Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine a candidate far outside the US political mainstream becomes the presidential nominee for one of the two major parties. Besides a seeming hostility to the Washington establishment, that candidate exhibits opposition to the national security state and major tenets of US foreign policy.
Soon, wave after wave of defamatory news stories breaks, only intensifying after the candidate’s November election victory. Attacks from within the sprawling permanent national security bureaucracy are laundered through the media, which obediently reports any and every claim from anonymous sources, and which employs retired national security officials as talking heads, free in this new political climate to air any outrageous allegations seemingly consequence-free. The claims take on a momentum of their own; the president’s political opponents are soon citing them to call for impeachment, even imprisonment, on the grounds of treason and other crimes.
You don’t have to try hard to imagine this. We’ve been watching some version of it unfold ever since Donald Trump became the Republican nominee in 2016. And we may well see a more intense version repeat if Bernie Sanders wins the presidency in 2020.
The intensely partisan nature of Russiagate has made it hard for many to see its alarming implications. So has its revolving around Trump. Odious as he is, many have come to view taking a critical eye to the scandal as tantamount to defending the president, an unthinkable act for a lot of Americans. Instead, they’ve reveled in the schadenfreude of watching Trump humiliated or roundly attacked across the airwaves, with little heed for what it could mean for a future president.
But with the scandal’s monumental flop now firmly in the rear-view mirror, it’s uncontroversial to point out that much of the establishment and corporate media abandoned traditional notions of objectivity and journalistic professionalism to go after a president they saw as the antithesis of their values.
There was Buzzfeed dropping the salacious, bullshit-laden Steele dossier to supposedly let Americans “make up their own minds” about the Trump-Russia allegations. Or recall Jonathan Chait’s eight-thousand-word-long “plausible theory” that Trump had been a Russian asset since the Gorbachev years. Or think back to former intelligence officials like James Clapper and John Brennan appearing on cable news to assert Trump was a Kremlin asset, despite their own long, checkered histories of lying to protect themselves and intelligence agencies.
It hardly matters that Trump is a racist charlatan, nor that he was barely, if at all, committed to the foreign policy he talked about on the campaign trail. In fact, for all his bluster, Trump has reliably done the bidding of the national security state, stoking tensions with Russia, ramping up the “War on Terror,” and now possibly starting an outright war with Iran.
No, what offended these quarters most were his rhetorical jabs at the national security state, his seeming desire to end hostilities with Russia, and his flouting of political “norms” and conventions.
This is key. Because while Bernie Sanders is neither a racist, nor a sexist, nor a blustering buffoon in the throes of steep cognitive decline, he will be perceived as a threat to business as usual for much the same reasons the establishment loathes Trump. And if a President Sanders ends up becoming a reality, we may well view the past four years as a dry run for the establishment’s real battle, against a genuine populist who actually wants to “drain the swamp” and put power in the hands of working Americans.
Sanders now makes denunciation of the “military-industrial complex” a regular part of his stump speech. In December’s debate, he revived his dormant critique of the “War on Terror” and call to address the “root causes” of war. He was initially alone among the Democratic field to call Trump’s January drone strike on Qassem Soleimani what it was — an assassination — and has repeatedly said that under his presidency, the United States would steer away from antagonism with Washington’s official enemies and instead seek to unite the world around combating its common enemy of climate change.
Couple that with Sanders’s vow to “transform the Democratic Party,” as well as the anti-corporate policies that have led the think tank Third Way to dub him an “existential threat,” and a Sanders presidency would likely antagonize every contingent of the political establishment before it even begins — from the Democratic Party to the GOP, the national security state, and the business interests that underwrite them all.
It may not even begin with a Sanders election. With the Horowitz report’s release, we now know the FBI secured warrants to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page in 2016 on the basis of “inaccurate, incomplete, or unsupported” assertions, including the Steele dossier and an email doctored by a bureau agent. The report’s assurance that there was no bias involved in this abuse this time is little comfort, given the historic hostility toward people with Sanders’s politics from the FBI and similar agencies. Meanwhile, a significant factor behind the alarm within the national security bureaucracy over Trump’s withholding of Ukraine aid was not that he was using it to go after a political opponent, but that he was undermining a cherished goal of Washington’s foreign policy “Blob”: fighting Russia.
It’s instructive to look at what happened in Burlington in 1981, when Sanders eked out a surprise win over the city’s five-term incumbent Democratic mayor. Despite making outreach to the shocked Democratic establishment that had controlled the city council for decades — with many aldermen running unopposed year after year while doling out favors to friends and family through government patronage — the city’s Democrats launched a furious campaign of obstruction against Sanders, hoping to simply stymie him and run out the clock until the next mayoral election. One Democrat even launched a disinformation campaign in the form of a journal mocking and smearing the new mayor and his allies. This was less over their very real political differences than fear of the loss of power and influence Sanders’s election presaged.
The powers that be in Washington may well react the same way in 2020 and beyond, particularly given the vastly higher stakes. Russia’s 2016 meddling pales in comparison to what the governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel regularly do out in the open, spending tens of millions of dollars each on lobbying in 2018 alone. Both countries have close ties to the US national security establishment and cultivate close, bipartisan relationships with our political and media elite. And both would stand to lose big from a potential Sanders presidency, particularly with Sanders now calling for conditioning military aid to Israel.
The national security world, meanwhile, is increasingly encroaching beyond its borders. The Democratic Party has been filling its ranks in the House with former CIA and military personnel. Same goes for the cable news media, with longtime national security reporter and NBC employee William Arkin complaining in 2019 that the security establishment had “gained dangerous strength,” while the network became “defender of the government against Trump.”
Even without this infiltration in broad daylight, the media already views figures like Sanders with suspicion. Ever since the twin traumas of Brexit and Trump’s election, outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and even the Guardian have rung the alarm over the rise of “populism,” viewed by the liberal center as equally threatening in an egalitarian form as in its currently prevailing bigoted right-wing form. One need only look at the glowing coverage afforded to the brutal Saudi crown prince’s “reform” efforts compared to the hostile coverage that greeted the “authoritarian” and “strongman” Evo Morales before his violent ouster in Bolivia.
These outlets will have even greater incentive to go hard at a Sanders administration given their commitment to performative evenhandedness and objectivity. They have somewhat clumsily navigated the Trump era, building a windfall in subscriptions off a reputation as the front line of resistance to the president while bristling at this label and giving occasional, tactically favorable coverage to Trump and the far right to prove their neutrality. Terrified of being labeled partisan or, worse, “liberal” by conservatives, these outlets may well take an equally aggressive approach to a left-of-center presidency as they’ve taken against Trump.
This will make them easily manipulable by right-wing forces, particularly if the Right takes a page out of the books of their counterparts south of the border and launches a grassroots campaign of protest against the administration. Given the success of the Tea Party movement at the start of this decade, this isn’t out of the question.
There is good news, however. Just because it’s launched doesn’t mean it will succeed. The Russia and Ukraine scandals may have obsessed the media and Washington politicos, but they have mostly fallen flat among the voting public, with Trump’s approval rating even rising significantly over the course of the impeachment proceedings. The Democrat and national security–driven campaign of opposition has roundly failed against Trump, and it’s hard to see an identical sequel succeeding against a President Sanders immediately after.
Finally, it’s worth remembering what happened in 1980s Burlington when Sanders faced a wall of obstinate Democrats. Far from breaking him, their campaign of opposition actually turned public opinion against them. By the following year, four Democratic aldermen were gone, and Sanders allies took three more seats; the year after, Sanders was reelected with a decisive majority, heralding the city’s political realignment.
The war against a left-wing administration will come; what it will succeed in doing is another question entirely.