Underground Notes From a 2016 Sandernista

Drawing By Nathaniel St. Clair

It was about call and text message 10,000 that I came to realize that political campaigns that once started in September of the election cycle, which would culminate with the election in November, now begin years earlier.  The election cycle never ends! These have been info calls and texts and direct calls for donations from the Sanders’ campaign. Yes, I was a Sandernista during the 2016 election, and once captive, a campaign will not let go. I admit to this as the avalanche of messages fill my phone and computer inboxes. I admit to this, even though I recognize that the late antiwar protester Philip Berrigan was probably right when he said that if elections meant anything, they’d be “illegal.”

People have been removed from voting rolls across the US, so the right to vote means that the political right and right-wing minorities have more voting power than ever. Gerrymandering accomplishes what voter roll changes cannot do, making voting districts even more restrictive and more right-wing. People vote against their own self-interests with abandon!

I also admit to having made a major faux pas about Bernie Sanders on these pages when I stated that he had voted for the 2003 war in Iraq, but I was only wrong in a technical sense because he voted for so-called “defense” spending bills that funded that war, but not the authorization of the war itself. He did indeed vote for the authorization and funding of the 2001 war in Afghanistan that launched that unending war and the endless War on Terror that is a great boon to defense contractors. Sanders has also consistently voted for defense projects related to his home state of Vermont.

In terms of war, Bernie has been better heading into the 2020 election season, criticizing endless wars and the US support of Saudi Arabia in its bestial war (which war isn’t?) in Yemen. However, Bernie’s support for the faux case of Russiagate and his views on the status of China as a power contending militarily and economically with the US, are not issues to write home about. What do election promises within the belly of the beast of empire mean in any case to those who assume power?

Bernie Sanders is a mild reformer within the capitalist/corporate/militarized Democratic Party, but still to the liberal left of Elizabeth Warren, who has admitted to wanting to salvage and save capitalism. The latter is like opening a deck chair rental enterprise on the boat deck of the Titanic after midnight on April 15, 1912. What else could readers expect from a former Republican?

Joe Biden may make it to the finish line, although his campaign is showing obvious fault lines, and create the conditions to herald in an even worse version of Trump in 2024, if in fact Trump loses in 2020, which is hardly a certainty. It is not difficult to see someone like Pence waiting in the wings with a political organization to bring about the final push toward fascism in the US. It is quite possible that this is how it will turn out, but some sort of October surprise by Trump could keep him in the White House where fascism is already coloring every aspect of government. Indeed, it is strange that such a bellicose person as Trump has held back for the most part and not used massive military power against countries such as Iran or Venezuela. Deny immigrant children the basic necessities of life and cage them and Trump’s base cheers him on. If that isn’t fascism, then what is?

And what about the prospects of a third party in 2020? There seems to be even less interest for third party candidates now then there was in 2016. On the left, third parties have had a notoriously bad track record at election time with polling generally in the low, single-digit numbers. The duopoly has the show sewn up before candidates even begin to make campaign promises. Compare the presidential campaigns of Debs and Nader with Perot and George Wallace and the results are obvious. Third-party candidates on the right far outpoll those on the left.

And the effects of protest? When protest needs to be at its highest levels in the face of Trump et al and his base, protest has devolved into identity politics that followed upon the heels of the vibrant civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the feminist movement, the environmental movement, and the gay rights movement that all have a niche on the political and economic left, but have not been able to mount any sizable campaign against the forces of authoritarianism and hate on the right and among the right’s base, a political class and electorate that seem to mesh effortlessly. The left struggles to continue to bring people out into the streets for something as simple as a women’s march in the face of the subjugation of women within the misogynist right. Indeed, it appears that Trump’s base has a teflon coating when it comes to his violation of women in all kinds of settings. Trump boasts that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York and still win an election, but he may also have been able to rape someone in the same setting and still get elected: that’s how bad the political, economic, and social systems have become as the Republican far-right “free market” melds with Democratic neoliberalism. We teeter at the edge of corporate-driven fascism by way of the military-industrial-financial complex where the bottom line is all that matters. People’s well-being mean nothing. The right shakes off protest as if it doesn’t exist.

An assessment of the elements of fascist societies is recounted in “What Makes People So Susceptible to Fascism?” Huffington Post, May, 25, 2011). This article needs to be required reading in every civics class in the contemporary US, and well before a student is able to vote, when a person could take those civics lessons and help create a civil society:

It is a profound question with a myriad of answers and few solutions: What makes people so susceptible to fascism? Who are those flag-waving throngs cheering on their proud leader? And why do they cheerfully support a figurehead and system that works against their own self-interests? Are they gullible, naive to the point of complete self-chosen ignorance? Are they maniacal narcissists bent on proving their superiority to the world? Or are they scared of acting like they don’t agree with the mob? Because, as Ronnie James Dio sings, the Mob rules. But fascism and it’s various philosophical and psychological faces rule the Mob. Fear is the ultimate tool of control and fascist leaders know it and use it well. But in order to understand why people fall prey to fascism’s spell, we must understand the nature of the beast. Governments, religions and cults use fear as a tool of control because when humans are scared, they are easy to control and manipulate. Fear is the ultimate weapon for it works on your own people as well as your enemies.

Henry Giroux writes at Truthout:

Fascism — with its unquestioning belief in obedience to a powerful strongman, violence as a form of political purification, hatred as an act of patriotism, racial and ethnic cleansing, and the superiority of a select ethnic or national group — has resurfaced in the United States. In this mix of economic barbarism, political nihilism, racial purity, economic orthodoxy and ethical somnambulance, a distinctive economic-political formation has been produced that I term neoliberal fascism (“Neoliberal Fascism and the Echoes of History,” August 8, 2019).

It’s not just a top-down phenomenon driving the political and social systems into the ground against the background of right-wing and neoliberal economics, but rather, to a degree it is the antithesis of Anne Frank’s observation from her hiding place in Amsterdam that people are really good at heart. Tragically, those who don’t continue to fight against the forces of darkness in their own lives are fertile ground for the easy answers and easy solutions of Trumpism and neoliberalism under both Democrats and Republicans and in the larger world.

With a bit too much of a Freudian bent from my perspective, but still with his eye on the ball that is fascism, Wilhelm Reich had it mostly correct in The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933).

James Reich observes, quoting Wilhelm Reich (“Blood and Soil, Turmp and Incest,”  Sensitive Skin, May 12, 2019) *:

The authoritarian is successful, in Reich’s analysis, “only if his personal point of view, his ideology, or his program bears a resemblance to the average structure of a broad category of individuals […] Only when the structure of the führer’s personality is in harmony with the structures of broad groups can the ‘führer’ make history” (35). Simply put, authoritarianism begins at home: fascism or any totalizing ideology is not a form of top-down psychosis; the underlying character of the constituents only gives rise to the individual who must be both messiah and scapegoat for the resentments of the group, in their fulfillment and when things fall apart.

Societies have fallen apart, both in the US and around the world. The purveyors of total darkness and ruin wait in plain sight.

*Author’s note: The significance of the photograph that accompanies this article is not known.


Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).