I’m overdue for a dope slap. It took way longer than it should have but it finally dawned on me that Bernie Sanders may have wanted Donald Trump to win in 2016. If Hillary Clinton had been elected president, she could’ve served two terms and been seventy-seventy when she left office, whereas Sanders would’ve been eighty-three, too old to succeed her. If she’d won in 2016, his campaign for the nomination would’ve been his last rodeo.

Caricature of Bernie Sanders closed mouth by DonkeyHotey

But obviously Sanders couldn’t have openly thrown his support to Trump. He would’ve been toast among Democrats if he’d done that. So he had to sort of faux support Clinton to keep from totally alienating Democratic voters that he hoped he’d need in the future. But he couldn’t go all in for her because he needed Trump to win in order for him to have one last shot at the prize before he entered the assisted living demographic.

As it happened, everything turned out just fine for him, thanks to his supporters in some key states. As New York Times columnist David Brooks recently noted, “In 2016, in Pennsylvania, 117,000 Sanders primary voters went for Trump in the general, and Trump won the state by 44,292 ballots. In Michigan, 48,000 Sanders voters went for Trump, and Trump won the state by 10,704. In Wisconsin, 51,300 Sanders voters went for Trump, and Trump won the state by 22,748. In short, Sanders voters helped elect Trump.”

I have no idea whether what’s just dawned on me dawned on those voters more than three years ago. I remember at the time a lot of chin-stroking pundits and analysts who made heavy weather of Sanders-Trump parallels to explain these voting patterns. A favorite theory was that both Sanders and Trump were “anti-establishment” candidates who could appeal to voters looking to break a lot of crockery. Maybe the chin-strokers were right. But maybe the Sanders-to-Trump voters were mainly looking to stick it to Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment they thought had cheated Sanders out of the nomination. Some enterprising poli sci grad student could score big by figuring out whether there’s anything to this “vengeance voter” theory. Either way, Sanders got just the outcome he needed to keep his “revolution” alive.

But this is all ancient history. The question now is whether Sanders and his Sandernistas would do it again if he’s not the nominee. There are reasons to think so. The big one is that Sanders is a revolutionary. And to revolutionaries, the incrementalism of “moderates” like Pete Buttegieg, Joe Biden, and Amy Klobuchar is just as unfavorable to the cause as outright reactionaries are.

No, make that more unfavorable. If you’re leading a revolution, your worst enemies are candidates peddling policies that don’t represent “structural change” but are appealing enough to dampen people’s revolutionary ardor. You’d far rather face off against somebody like Trump, who keeps the masses miserable and enraged.

So, for example, the way the Sanderistas figure it, their best shot at ultimately creating a majority for Medicare-for-all is having as their opponent an incumbent whose minions are working tirelessly to rip the Affordable Care Act up root and branch, not a Joe Biden who wants to “expand” it. “Things are pretty good now, and I pledge if elected to make them marginally better” won’t stir the blood of revolutionaries. A centrist Democrat succeeding Trump just pushes the coming of the millennium farther into the future.

And there’s anecdotal evidence anyway that some Sanders supporters don’t in fact think that Trump’s re-election is their worst-case scenario. Just a couple of hours before I wrote this, I was wasting time scrolling through a Facebook thread devoted to whether or not the posters were willing to vote for the Democratic nominee, even if that person wasn’t their first choice in the primaries. Everybody supporting candidates other than Sanders said they’d vote for him, some reluctantly, if he won the nomination. It was the Sanders supporters who cleared their throats and wouldn’t commit to anybody but Sanders. Here’s one of them bouncing a shot off Michael Bloomberg, who has all the Democratic candidates worried. “Bloomberg is just a competent Trump. If the DNC allows him to purchase a nomination it’s better to have Trump in office. At least then people are encouraged toward activism. Bloomberg will pacify a lot of white middle class moderates who will simply ignore him doing the exact sort of racist, classist, misogynistic, and homophobic things as Trump.”

That squares with an observation made by a Public Broadcasting reporter commenting on his conversations with Sanders supporters in the runup to the New Hampshire primary. They fell into two camps, he said. In one group were people who believed that Sanders had the best shot at taking Trump down. In the other were Sanders supporters who didn’t care whether he could defeat Trump or not, but were supporting Sanders because they “believed in him.”

Sanders’ first choice obviously is to be nominated and elected. But even with his nemesis, Hillary Clinton, out of the picture, the suspicion is abroad in some quarters that his second choice isn’t for one of his Democratic competitors to be nominated and elected. It’s that Trump be re-elected to keep “Viva la Revolución!” at high volume.


Image credit: Caricature of Bernie Sanders by DonkeyHotey (flickr/Creative Commons).

Leon Galis

I'm an Athens, GA, native and have been living in Athens since 1999 after retiring from the faculty of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. Since 2008 I've written approximately 80 columns for the Athens Banner Herald and a handful for Flagpole Magazine in Athens.