That Magic Feeling: the Strange Mystique of Bernie Sanders

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

(I want to personally thank Senator Sanders for announcing this week that he’s running for president again, since his campaign will give a second life to my book on his 2016 campaign, Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes from a Failed Revolution. A lot has changed in the past two years. But, for better or worse, Bernie remains pretty much the same strange politician he has always been. Here’s the introduction. –JSC]

Out of college, money spent
See no future, pay no rent
All the money’s gone, nowhere to go
Any jobber got the sack
Monday morning, turning back
Yellow lorry slow, nowhere to go
But oh, that magic feeling…

—Lennon and McCartney, “You Never Give Me Your Money.”

Bernie Sanders had come home. Home to New York. Home to the city that fit his accent. Home to the borough that suited his cranky demeanor, his Jewish heritage, his gritty politics. Bernie Sanders wasn’t Clean Gene McCarthy. Sanders could be petulant, moody, even vindictive. A little bit of Brooklyn was still hardwired into his character. Frankly, Sanders always seemed like an interloper in Vermont. Too prickly, urban and disputatious for that verdant and mountainous sliver of WASPish New England. If more of the Brooklyn Bernie had leaked out during the campaign, things might have ended differently.

On a cool night in early April, Bernie stood on the stage in Prospect Park, facing more than 28,000 adoring fans, the largest gathering of the campaign. As he worked his way through his speech, Sanders hit all of the familiar notes—on the minimum wage, single payer health care, free college tuition, the corrosiveness of Super PACS–but he stood a little taller, his voice sounded a little friskier, he seemed fueled by the sense that he just might win the New York primary.

Could New York really be in play? Could Sanders upend the once invulnerable Hillary Clinton in her own adopted state, sending shockwaves through the System? What once seemed impossible now seemed to many Sandernistas tantalizingly within grasp.

This was, of course, the season of the improbable, the rare warping of political time when the odds were being defied week after startling week. This was a primary season in which aliens and the alienated finally featured in guest-starring roles. The mood of the country, sour and aggravated, seemed primed to embrace, for the first time in decades, a real outsider candidate, not so much because they found either of the two self-identified outsiders especially alluring, but because the electorate saw themselves as outsiders, exiles from a political system run by and for a remote and untouchable cabal of corporations, militarists and financial elites.

Nearly all agreed the system was rigged, programmed like some political malware to replicate the same results over and over again, generating torrents of booty into fewer and fewer hands, while leaving the rest of the Republic mired in debt and endless war.

Indeed, war has become the nation’s permanent condition. There seems to be a new
bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550-e1477943826411one every few months. Few can keep up. And who goes off to fight them? Not many of us, or even people that we know. A new warrior class seemed to have taken root. We noticed them mainly from the decals on their trucks or from their wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs, rarely encountered in the check out line at Safeway.

More and more, machines were doing the war’s wetwork, killing nameless people in nameless regions on the far side of the world, hundreds of miles from any known base of operations. War has become background noise, the ambient soundtrack of our time.

It is one of the great failures of the Sanders campaign that he didn’t try to puncture some of the comforting illusions about American foreign policy. As cruelly as we treat our own citizens, Americans like to believe, in fact must believe, that our country remains a force of light and goodness in the most troubled precincts of the world. We are reluctant warriors, heroes for humanity. Sanders had a rare chance to expose America’s savage imprint on the world to his followers. With more than 800 military bases sprawling across the globe, the American military machine keeps the unruly living under a constant state of nuclear terror, each transgression against the imperial order disciplined and punished by SEAL team assassins, cruise missiles and drone strikes out of the clear blue skies.

The financial condition of the country also seems mired in a mysterious contradiction. The number of billionaires doubles every year, while everyone else is working harder yet falling behind month by month. In fact, the economy, chronically ailing for so long, finally seems to have turned malignant. Everybody knows this. Even the looters. Especially them. And the government is useless. Worse than useless. It exists not to contain the spread of economic disease or to alleviate the suffering, but to repress any minor revolt of the afflicted cells of the Republic. The evidence is all around. In homeless shelters, tent cities, food banks, and unemployment offices. Or under lock and key. One in 31 adults in America is rotting in prison or jail, or living circumscribed lives on probation or parole.  Twenty-five years ago, this rate was only 1 in 77. Police are killing a citizen somewhere on the streets of America every 12 hours or so, and every 18 hours that citizen is a black male. In fact, in the first six months of 2016, police had killed 585 people, up from the previous year’s total of 491 killed through June of 2015.

The country is out of joint. It had been for a long time. Was it really possible that the sleepers had awakened?  That Tea Partiers and Occupiers, Steelworkers and Black Lives Matter activists, had experienced a simultaneous epiphany? That some kind of convulsive change in the old corrupt orthodoxy was just around the corner? Well, so it seemed to some of us, suckers for almost any wish-fulfillment fantasy, in the crazy winter of discontent in America, circa 2016.

Until that rare flash in New York, Bernie Sanders had largely refused to engage Clinton directly. But in the first real skirmish of the campaign, Sanders indelicately declared that Clinton was disqualified from holding the presidency for taking money from Wall Street and for voting to give George W. Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq. Sanders had finally landed a blow that seemed to stagger Clinton. But it was a parry-and-thrust that Bernie retreated from almost immediately after being hit with a cluster bombing of attacks by Hillary’s praetorian guard of liberal pundits and DNC hacks.

But if Bernie’s blitz through New York was a time of swelling optimism for his campaign, it was also a moment of peak delusion. Bernie had lost the nomination well before he ended up losing New York, in something of a Clinton rout. In fact, the campaign had been over since Super Tuesday, when HRC marched almost unopposed across the South, racking up an insurmountable delegate lead. But the Revolution was defunct the moment Sanders elected to run as a Democrat, a decision he doubled down on months later when he rebuffed Jill Stein’s offer to the head the Green Party ticket and chose to endorse Hillary Clinton without equivocation on Prime Time TV at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia.

That fateful decision left a pall of evil hanging over the elections. A palpable evil. An evil you could smell. Even many of Hillary’s backers knew she was a force of evil. It’s why they talked so openly and frantically about the logic of lesser evil voting.

They knew she couldn’t be trusted. That whatever Faustian deal she struck with Sanders would not be honored. They knew that Clinton lies smoothly, effortlessly, and icily. That she lies about big and small matters, from her Goldman speeches to TPP, from her personal finances to Libya, from her e-mails to the DNC’s plot to get Bernie. Yes, even Democratic Party loyalists acknowledged her evil ways. But could they really be sure, deep down, that she was truly the lesser evil? What kind of complex calculus yielded the proof?

For the Democrats, the greater evil was Donald Trump, who seemed to rise like some monstrous dirigible on the same political air currents that had sent Sanders aloft. The two outsiders were in a sense alter egos, Sanders’s Dr. Jekyll to Trump’s Mr. Hyde. They spoke about many of the same issues, the same frustrations with the economic and political condition of the country, to strikingly different audiences and in different tones.  Trump prevailed because he was willing, indeed eager to burn down the Republican Party house with him. Sanders failed, in large part, because he wasn’t, even when the Democratic Party house, run with the ruthless calculation of any casino, conspired against him.

Trump burst on the scene like a character out of a Burroughs novel, a narcissistic junkie, desperate for his next fix of publicity—jittery, unpredictable, obscene, petulant and brutal. And impossible not to watch. There was a dark and dangerous erotic charge to Trump that was lacking in his rivals, especially from Sanders and Clinton, both of whom projected antiseptic and asexual personas. Trump, on the other hand, emitted the powerful pheromones of doom. At times it was hard to tell whether Trump was running a political campaign or directing a political snuff film.

At Sanders events all the erotic charge surged not from the candidate himself, but the from the energized crowds. His rallies were intense experiences that often felt like political raves. They vibrated, the crowds grooving to that magic feeling.

Hillary, naturally, projected the severe aridity of a tax auditor. Clinton’s foot soldiers looked like an army of grim conscripts going off to wage battle against their own villages. HRC would prevail, but even her most devoted followers knew there would be no fun in the triumph. It seemed unlikely that she could chop down Trump—and for months polls showed Sanders as the better bigot-slayer—Hillary knew all along what she really had to do was wait, wait for Trump to self-destruct. Only Sanders could trip her up and she and the DNC had that unlikely prospect pretty much fixed from the start. She didn’t need to be appealing. Clinton’s calling card was her inevitability.

Trump has been called the new Goldwater. But Goldwater had a theory of the case, an ideology that was austere, formulaic and unyielding. Trump feeds off of rage. From his gold-plated aerie in Trump Tower, the Donald saw the circuits of the old white America shorting out, spraying sparks of anxiety and dread, fear and suspicion. These were the people who believed to their core that they had built America and that the country should put their economic security first. And now they found themselves just scraping by at the end of most months on pay day loans and pawn shops. They were pissed off and they were looking for someone to blame. And Trump fed off their rage like a super villain prowling the streets of Gotham City. His ideology is a pastiche of raging factions: on trade, on immigration, on race, on sexual insecurity, on their incandescent fury at the elites. Not surprisingly, Trump rallies often erupted into spasms of virulent, profane shouting.

Sanders was probing other emotional states. He seemed to play the role of analyst or counselor, an antidote to the despair, alienation and the hopelessness of America’s abandoned children. Sanders rallies – much larger and younger than Trump’s crowd – often left  in tears, ecstatic tears, as if the crowds had gone through a kind of collective psychodrama and emerged purged, emotionally spent. It was as if the Sandernistas had finally found someone who “got them,” who heard and felt their laments and gave voice to their longing for connection.

One can see what the Sandernistas were getting out of being part of Bernie’s movement: the thrill of collective action, the buzz of being in the midst of a tumultuous, even slightly dangerous political force. But what about Sanders himself? What compelled Bernie Sanders, at his age, to keep up the grueling grind of the campaign, especially when he knew (and he had to know, didn’t he?) how it was all going to end? Validation for decades of work? Ego gratification? Did he labor under any guilt for leading his bright young legions of believers right into the dark vaults of the neoliberal machine they’d been warring against? Or in Bernie’s mind was that, to use James Baldwin’s phrase, just the price of the ticket for the wild trip he’d taken them on? Hard to say. At a personal level, Sanders remains opaque, inscrutable. Politically, he sticks rigidly to his old script, even long after the point when his performances have entered into reruns.

Where Trump breathes fire, Sanders often exhales a kind of sourness, emblematic, perhaps, of the unpalatable nature of the political machine he found himself locked inside of. Sanders ended up a prisoner of his politics, of his fatal decision to run inside the Democratic Party instead of against it.  Sanders offered revolution, but the targets of the revolution could never be precisely stated. The beast could not be named, because it had been inculcated, reared and unleashed on the nation by his very own party. So it often seemed as if Sanders was speaking in a kind of code. Indeed as the campaign went on, one began to hope that he was speaking in code, that there was a subliminal dimension to his rhetoric that was being picked up and deciphered by an underground movement ready to rise up against the unnamed enemy—neoliberalism—and its chief practitioners: Obama and the Clintons. But, alas, it was not to be.

Sanders’s losing campaign, a campaign fated to lose, was not a campaign that attracted losers, not even beautiful losers. By and large, the Sandernistas were not social outcasts, not the homeless, the marginalized and the downtrodden. They weren’t black or Chicano. No. The Sandernistas were not scruffy street urchins and Bernie Sanders was not our political Dickens. They were raised in the suburbs of Madison and Denver on the white bread virtues of the old American Dream, a promise that had evaporated before their very eyes. They were educated and vested in the System, with enough social and economic status to have a credit score and acquire a mound of debt. The challenge for the Sandernistas will be to get beyond their sense of personal and political betrayal and to finally connect their movement for revolutionary change with the long-standing grievances of the American underclass.

In the end, Trump proved to be something of a superficial storm, a dusty twister, ripping across the surface of the country, leaving only minor structural damage in its wake. Sanders, though, seemed to be tapping into some deeper strata, down into the psychic fault lines of the nation, probing hidden fractures that might shift and quake at any moment. Yet the senator seemed insensate to the exact nature of the political and emotional schisms his campaign had helped expose. As the weeks went on, the fervency of his crowds swelled, yet Sanders seemed not to notice the expectant mood, the palpable yearning of his adherents. He kept giving the same stump speech at event after event, numb to the hunger of the beast he had awakened.  In a weird way, Sanders and Trump ended up sharing one more attribute as outsider politicians. Ultimately, their campaigns proved to be more about the candidates themselves than any great political principle or ideological crusade.

Where Trump blustered about “making America great again,” Sanders actually presented himself, symbolically at least, as being from a time when America thought of itself not only as great but also as good. Sanders stood behind his podium like a kind of Old Testament embodiment of the rapidly eroding Codes of the New Deal and the Great Society. In an age of accelerating national anxiety, the metaphysical promise of Bernie Sanders seemed to be that perhaps America could at least be humane.

But as the election proved, it’s a thin line between hope and hate. If Trump acted like an existential pest, a confidence man manipulating the basic impulses of a Hobbesian mob, Sanders offered, in his opaque manner, the soothing notion that the rusty gears of a long-neglected government machine could still be retooled to comfort and uplift. In this way, he revealed that he really was an antiquated Democrat, preaching socialism for a collapsing middle class.

Here then was the key to unlock the appeal of Bernie Sanders and his ultimate failure. At one of those rare, epochal moments, when the nation, preoccupied by the nature of its identity and obsessed with its engagement with the world, seemed to be searching desperately for a new logic to its existence, Sanders was punching a collective ticket back to a past that never existed.

This article is excerpted from Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution.

You Won’t Find My Name in Your Book of “Who’s-Who” (RIP Peter Tork)

My Oscar picks…

Best Film: The Favourite

Best Actor: Christian Bale, Vice

Best Supporting Actor: Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Best Actress: Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Best Supporting Actress: Rachel Weiss, The Favourite

Best Animated Feature: Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse

Best Costume Design: Sandy Powell, The Favourite

Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma

Best Cinematography: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma

Best Editing: Yorgos Mavropsaridis, The Favourite

Best Documentary Feature: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, Evan Hayes and Shannon Dill, Free Solo

Best Documentary Short: Marshall Curry, A Night at the Garden

Best Foreign Language Film: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma

Best Score: Terence Blanchard, Blackkklansman

Best Song: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings”

Adapted Screenplay: Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Original Screenplay: Paul Schrader, First Reformed

Booked Up

I was asked this week to list my 10 favorite travel books. Here they are…

1) The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

2) In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

3) Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn

4) The Valleys of Assassins by Freya Stark

5) The Exploration of the Colorado River by John Wesley Powell

6) Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo by Eric Hansen

7) The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

8) Raven’s Exile: a Season the Green by Ellen Meloy

9) Grizzly Years by Doug Peacock

10) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

Sound Grammar

What I’m listening to this week…

A Real Good Kid by Mike Posner (Island)

I Used to be Pretty by The Flesh Eaters (Yep Roc)

Sorry to Bother You: the Soundtrack by The Coup (Interscope)

The Implicit Submission

David Hume: “Nothing appears more surprizing to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers.”

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3