Let’s get the easy historical analogue out of the way. In 1932-33, Hitler wedged his way into the left-wing gap slashed open by years of warfare between the German Social Democrats and the Communist Party. During the Weimar Republic years, the Communists, smaller and more militant, usually polled 10-15 percent of the vote. Starting in 1928, Stalin, the chief of all Communist chiefs, began denouncing social democracy as the “twin brother of fascism.” The more numerous Social Democrats, when in power (as during 1928-30), considered that “red equals brown” and sometimes turned their guns against Communist workers. Once Hitler came to power, the Communists adopted the slogan “Nach Hitler uns”—after Hitler, ourselves. You know how well that turned out.
The moral is obvious. The circular firing squad is perhaps the left’s favorite formation.
You may say that for all the parallels, this tale is too neat. It constitutes reductio ad Hitlerum. So, let’s stipulate: Trump does not equal Hitler. The Germany of 1932-33 is not the America of 2016. So, let’s look at a harder case—a more awkward precedent, an American one.
A Democratic nominee—wrote a prominent radical—dove into politics as a serious liberal but was disposed to make “chameleon-like move[s]” and matured into “a consolidationist, an all-things-to-all-people” candidate. The candidate was no longer a liberal, no friend of labor, no reliable defender of African Americans. About the clear and present danger of disastrous war, the candidate “side-stepped or accelerated.” The candidate “was, in short, a perfect reflection of the … muddle-through system of government which characterizes our Republic.” Meanwhile, his “appalling” Republican opponent stood for “frustration and greed” and “a final lunge of world nihilism.”
You can tell by the reference to muddling through that these words echo down to us from ancient times—1964, in fact. The quotes are from “Johnson With Eyes Open,” a position paper published by a minority faction of Students for a Democratic Society, the leading organization of the ’60s New Left. The faction’s slogan was “Part of the Way With LBJ.” Given the mindless jingoism of the Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater, and his indifference, at best, to the rights of labor and people of color, “the choice is clear,” the paper concluded.
Goldwater was dangerous. No matter that, by later Republican standards, he was a thoughtful and principled gentleman. His hair was uncomplicatedly impressive. Wrong-headed as he was, he looked good on horseback—he looked, in fact, presidential. If you were willing to overlook people of color and others for whom America was not so great, he looked like the frontier American myth incarnate. So, however you might need to hold your nose in the voting booth, you had to vote for Johnson—with eyes open.
The author of “Johnson with Eyes Open” was a 25-year-old Texan activist, Harvard graduate student, and economic analyst named Robb Burlage. Burlage hailed from the vortex of left-liberal Austin politics and had no illusions about how easy it was to hold together a left-of-center coalition. But he was also personally acquainted with the wild weirdness of the proto-Goldwater Right in a state just then beginning its lurch from Dixiecrat with liberal streaks to flat-out Republican.
He vented his own ambivalence with the awkwardness of his own metaphor when he heralded Johnson for generating “what appears to be the most wonderfully ambiguous political head of steam in American history.” He itemized Johnson’s good, bad, and ugly sides. But for all Johnson’s faults, Burlage wrote, ”Johnson the politician is above all responsive to political pressure.” By voting for Johnson, you voted to join a pressure group that had real prospects. What was called for, he wrote, was not a
“plague on both your houses” attitude, but … critical support of Johnson. Giving the underclass of America a political voice, linking the struggles of the economically deprived to those of the Negro freedom movement in a political way, radicals have a role to play in winning from within Johnson’s loose coalition concessions to the left rather than to the highly-politicized right.
In other words, if you had your feet on the ground and you looked around to see who you could walk with and inspected their feet closely, you would find that they were made of clay. And so it was, for in politics, as elsewhere, angels were scarce.
As a sop to the “Part of the Way” faction, SDS printed up buttons bearing that slogan, only to see most of them left gathering dust in cartons on Election Day. The organization was temperate by later standards, but it was in no mood to settle for hybrids of good, bad, and ugly. Instead of the dirty, dreary compromises of electoral politics, the New Left was flush with the hope, or faith, that movement politics—outsider politics, politics in the streets—was on track to move the country leftward by leveling vociferous demands and shoving complacent liberalism to the left.
This rage at Hillary Clinton, the sheer venom of it, as if she were Donald Trump with better hair, Vince Foster’s blood dripping from her hands—where does it come from?
Indeed, it was not extravagant to make that kind of case. The liberal turn was already well under way. It was in the process of abolishing racial segregation. It would soon deliver voting rights and the grandest agenda of progressive legislation in 30 years. As Burlage wrote, at Johnson’s best moments, such as his “Great Society” speech, he looked like “an FDR without the ‘objective conditions’ of an all-out depression.”
Then, of course, there was Vietnam. A very bad moon was rising. Johnson campaigned as a seeker of “no wider war.” True, after seizing upon a gross misrepresentation of a shooting incident off the coast of North Vietnam, he rammed through the Tonkin Gulf resolution, which offered carte blanche for widening war. This was gravely worrying. But Goldwater was much worse, and consistently so. He talked loosely about using nuclear weapons. (“Defoliation of the forests by low-yield atomic weapons could well be done.”) Afterward, trying to dig himself out of a hole, he offered this: “I would never use a nuclear weapon when a conventional weapon would do. I would leave it up to the commanders.” Casual brandishing of nuclear weapons versus undisclosed war possibilities: That was the voters’ choice.
About Vietnam, Johnson betrayed his base. He was a rank liar. He caved in to Cold War panic. At the same time, it was not irrational to see Johnson as the surest shot at a plausible dream: an American-style social democracy, or what some called “completing the welfare state.” Then was a vote for Johnson miscast? No.
Now, all politics is a gamble, and all historical analogies are imperfect. Whatever parallels you emphasize, you miss others. There was no Bernie Sanders equivalent in 1964. Johnson, the incumbent thanks to Lee Harvey Oswald, was the Democrats’ uncontested standard-bearer. Still, my kind of radical was bound for more radical glory. The election of 1964 was the first in which I was eligible to vote, but not for one moment did I contemplate pulling the lever for Johnson. In the voting booth in Ann Arbor, I tried to write in the name of a Boston civil rights leader, but unable to get the write-in gizmo to work, I voted only for down-ballot candidates, leaving the presidential slot blank.
Surging from the low single-digits ever since pollsters discovered he was out there in this year’s race, Bernie Sanders has made the left’s best showing in Democratic politics that most prospective voters have ever seen. If Sanders has won—at this writing—3 million fewer primary votes than Clinton, he has certainly widened the boundaries of speakable politics. He has moved Clinton away from sweetheart trade deals for corporate benefit and nudged her to move away, and fast, from fossil fuels. With Sanders breathing down her neck, Clinton offers a job-creating program bigger than anything in more than 50 years. It looks smaller than Sanders’ ($275 billion over five years, to be paid for with business taxes, as opposed to Sanders’ $1 trillion), though Clinton’s supporters rightly respond by saying that Sanders’ program is dead in the water as long as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are in charge of Congress.
If you care about on-the-ground results, the actual lives of actual people, you can argue about rival programs till the infrastructure comes home. You can rationally dispute how to move beyond the Affordable Care Act, and whom to send tuition-free to college, and so on. Sanders’ economic program pleases my kind of left-liberal. So does his climate-change program. He wants to “accelerate a just transition away from fossil fuels.” He’s for a carbon tax. One of his appointees to the party’s platform committee is Bill McKibben, who has done more than anyone else in America to promote the idea that most present-day fossil fuel reserves have to kept underground. Hillary’s program is much weaker and skimpier. Her wholehearted supporters say: more real-world, more gradual. Sanders’ say: more compromised, more cautious, more retrograde. If Clinton is president, it will take immense pressure to push her. If Sanders is president, no less pressure will be required to get a fraction of what he rightly wants. The choice is not between reform and revolution. It’s a choice between one political ground to walk on and another.
In the end, I don’t think that policy disputes are what’s revving up the occasional nastiness between Clinton and Sanders supporters. What’s at work is an identity-fueled passion prefabricated for bumper stickers. Are you a radical? A sell-out? Some antagonism is merited when it applies to DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and unfair party procedures that favored Clinton. (Of course, the caucuses that favored Sanders are not exactly highlights of inclusive democracy.) I share the disgust about Clinton’s friendship with the loathsome Henry Kissinger. I do not forget Clinton’s vote for the crazy Iraq war. I deplore her suck-up for Wall Street votes. I voted for Bernie in the New York primary. But this rage at Hillary Clinton, the sheer venom of it, as if she were Donald Trump with better hair, Vince Foster’s blood dripping from her hands—where does it come from?
Some animus follows from the dynamics of binary contests. The black-and-white brain kicks in. With angelizing comes demonizing. If Bernie is the herald of a political revolution, Hillary must represent the job-killing establishment. (Did we not hear such language in 2008, with Barack Obama taking Sanders’ place?) There is plenty to be said about the fairness, or lack of it, of Democratic procedures, and so it makes sense for Sanders to endorse Schultz’s primary opponent, law professor Tim Canova. But to do so, Sanders has to overlook Canova’s opposition to the Iran deal that Schultz, like both Clinton and Sanders, supported.
But shall we get practical? Who is more likely to send the vicious, crackpot, mob-friendly, conspiracy-mongering, misogynist, race-baiting bully back to his Tower? From the Sanders side, wishfulness abounds. Pointing to polls in which Sanders does better than Clinton against Trump does is pointless, since the Republican apparatus has not yet opened fire on him, and Clinton has walked a tightrope between actively campaigning against Sanders and seeking to soothe and win over his voters for the general election. Sanders’ negatives are low because it’s been in no one’s interest for months to blast him.
And what about Republicans and Independents? What about older voters outside Vermont who haven’t yet discovered that the social democratic Sanders has called himself a socialist most of his political life? Citing polls as practical arguments for Sanders is tooth-fairy stuff. Take seriously what Michelle Goldberg wrote in Slate:
As long as I’ve been following politics, it has been a left-wing fantasy that legions of disconnected non-voters will suddenly flood the polls if they’re offered a sufficiently progressive candidate. I’ve never seen anything save wishful thinking to back it up.
No disrespect to her, I’ve been following politics longer—and she’s right. Waiting for Leftie-the-voter to dash out of the wings to win the day with a flourish of trumpets is a mug’s game. This kind of thinking is closer to apocalyptic theology than the politics of the only human hands there are, namely, dirty ones.
There are solid reasons to criticize Hillary Clinton (as there were, in 2000, to criticize Al Gore). She’s lied and she’s fudged and she’s double-talked. She is not “a congenital liar” (in the words of Nixon shill William Safire)—she’s a politician. As a campaigner, she can be maladroit. But some of the rhetoric thrown at her is curdled. At the outer though visible edge of criticism and anger is a certain derangement. Many denunciations of Clinton are supercharged with spleen. Some come from the left, although the evidence is patchy.
Does age matter? Clinton is “too old,” thundered the Right during the primaries, though the sting of the charge is denatured now that the Republican choice is more than a year older. Anyway, Bernie Sanders is five years older, so the argument would make no sense to the left.
The elephant in the room is female, not old. One columnist, Jack Ohman of the Sacramento Bee, puts the case pithily:
I can only ascribe this Rage Against the Clinton Machine to misogyny. Why do these guys hate Hillary? I don’t know if it’s that she reminds them of their strict mother, their Catholic school nun, their first wife, their second wife, or their lack of any female presence in their life, but this spitting, aneurysm-inducing venom is spectacularly overblown even in an election year.
But Ohman’s examples of Hillary Derangement Syndrome are right-wing. Leading the parade is the serial denouncer of “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs, “bimbos,” and “animals” himself. In February, an enthusiast held up a TRUMP THAT BITCH bumper sticker at his rally. “This can only happen at a Trump rally,” crowed the exuberant king of sneers, who then took note that he had been criticized for failing to challenge a fan who had insisted that President Obama was a Muslim, played dumb, saying: “Sir, you’re reprimanded, OK? But we’re not throwing him out, right, folks?”
Trump’s campaign is not known to be printing the TRUMP THAT BITCH T-shirts at his rallies. But he’s not objected. And the shirts fit all sorts of folks. On the subway, May 31, I ran into a Benghazi-obsessed fellow whose back was thus adorned. Here’s a shot of his front side:
He proudly declared that he was Jewish—and Republican.
The left’s venom at Hillary Clinton tends to be issue-specific. Jeffrey Sachs calls her “the candidate of the military-industrial complex,” faulting her harshly for diplomatic maneuvers that deepened the Syrian bloodbath. Others say that, with respect to Wall Street, she’s “a Republican in Democratic clothing.” Such cases can be made, and Bernie Sanders’ critiques often hit their targets. But it’s the quantum of pure, distilled, spattering hatred that interests me.
The question is, how much of the wild, splenetic hatred comes from the left? Anecdotes abound. But the plural of anecdote is not evidence. During the New Hampshire primary campaign, researchers Rebekah Tromble and Dirk Hovy studied 101,021 tweets containing mentions of @HillaryClinton, @BernieSanders, or both. They found:
most of the negative words directed at Clinton—such as “Benghazi,” “injustice,” “jail,” “emails” and “unborn”—are associated with longstanding rightwing claims and do not point to specific critiques coming from the left. Indeed, just two of the words associated with @HillaryClinton—“Goldman” and “donors”—are tied to complaints commonly offered by progressives (in this case the claim that Clinton is cozy with Wall Street elite). And both of these words fall near the bottom of the top 100 rankings (at 97th and 98th, respectively)….Out of a total 52,181 tweets mentioning @HillaryClinton, just 606, or 1.16 percent, contained sexist insults (e. g., “vagina,” “b*tch”). To understand these dynamics even further, we searched all tweets mentioning @HillaryClinton for any term from a set of 30 common gendered slurs, such as “bimbo,” “slut,” “whore,” and “shrill.” (A number of these slurs are too crude to mention.) While these slurs only represent one particularly overt form of sexism, the fact that so few were present in these tweets is remarkable…. The vast majority of the slurs were associated with Twitter users on the right—particularly self-identified Trump supporters. But 14.7 percent came from those backing Sanders.
It’s not wholly reassuring that one-seventh of the sexist slurs came from Sanders supporters. On the other hand, six-sevenths came from the right.
the sins he finds so damning in Hillary are those of a multitude of successful male Democratic politicians, who similarly cozy up to the rich, accept huge speaking fees, have books ghost-written for them, and worse. John Kerry, for example, voted for welfare “reform” and the Iraq War, but Henwood endorsed him in 2004.
Henwood replies that Clinton is “an utterly orthodox political figure,” a corporate tool and “an unmemorable but bellicose secretary of state,” but pads out his list by saying that she’s “a mediocre senator,” “ran a terrible presidential campaign in 2008,” and “screwed up health care reform as first lady.” One wonders why the last three qualify as political crimes. Along the way, Henwood does acknowledge a 2004 vote for John Kerry, the “lesser evil” and suggests that he hasn’t taken full leave of his senses:
If people want to tell me that Hillary would be a less horrid option than whatever profound ghastliness the Republicans throw up [he was writing in January], I’ll listen to them respectfully.
Then he veers to launch a burning arrow at a straw woman: “If they try to tell me there’s something inspiring or transformative about her, I’ll have to wonder what planet they’re on.” I’ve heard plenty of liberal arguments for Hillary Clinton in recent months but none of them have claimed she is “inspiring” or “transformative.” Who’s living on which planet?
Paul Berman, gently trying to steer Bernie Sanders away from potentially disastrous sororicide, writes in Tablet magazine on a rational plane: “It is not true that Hillary is the lesser of two evils. Hillary is the Democratic Party’s reform tradition incarnate. She is, after President Obama, the great hero of socially responsible healthcare in America.”
Worryworts like this writer point to the prospect of a pro-Sanders abandonment of Clinton in November. There are precedents. Or are there? Exactly eight years ago, for example, in 2008, a CNN poll (though one with a huge margin of error) found that “60 percent of Clinton supporters said they would vote for Obama, but 17 percent said they would vote for McCain and 22 percent, said they would not vote at all if Clinton were not the nominee.” By the end of August, despite the agitation of the PUMAs (“Party Unity My Ass”), when the Democratic convention was done, the Hillary supporters who declared they would vote for Obama had jumped to over 70 percent. According to exit polls, 83 percent of Clinton primary voters ended up voting for Obama. Eighty-three percent is, of course, not 100 percent. But that was against John McCain. Once Clinton is the official Democratic nominee, the embittered left-wing mind will very likely be concentrated by the specter of President Donald J. Trump.
Face to face with the strutting, nativist, misogynist, nihilist Trump, I’d bet on better than 83 percent this time. But very likely is not certainly. How many perfectionists will risk a non-zero chance of seeing a TRUMP WHITE HOUSE sign go up on Pennsylvania Avenue? If we’re lucky, and they’re sober, we won’t have to find out. Scrap the complacency, please.
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Todd Gitlin (1943-2022), was a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, and the author of among other books The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.