November 24, 2016
In Blog News
His improbable run for the presidency sharpened Hillary Clinton and awakened a new generation of voters, but has Bernie Sanders got what it takes now to turn his moment into a movement?
n a presidential campaign that was less about hope and change and more about resignation and horror, there was, thankfully, one candidate who provided a dose of inspiration and emotional uplift. Bernie Sanders may not have won his party’s nomination—and his indefatigable stumping on behalf of Hillary Clinton didn’t change the outcome in November. Even if the Vermont Senator had been the one facing Donald Trump, it’s far from clear he would have won. But Sanders nonetheless recognized the discontent and anger that so many Americans were feeling in 2016 and, unlike our president-elect, proposed solutions to their problems that sought to bring the country together rather than tear it apart.
In the process, the self-declared socialist became an unlikely hero to both frustrated working-class Americans and a new generation of young voters. Sanders—his hair unkempt, his Brooklyn accent untamed—brought campaign crowds to their feet with wonky calls to reinstate Great Depression-era banking legislation. And now, in the wake of Trump’s election, Sanders has become a crucial voice in determining the direction of a depressed and decimated Democratic Party. We spoke about all that, and about the path ahead for Sanders, in two conversations—one prior to the election and another that took place this past weekend. A condensed and edited transcript of our conversations follows:
GQ: Presumably there are people who voted for you in the Democratic primary and then voted for Donald Trump. If you could have gotten them in a room, what’s the message you would have given them to try to convince them to vote for Hillary Clinton instead of Trump?
Sanders: Well, I think that what Trump understood—that many Democrats do not—is that while we are better off today, under Obama, than we were eight years ago, much better off, there are millions and millions of working families in this country who are really struggling.
Trump posed as a champion of working families—somebody who is going to take on the establishment. And it’s beyond belief that he could do that. This is a guy who’s a billionaire who doesn’t pay anything in federal income taxes, who outsources his jobs for his companies to Bangladesh, China, Mexico, and Turkey, and who has been sued time and time again by workers for not keeping up his end in contracts. But nonetheless a lot of working people voted for him.
What I would tell those people if I were in the room with them, and I suspect that I was because I did a lot of traveling for Hillary Clinton, is, “Don’t believe everything that this guy says. There is no particular reason to believe that he is gonna follow through on the promises that he made.” And already we’re beginning to see that.
There are some Democrats, like Harry Reid, who say that it’s a mistake to try to work with Trump at all. Why is that view wrong?
Clearly there is no working with a president who believes in, or will bring forth, programs or policies based on bigotry, whether it is racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia, and there can be no compromise on that. There can be no compromise on the issue of climate change, which is a threat to the entire planet.
But if Trump is prepared to work with me and others on rebuilding our infrastructure and creating millions of jobs, on raising the minimum wage, on passing Glass-Steagall, on changing our trade policies—yes, I think it would be counterproductive on issues that working-class Americans supported and depend upon if we did not go forward.
Is there any silver lining to the fact that Trump’s victory will help ensure big changes to the Democratic Party—changes that could push it in the progressive direction you favor?
No, I would not say that there’s any silver lining in Trump’s victory. It is scary, and I think there are many, many people throughout this country who are very frightened about what will happen over the next four years. So I don’t see any silver lining.
But what we are working on right now is to transform the Democratic Party. I will introduce legislation that will raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Mr. Trump talks about his concern about working families. I look forward to him supporting it. I am going to introduce legislation—I or somebody else, it’s not just me—demanding pay equity for women workers. I hope Mr. Trump supports that. We’re going to have very definitive legislation on infrastructure. I hope Trump supports that. Trade policy, Trump based his whole campaign on trade. So it’s not a question of us working with Trump. It’s a question of Trump working with us.
Heading into the election, there was a sense that demographics were on the Democrats’ side and that the election would come down to Clinton’s ability to motivate certain groups of traditional supporters to get to the polls—as opposed to persuading undecideds. Do you think that view has been completely wiped out?
I’m not a great fan of demographics. I think the assumption is that African-Americans and Latinos will vote against many Republicans because they perceive them as anti-immigrant or racist. Or [Republicans will be perceived as] sexist, and so women will vote. And that’s fine. There’s truth to that. But you can’t run a campaign—you can’t run a party—based on the facts that some of your supporters will vote against Republicans because of a, b, and c reasons: racism, sexism, homophobia. You need to stand for something! It’s not good enough to say, “Well, I’m not a racist, I’m not a sexist, I’m not a xenophobe, I’m not a homophobe, you gotta vote for me.” You need more than that! So it’s not like they’re just voting against somebody, they’re voting for somebody. And I think that’s where we have to radically sharpen our message.
Are you going to run in 2020?
I think talking about those issues is exactly one of the problems we face as a nation. The people aren’t really worried about who’s going to run in 2020. It’s a little bit premature when we haven’t even inaugurated the president who was just elected.
You’ve complained about the media, about its seeming disinterest in covering meaningful stories. There’s the proliferation of fake news—do you see that as equally problematic?
I’m not gonna quantify it. It is a very serious problem that millions of people are reading totally phony lies. On the other hand, what I do know, and what studies have shown, is that the amount of coverage, say, on television news given to climate change, given to the decline of the middle class, given to health care, given to unemployment, given to poverty is minimal, minimal, a fraction, a fraction, compared to the amount that talks about political gossip, who’s going to run in 2020, 2090, 2400—all kinds of personality things. Campaigns should not be about candidates; they should be about the needs of the people.
As for your own experience as a candidate, what do you think you accomplished with your run for the White House?
I think we expanded consciousness in terms of possibilities. What we basically did is ask a simple question: Why should we maintain the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality that we have? Why? Why are we allowing this country to drift into an oligarchy where a handful of billionaires are buying elections?
Was there a moment where you thought you were going to win?
Well, we started off way, way, way, way behind.
Three percent in the polls.
Right. And certainly after the New Hampshire primary, where we did really well, we thought we had a shot. The difﬁculty that we had—and there’s no regrets about this—is that we made a decision early on that we had to do well in the ﬁrst two states. We had to work really, really hard in those two states, and we did. But after Iowa and New Hampshire, our timeline became very compressed—we had to deal with Nevada, and we had to deal with South Carolina, and we had to deal with Super Tuesday. So it was a lot of states we visited but did not have really the time to go around doing the rallies and the meetings that I would have liked to have done, and that, I think, hurt us.
Do you feel that Clinton would not have moved toward the progressive positions she did had it not been for the primary challenge that you gave her?
Why do you think you had such success with voters under 40?
I’ll tell you something. We ended up speaking to about 1.4 million people during the course of the campaign. And probably the best compliment I ever got, one guy came up to me and he said, “You know, Bernie, what I like about you is you treat us as if we are intelligent human beings.” And what that means is that, in all of the speeches that I gave, I doubt there was any speech less than 45 minutes, and most of them were over an hour. And generally speaking, people stayed. But that was not about my great oratorical abilities; it was, I think, because there is a hunger in America for a real understanding. Media does not provide that. Most politicians don’t provide that. I think we underestimate the intelligence of the American people and their desire to learn about what’s going on.
I remember I saw you in Iowa and you had made Glass-Steagall into an applause line. I found it amazing that you were getting one of your loudest ovations by referencing a piece of banking legislation.
Exactly. You got it. You got it. You got it. And I think a lot of politicians underestimate the American people. And they give them little pat lines and little sound bites, and we tried not to do that. So the negative for us, it meant that we bored the national media.
The flip side, of course, were the Trump rallies, which had similar sorts of crowds and applause, but were the exact opposite. They were completely substance-free. How do you explain your rallies and his rallies?
There is discontent, and that’s the first point to be made. Any objective observer would conclude that the economy today is much, much better than it was eight years ago and give Obama and Biden and those guys credit. But there are also real problems. One of the astounding things that’s happening among white working-class people in this country now, we’re seeing a lowering, a reduction, of life expectancy.
This is an ahistorical event. All over the world, everything being equal, life expectancy goes up, and now the despair is so great because—primarily of the economy, I think—that people are turning to drugs, they’re turning to alcohol and suicide, okay? Why is that? What’s going on? What does that mean?
I know you’ve said the campaign was not about you, but obviously you’re the one who lived it. What experiences really stood out?
Some people go into the Beverly Hillses of the world and raise money; we went to some of the poorest areas of poor states. We went to the housing projects in the Bronx and Brooklyn in New York City and talked with people there. We went to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. We went to Puerto Rico. God, what we saw there…Jesus Christ. The housing conditions were deplorable, and, unbelievably, the teachers there and the parents [Sanders gets choked up for a moment] have created an excellent school, excellent school, in the midst of all of that poverty, which tells you what people who are determined to do the right thing can do.
Were things worse than you imagined in these places? Were you aware, as a senator from Vermont, what these places were like?
I saw things I was not familiar with and met people whom I did not normally come in contact with. Before every rally, we did a meeting. Wherever we went, we focused on Native Americans, Latinos, African-Americans. And you learn a lot! People talked about the local problems facing their communities—the unemployment, the opioid problems, the drug problems, the police problems. It’s a very good learning experience. If you want to learn a lot, run for president.
Of course, other things happen when you run for president, too. What was it like to become a pop-culture figure?
The good news, from a political point of view, is that having Larry David imitate you on Saturday Night Live has a real political impact, no question about it. We did the Larry Wilmore show and Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel. The Ellen Show, that gets out. That’s good. It gave us just enormous exposure into millions of homes that otherwise we would not have had. But my major lament of the campaign is that media goes overboard to make sure that we do not have the kind of serious discussion we need and that it is kind of a little bit strange that you have to go on a comedy show in order to have five minutes to talk about serious issues. What does that say about American political culture, that you have to go on a comedy show? I’m old-fashioned, and I think that politics and public policy are serious issues that need serious discussion, and as a nation I think we need a revolution in media. And that’s beginning to happen in certain ways, to force discussion about the major issues facing our country, which media, corporate media, by definition are reluctant to do.
But you did a good job finding unlikely interlocutors, like the Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, who became an outspoken supporter.
Killer Mike is a serious guy.
Exactly. Your web-video interview with him was fascinating.
It turns out that Killer Mike is an extremely bright guy.
I assume somebody had to explain to you who Killer Mike was.
Yes, they did. The name got me a little bit nervous. But Killer Mike has never killed anybody. It’s just, he’s a killer rapper.
Jason Zengerle is GQ’s political correspondent.
A version of this piece originally appeared in the December 2016 issue with the title “Better to Bern Out.”