Magazine | July 6, 2015, Issue

Adventures in National Socialism

Notes from a weekend with Bernie

Marshalltown, Iowa — ‘All foreign-made vehicles park in designated area in rear of building.” So reads the sign in front of United Auto Workers Local 893 in Marshalltown, Iowa, though nobody is bothered much about the CNN satellite truck out front, a Daimler-AG Freightliner proudly declaring itself “Powered by Mercedes-Benz,” nor about the guys doggedly and earnestly unpacking yard signs and $15 T-shirts and rolls of giveaway stickers from a newish Subaru, all that swag bearing the face and/or logo of Senator Bernie Sanders, the confessing socialist from Brooklyn representing Vermont in the Senate who is, in his half-assed and almost endearingly low-rent way, challenging Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. The bumper stickers on the mainly foreign-made cars of his followers tell the story: One of those “Peace” (not the more popular “Coexist”) slogans made of various world religious symbols, “Clean Water Is for Life!” and “The Warren Wing of the Democratic Party,” sundry half-literate denunciations of “Corporate Oligarchy” . . . “Not Just Gay — Ecstatic!”

The union hall, like the strangely church-like auditorium at Drake University the night before, was chosen with calculation. Bernie — he’s “Bernie,” not Senator Sanders or Mr. Sanders or that weirdo socialist from Soviet Beninjerristan, just lovable, cuddly “Bernie,” like a grumpy Muppet who spent too much time around the Workers World party back in the day — our Bernie may not be the slickest practitioner of the black arts of electioneering, but he’s got some smart people on his small team, and they are smart enough to book him in rooms with capacities that are about 85 percent of the modest crowds they are expecting, thereby creating the illusion of overflow audiences. They do all the usual tedious stuff, such as planting volunteers in the audience to shout on cue, “Yes, yes!” and the occasional Deanesque “Yeaaaaaaah!” It’s all very familiar. Sanders, as stiff a member as Congress has to offer, repeatedly refers to the audience as “brothers and sisters,” and the union bosses greet one another as “brother,” and you get the feeling that after a beer or three one of these characters is going to slip up and let out a “comrade.”

If it’s anybody, it’s probably going to be the grandmotherly lady in the hammer-and-sickle T-shirt. She’s well inclined toward Bernie, she says, though she distrusts his affiliation with the Democratic party. “He’s part of . . . them,” she says, grimacing. “Yeah,” says her friend, who stops to think for a moment. “He’s a senator, right?”

Aside from Grandma Stalin there, there’s not a lot of overtly Soviet iconography on display around the Bernieverse, but the word “socialism” is on a great many lips. Not Bernie’s lips, for heaven’s sake: The guy’s running for president. But Tara Monson, a young mother who has come out to the UAW hall to support her candidate, is pretty straightforward about her issues: “Socialism,” she says. “My husband’s been trying to get me to move to a socialist country for years — but now, maybe, we’ll get it here.” The socialist country she has in mind is Norway, which of course isn’t a socialist country at all: It’s an oil emirate. Monson is a classic American radical, which is to say, a wounded teenager in an adult’s body: Asked what drew her to socialism and Bernie, she says that she is “very atheist,” and that her Catholic parents were not accepting of this. She goes on to cite her “social views,” and by the time she gets around to the economic questions, she’s not Helle Thorning-Schmidt — she’s Pat Buchanan, complaining about “sending our jobs overseas.”

L’Internationale, my patootie. This is national socialism.

In the Bernieverse, there’s a whole lot of nationalism mixed up in the socialism. He is, in fact, leading a national-socialist movement, which is a queasy and uncomfortable thing to write about a man who is the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and whose family was largely wiped out in the Holocaust. But there is no other way to characterize his views and his politics. The incessant reliance on xenophobic (and largely untrue) tropes holding that the current economic woes of the United States are the result of scheming foreigners, especially the wicked Chinese, “stealing our jobs” and victimizing his class allies is nothing more than an updated version of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s “yellow peril” rhetoric, and though the kaiser had a more poetical imagination — he said he had a vision of the Buddha riding a dragon across Europe, laying waste to all — Bernie’s take is substantially similar. He describes the normalization of trade relations with China as “catastrophic” — Sanders and Jesse Helms both voted against the Clinton-backed China-trade legislation — and heaps scorn on every other trade-liberalization pact. That economic interactions with foreigners are inherently hurtful and immoral is central to his view of how the world works.

Bernie bellows that he remembers a time when you could walk into a department store and “buy things made in the U.S.A.” Before the “Made in China” panic, there was the “Made in Japan” panic of the 1950s and 1960s, and the products that provoked that panic naturally went on to be objects of nostalgia. (A quarter century ago, the artist Roger Handy published a book of photographs titled “Made in Japan: Transistor Radios of the 1950s and 1960s.”) Like most of these advocates of “economic patriotism” (Barack Obama’s favored phrase) Bernie worries a great deal about trade with brown people — Asians, Latin Americans — but has never, so far as public records show, made so much as a peep about our very large trade deficit with Sweden, which as a share of bilateral trade volume is about the same as our trade deficit with China, or about the size of our trade deficit with Canada, our largest trading partner. Sanders doesn’t rail about the Canadians stealing our jobs — his ire is reserved almost exclusively for the Chinese and the Mexicans, as when he demanded of Hillary Rodham Clinton, in the words of the old protest song, “Which side are you on?” The bad guys, or American workers “seeing their jobs go to China or Mexico?”

But for the emerging national socialist, dusky people abroad are not the only problem. I speak with Bernie volunteer McKinly Springer, an earnest young man whose father worked for the UAW local hosting the rally. He’s very interested in policies that interpose the government between employers and employees — for example, mandatory paid maternity and paternity leave. He lived for a time in Germany, first studying abroad and then working for Bosch, an automotive-parts company. He is a great ad­mirer of the German welfare state, saying: “I ask myself: Why do they have these nice things, and we can’t?” I ask him to answer his own question, and his answer is at once familiar and frightening: “Germany is very homogeneous. They have lots of white people. We’re very diverse. We have the melting pot, and that’s a big struggle.”

That the relative success of the Western European welfare states, and particularly of the Scandinavian states, is rooted in cultural and ethnic homogeneity is a longstanding conservative criticism of Bernie-style schemes to re-create the Danish model in New Jersey and Texas and Mississippi. The conservative takeaway is: Don’t build a Scandinavian welfare state in Florida. But if you understand the challenges of diversity and you still want to build a Scandinavian welfare state, or at least a German one, that points to some uncomfortable conclusions. Indeed, one very worked-up young man confronts Bernie angrily about his apparent unwillingness to speak up more robustly about his liberal views on illegal immigration. Springer gets a few sentences into a disquisition on ethnic homogeneity when a shadow crosses his face, as though he is for the first time thinking through the ugly implications of what he believes in light of what he knows. He trails off, looking troubled.

Bernie, who represents the second-whitest state in the union, may not have thought too hard about this. But the Left is thinking about it: T. A. Frank, writing in The New Republic, argues that progressives should oppose Obama’s immigration-reform plans because poor foreigners flooding our labor markets will undercut the wages of low-income Americans. Cheap foreign cars, cheap foreign labor — you can see the argument.

‘Conservatives can identify each other by smell — did you know that?” He’s an older gentleman, neatly dressed in a pink button-down shirt, his slightly unruly white hair and cracked demeanor calling to mind the presidential candidate he is here to evaluate. He’s dead serious, too, and it’s not just Republicans’ sniffing one another’s butts that’s on his mind. He goes on a good-humored tirade about how one can identify conservatives’ and progressives’ homes simply by walking down the street and observing the landscaping. Con­servatives, he insists, “torture” the flowers and shrubbery, imposing strict order and conformity on their yards, whereas progressives just let things bloom as nature directs. I am tempted to ask him which other areas in life he thinks might benefit from that kind of unregulated, spontaneous order, but I think better of it. One of Sanders’s workers, a young Occupy veteran, shoots me an eye-rolling look: Crazy goes with the territory.

Here in a dreary, rundown, hideous little corner of Des Moines dotted with dodgy-looking bars and dilapidated groceries advertising their willingness to accept EBT payments sits Drake University, where Bernie is speaking at Sheslow Auditorium, a kind of mock church — spire, stained glass, double staircase leading down to the podium for communion — that is the perfect setting for the mock-religious fervor that the senator brings to the stump. He is a clumsy speaker, pronouncing “oligarchy” — a word he uses in every speech — as though he were starting to say “à la mode.” He’s one of those rhetorical oafs whose only dynamic modulations are sudden shifts in volume — he’s the oratorical equivalent of every Nirvana song ever written — and he is un­disciplined, speaking for an hour and then pressing right through, on and on, feeling the need to check off every progressive box, as though new orbiters in the Bernieverse might think him a Rick Santorum–level pro-lifer if he didn’t lay his pro-choice credentials out on the table at least once during every speech. “Brothers and sisters, . . .” repeatedly: global warming, $15 minimum wage, putting an end to free trade, gays, gays, abortion, gays, lies about women making only 78 cents on the male dollar, mass transit, gays and abortion and gays, Kochs and Waltons and hedge-fund managers!

He does not suggest that conservatives can literally sniff one another out pheromonally, but the idea that his political opponents are a tribe apart is central to his platform, which can be summarized in three words: “Us and Them.” And, contra the hammer-and-sickle lady, Bernie is pretty emphatic that he is not one of the hated Them.

And this is where the Bernieverse is really off-kilter, where the intellectual shallowness of the man and his followers is as impossible to miss as a winter bonfire. The Scandinavian welfare states they so admire are very different from the United States in many ways, and one of the most important is that their politics are consensus-driven. That has some significant downsides, prominent among them the crushing conformity that is ruthlessly enforced on practically every aspect of life. (The Dano-Norwegian novelist Aksel Sandemose called it “Jante law,” after the petty and bullying social milieu of the fictional village Jante in A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks.) But it is also a stabilizing and moderating force in politics, allowing for the emergence of a subtle and sophisticated and remarkably broad social agreement that contains political disputes. Bernie’s politics, on the other hand, are the polar opposite of Scandinavian: He promises not just confrontation but hostile, theatrical confrontation, demonizing not only his actual opponents but his perceived enemies as well, including the Walton family, whose members are not particularly active in politics these days, and some of whom are notably liberal. That doesn’t matter: If they have a great deal of wealth, they are the enemy. (What about Tom Steyer and George Soros? “False equivalency,” Bernie scoffs.) He knows who Them is: The Koch brothers, who make repeated appearances in every speech; scheming foreigners who are stealing our jobs; bankers, the traditional bogeymen of conspiracy theorists ranging from Father Coughlin and Henry Ford to Louis Farrakhan; Wall Street; etc.

He is steeped in this stuff, having begun his political career with the radical Liberty Union party in the 1970s. Liberty Union sometimes ran its own candidates but generally endorsed candidates from other parties, most often the Socialist Party USA, making a few exceptions: twice for Lenora Fulani’s New Alliance party and once for the Workers World party, a Commu­nist party that split with Henry Wallace’s Progressives over its view of Mao Zedong’s murderous rule and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary — both of which it supported. The radical political language of the 1970s and 1980s spoke of a capitalist conspiracy or a conspiracy of bankers (a conspiracy of Jewish bankers, in the ugliest versions), a notion to which Sanders pays ongoing tribute with the phrase “rigged economy.”

His pose is not the traditional progressive managerial-empiricist posture but a moral one. He is very fond of the word “moral” — “moral imperative,” “moral disaster,” “moral crisis” — and those who see the world differently are not, in his estimate, guilty of misunderstanding, or ignorance, or bad judgment: They are guilty of “crimes.”

And criminalizing things is very much on Bernie’s agenda, beginning with the criminalization of political dissent. At every event he swears to introduce a constitutional amendment reversing Supreme Court decisions that affirmed the free-speech protections of people and organizations filming documentaries, organizing Web campaigns, and airing television commercials in the hopes of influencing elections or public attitudes toward public issues. That this would amount to a repeal of the First Amendment does not trouble Bernie at all. If the First Amendment enables Them, then the First Amendment has got to go.

F.  A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom notwithstanding, corralling off foreign-made cars does not lead inevitably to corralling off foreign-born people, or members of ethnic minorities, although the Asians-and-Latinos-with-their-filthy-cheap-goods rhetoric in and around the Bernieverse is troubling. There are many kinds of Us-and-Them politics, and Bernie Sanders, to be sure, is not a national socialist in the mode of Alfred Rosenberg or Julius Streicher.

He is a national socialist in the mode of Hugo Chávez. He isn’t driven by racial hatred; he’s driven by political hatred. And that’s bad enough.

“This is not about me,” Bernie is fond of saying. Instead, he insists, it’s about building a grassroots movement that will be in a permanent state of “political revolution” — his words — against the people he identifies as class enemies: Kochs, Waltons, Republicans, bankers, Wall Street, Them — the numerically inferior Them. His views are totalitarian inasmuch as there is no aspect of life that he believes to be beyond the reach of the state, and they are deeply illiberal inasmuch as he is willing to jettison a great deal of American liberalism — including freedom of speech — if doing so means that he can stifle his enemies’ ability to participate in the political process. He rejects John F. Kennedy’s insistence that “a rising tide lifts all boats” — and he is willing to sink as many boats as is necessary in his crusade against the reality that some people make more money than others.

Part of this is just a parting sentimental gesture from a daft old man (Occupy Geritol!) — soupy feel-good identity politics for aging McGovernites and dopey youngsters in Grateful Dead T-shirts. That an outlier of a senator from Vermont wants to organize American politics as a permanent domestic war on unpopular minorities is, while distasteful, probably not that important.

That Hillary Rodham Clinton made the same speech in Des Moines a day later, on the other hand, is significant, and terrifying.

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