016 candidacy against Clinton and the Democratic oligarchy; Clinton seems to be trying both to settle accounts with Gabbard and to damage Sanders. But the story is still more complicated, for the left isn’t in complete solidarity. Gabbard responded frankly to Clinton’s attack: “Thank you @Hillary Clinton. You, the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long, have finally come out from behind the curtain.” For his part, Sanders defended his onetime ally: “It is outrageous for anyone to suggest that Tulsi is a foreign asset.” On the other hand, Elizabeth Warren, considered by some to be Sanders’s ideological replica, hasn’t said a word about the Clinton–Gabbard quarrel. And it’s here that the seeds of failure in the crusade against Trump have been sown, seeds that could blossom into a full-scale war between Democratic Party apparatchiks and reformers.
In 2015, while the search was on for a progressive candidate to stymie Clinton’s candidacy and to succeed the excessively calm Barack Obama, Warren refused the invitation. When Sanders launched his fairly implausible, audacious candidacy against Clinton, the senator from Massachusetts refrained from taking sides, refusing to support either Sanders or Clinton until Sanders conceded, in June 2016. At the time, it was a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, Lindsay Walters, who commented on the irony of Warren’s offering Clinton her support: “By endorsing Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren has shown herself to be a sellout. Whether it’s the Wall Street speech transcripts she refuses to release, her ties to the fossil fuel industry, or coziness with big banks, Hillary Clinton represents everything Elizabeth Warren supposedly stands against.” Walters was stating what many in the Sanders camp thought but wouldn’t say aloud.
In fact, Elizabeth Warren has always chosen prudence over confrontation in her relations with the Democratic machine. A person who is ultra-respectful of party protocols, she even signed (according to the New York Times) a promise, demanded by the official Democratic committees in each of the fifty states, that she would not create a parallel political organization—would not, that is, do any poaching on the rich terrain of party patronage. The official Democratic Party—sustained by a wealthy sector that is nonetheless “progressive” on questions of morals, race, and gender—detests Sanders in part because he has created a pressure group, Our Revolution, that operates in direct competition with the Democratic National Committee. Sanders obviously wants to overthrow the party aristocracy, which has a clear preference for Joe Biden, or even for Warren, should Biden continue to stumble.
In her quest for her party’s nomination, has Warren concluded a non-aggression pact with Hillary Clinton? NBC News reports that the two women frequently converse by telephone; Warren’s silence on the subject of Tulsi Gabbard indicates at least an entente cordiale. If Warren doesn’t take a clear stand in favor of the militants on the left, her maneuverings will appear to be a betrayal of Sanders and of reform. And as in 2016, the blood will flow, to Trump’s advantage.