The latest Hillary-Bernie didn’t change the Democratic dynamic — Hillary is still the prohibitive favorite; she’s poised to win big tomorrow in delegate-rich Michigan — and, besides, a fair number of viewers were probably AWOL, dabbing their eyes while bidding goodbye to “Downton Abbey.”
Which was too bad, because while “Downton” was gift-wrapping its multiple happy endings, Bernie briefly spoke about being Jewish. That’s a rare occurrence. He brings it up only when prompted to do so, as he was last night. But what’s noteworthy is the way he explains his faith. The guy isn’t particularly religious; his Judaism is moral, political, and experiential.
Indeed, his underlying message may well resonate in this crucial election year, as we confront the ugly authoritarianism of Donald Trump:
“I am very proud to be Jewish, and being Jewish is so much of what I am. Look, my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust. I know about what crazy and radical, and extremist politics mean. I learned that lesson as a tiny, tiny child when my mother would take me shopping, and we would see people working in stores who had numbers on their arms because they were in Hitler’s concentration camp. I am very proud of being Jewish, and that is an essential part of who I am as a human being.”
Bernie Sanders, like so many of his fellow American Jews, is a basically secular soul who roots hard for the underdog; as a member of an historically oppressed minority, he instinctively defends those who are marginalized on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity. And he instinctively abhors the mob mentality, which all too often is powered by fear and ignorance and brutish hostility.
This was his most important line: I know about what crazy and radical, and extremist politics mean. When Bernie presumably bows out of the Democratic race — ideally, after he has made his point about progressive populism without damaging Hillary’s candidacy — he’ll be well positioned, by dint of his faith, to buttress the most critical mission of 2016: Driving a stake into the heart of Trumpism.
When Bernie was growing up in Brooklyn, those death camp arm numbers were a common sight. (My wife, who also grew up in Brooklyn, saw them constantly.) That’s what can happen to people when extremism runs rampant. I’m not suggesting that Trumpism would send millions of people up in smoke, but what we know already is sufficiently disturbing.
In the South Carolina primary, 75 percent of voting Republicans supported Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the country; Trump won the largest share of those voters. Also in South Carolina, roughly one-third of Trump’s voters supported banning gays and lesbians from entering the country. Nationally, roughly 20 percent of Trump fans say that Abraham Lincoln was wrong to free the slaves. (And this photo of Trump fans pledging their loyalty is also … how to put this … a tad freaky. Or worse.)
Matthew MacWilliams, a Ph.D. student who runs a political communications firm, recently crunched the South Carolina stats and identified the one trait that most Trump fans share. It’s quite toxic. Let him explain it.
“A voter’s gender, education, age, ideology, party identification, income, and race simply had no statistical bearing on whether someone supported Trump …. Here is what did: authoritarianism, by which I mean Americans’ inclination to authoritarian behavior …. People who score high on the authoritarian scale value conformity and order, protect social norms, and are wary of outsiders. And when authoritarians feel threatened, they support aggressive leaders and policies ….
“America’s Authoritarian Spring, rising authoritarian attitudes playing a newly significant role in American politics, is now upon us. As a result, the Republican Party establishment that so opposes Trump is no longer in control of the GOP presidential primary. American authoritarians are playing a major role in this contest, and my national and South Carolina surveys show that Donald Trump is the leader they are ready to follow.”
Bernie Sanders has already contributed mightily to this presidential race by highlighting economic inequities that both parties have long allowed to fester. Even if he gets waxed in Michigan tomorrow (which is likely, since he trails Hillary by double digits) and comes up short in the delegate count (with a Democratic Convention speaking slot as a consolation prize), he can still play a prominent role this autumn, fighting Trumpism by referencing the moral and experiential dimensions of his faith. Because he surely understands, as do we, that home-grown authoritarianism is a clear and present danger.