Thursday, February 11, 2016

Bernie Sanders vs. Trump and/or Cruz: A Defining Moment

            My parents and others of their generation had an expression something like, "Ten years after America elects a Jewish president," meaning pretty much what the more secular and sardonic of their parents and grandparents meant by "When Messiah comes": that is, somewhere in the distant future, or never.
            Now hold that thought while I repeat a personal story from my days in the higher ed. biz and provide a link to a Mort Sahl routine from a generation earlier.
            After I'd worked at Miami University (Oxford, OH) for a few years — let's say 1980 or so — I found myself at a Faculty Senate meeting notably boring even by the high standards for boredom of faculty senates. I couldn't just walk out because I needed to be there for what was to be a close vote, but I could start a conversation with the guy next to me, a US Navy officer from our NROTC unit. If we'd been crass enough and clever enough to just ask, we probably would've found out that our votes would cancel out, and we both could've left and had a beer and not disturbed the slumber or stupor of the colleagues around us. Anyway, we had a low-volume conversation that lasted long enough that we exchanged names, and upon hearing mine the Navy guy said, "Oh — you're Erlich! They told me about you down at the unit." And I said something cool and sophisticated like, "Really?!? What did they say?" What they said was, "There are two really big radicals to look out for on campus, Momeyer in Philosophy and Erlich in English." And I repeated, "Really?!?", at which point he pulled back, stroked an imaginary beard, considered for a moment, and said: "Let's see, Jeffersonian republican plus a dash of Jacksonian populist, modernized to the sort of social democrat the CIA would support if you were foreign?" Assuming I could modernize out the racist stuff with Jefferson and Jackson, I said, "Close enough." And he said, "Yeah, I figured that's what a 'radical' would be at Miami University.
            Mort Sahl was a comedian and social satirist who is relevant here for a routine in 1967 on US mainstream TV giving a comic introduction to the US political system, labeling the middle with the handy term from European politics, "social democrats." I will repeat that: as just a handy label for the politics of the middle of the US political spectrum — from Communists on the Left to the John Birch Society on the Right — Mort Sahl in 1967 used for US moderates, "social democrats."
            Bernie Sanders is running for the Democratic nomination for president on policies of a social democrat, and if he is elected President with a miraculously progressive Democratic Congress and a quick series of appointments to the Supreme Court, the political "revolution" we will get is social democracy and not a more literal by-God revolution!! that will yield US socialism more Leftist than that.

            I'm writing in February 2016, right after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, and there is still a good possibility that the 2016 US Presidential race could be Bernie Sanders vs. Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or John Kasich — and there are possibilities of "and/or," with more exotic combinations involving third or fourth parties and a Hillary Clinton candidacy in the bargain. Kasich is a member of a socially conservative Anglican splinter sect who personally takes seriously Jesus's teaching on aiding the wretched of the Earth and has governed in Ohio mostly as an old-style, Ohio staunch conservative.
            And Kasich would be the most conventional Republican candidate against Bernie Sanders.
            More interesting would be Rubio against Sanders and most interesting — as in the curse, "May you live in interesting times" — would be Ted Cruz or, for other reasons, Donald Trump against Sanders.
            Rubio has had a complex spiritual journey — Roman "Catholicism to Mormonism back to Catholicism to a Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated evangelical megachurch and finally back to Catholicism" — but now asserts firmly, "I’m fully, theologically, doctrinally aligned with the Roman Catholic Church," although the Pope may have some objections on economic doctrine.
            And Ted Cruz is a Southern Baptist son of a born-again convert from Catholicism, the candidate favored by religious-Right Evangelicals, and beautifully typified in a section heading in an article that handles his use of religion with, "Forget 'dog whistle' politics: Cruz has a trumpet."
            Trump is something else.
            Okay, Trump is something else in many ways, but relevantly here Trump isn't directly offering religion — or a coherent program — but the Leadership Principle, which is the translation of the German Führerprinzip but should not be limited to Germans of the Third Reich. Get enough human beings together, and a significant number will want strong leadership: a head-man, caudillo, the guy on the white horse who'll ride in and by sheer force of personality get things done. And sometimes that's not a bad idea, as with Cincinnatus, the Roman dictator. Some of Trump's ideas though, put into practice, would be fascistic: rounding up and deporting millions of refugees, a religious test for asylum in the US, repealing the 14th Amendment citizenship birthright by "soil" — being born on US territory — and replacing it with citizenship by "blood," and recently claiming enough toughness to order the torture of prisoners, or maybe do it himself.
            Any of these guys, but emphatically Trump or Cruz, running against Sanders would make for a defining election in US and perhaps world history. Not quite up there with the election of 1860, let us hope — a US Civil War with nukes around would not be a good thing — but really defining.

            It's not so much that Sanders is Jewish, but that he's not Joe Lieberman's brand of Jewish: Lieberman is religious, Right-ish, and eventually became a fellow-traveller with Republicans. Sanders is a secular Jew, which is not a contradiction in terms in large swaths of the US Jewish tradition, but will make him even more alien to the Christian religious Right — and to parts of the Likudnik Jewish religious Right — than if he were religious. Against Trump's strongman populist appeal, Sanders offers a democratic social-populism; against the Christian religious Right, Sanders comes up empty: for sure Sanders does not accept Jesus Christ as the Son of God and his personal savior. If America is a Christian nation, Sanders may've been born on US territory, but he is by definition outside the American nation, and his election would mean for many on the Religious Right a seal on their loss of America as theirs.
            (I'm old enough to remember formulas of the US as an "Anglo-Saxon Christian nation" — with "Christian" in the sense of a student of mine who said, "I used to be Catholic, but now I'm Christian" — and then "White Christian nation" to bring in assimilated Catholics and Scots-Irish Protestants. The election of Barack Obama undercut the White part of the old formulas; Sanders threatens the "Christian" part of formulas still current.)

            There wasn't "a vast, Right-wing conspiracy" against Bill and Hillary Clinton, but there was a relatively small group of rich people, notably Richard Mellon Scaife, who worked to get dirt dug up and flung at the Clintons. Such people will go after Hillary Clinton if she is the Democratic nominee, and she's been around long enough to have made legitimate enemies and get some people to just not like her.
            A Sanders candidacy, though, has the potential against Trump or Cruz to bring out some real nastiness, with accused of being a godless commie, obviously outside the community of the Saved. And however long Sanders lived in Vermont, he is guilty of being born and raised in Brooklyn, learning enough Hebrew to be bar mitzvah-ed, and getting most of his higher education at the University of Chicago, where he was an antiwar and civil rights activist. Cruz may accuse Trump of New York values, but if there was ever a Big City product living the stereotype of the secular Jewish Prophetic troublemaker, it's Bernie Sanders.

            In 1964, Barry Goldwater offered Americans "A Choice, Not an Echo" and lost went on to lose the Presidential election to Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater's defeat, though, laid the groundwork for a Right-wing backlash and resurgence that has gone so far that Mort Sahl's 1967 analysis of the American political spectrum seems downright weird. The American middle as "social democrats"? No way! Except broken down by issues, "Yes way," or, more exactly, issue-by-issue a lot of Americans hold social-democratic views.
             And a lot of Americans don't, as John Kasich is learning when he cites Matthew 25.31-45, and that Jewish Prophetic troublemaker Jesus's injunction to aid the sick deprived and even the imprisoned ("You can at least pay a visit!" to paraphrase the last point).

            So: We are getting down to basic conflicts in the 2016 election, and that will be clarifying and fascinating … and very, very dangerous.

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