Not since Hunter S. Thompson turned the 1972 presidential election into a gonzo circus of absurdity have we had a no-holds-barred diary of campaign spectacle as Jeffrey St. Clair’s newly-released Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes from a Failed Revolution. St. Clair is one of the country’s best investigative journalists on environmental topics and offers here a short, humorous compact volume that makes for essential reading. We recently sat down to discuss his feelings about the election and its outcome. His comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
1/ Given the outcome of the election and Trump’s early days in office, have you ever regretted what you wrote during the course of the campaign and your criticism of Sanders?
No. I had no illusions about Trump or Hillary, but Sanders is proving every day that he’s a good soldier for the Democrats. The real question is why? Why is Bernie Sanders after all of this still a willing combatant for the Senator from Citibank, Charles Schumer? Why does he agree to serve in the leadership for the neoliberal cabal that still runs the Democratic Party?
If I made one misdiagnosis it was deprecating the Sandernistas. The movement was there and preceded Sanders and, in ways, had its origins all the way back in 1999 with the uprising in Seattle, the campaigns against globalization and international finance institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, certainly the Nader campaigns, and then the Occupy movement.
An Excerpt: I admit it. I had finally begun to warm to Bernie Sanders. With each new Berniefest, the old animosities melted a little. After years of unmitigated loathing for Sanders, I was beginning to feel a little pride in the homespun campaign waged by the Faux Comrade from Vermont. Much of this had to do with the creeping anxiety that Sanders and his growing band of ‘Sandernistas’, are inflicting on Hillary Clinton. Every time Hillary is forced to pop some political Prozac, a part of me cheers. Thank you, Bernie.
So the movement was there and to associate it in a substantial way with Sanders as if he was Prospero conjuring it out of the mists of the sea is just flat-out wrong. But it’s also a sign of hope. In other words, if this movement has been around for a long time and it’s going to be around after Sanders, he is not going to be able to control it or have much influence over it, particularly as long as they remain aligned with the Democratic Party.
2/ What did you expect from Sanders going into the campaign and how close did exceed your expectations?
I had very few expectations for Sanders because I’ve been following his career for 20 years and [my late writing partner Alexander] Cockburn had followed him longer, since when he was mayor of Burlington. One of earliest online articles in Counterpunch was showing how Sanders, who had just been elected to the House as an independent socialist from Vermont, backed Bill Clinton’s war on the independent socialist country of Serbia in one of his first votes. That ignited a rebellion amongst his own staff where you had some really good progressives, like Jeremy Brecher, resigning in protest.
When he’s in the Senate some years later, Bill Clinton wanted to essentially wage a covert war to topple Saddam in Iraq, a really heinous war driven by an almost genocidal sanction regime which targeted civilians, restricting food, medicine, the necessities of daily life, that ended up killing over a half-million children. Sanders voted for that three times. And then of course when Bush was in office he kind of grandstanded with his votes against the war that he had only a couple of years before fully supported.
I describe myself as the founding member of ABHer, Anybody But Hillary, and in that sense was willing to back anyone from the left, from the anti-war libertarian movement, wherever, who was going to launch a frontal assault against her campaign. And from the get-go it was clear that Sanders was either incapable or unwilling of waging that kind of campaign.
I don’t think in any one of his interminable speeches he ever once mentioned the word neoliberalism and, even if he didn’t mention it because it’s confusing to many people, he didn’t describe the political philosophy of neoliberalism and how it had, largely under the Clintons’ corporate sponsorship, taken over the Democratic Party.
An Excerpt: 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.
Ultimately I think it became an ego thing for him. He won some primaries, he won some caucuses, and he…began tripping on the fumes of his own rhetoric. That’s a great betrayal of the grassroots movements that he had brought together. He attracted them to his campaign but in the end he did nothing except try to deliver them to the Clinton campaign.
3/ You describe Trump as something out of a William S. Burroughs novel, can you describe how you feel about him because it was quite obvious at one point that Trump was literally cribbing lines from Sanders?
I compare him to Burroughs in that he’s a junkie driven by his own narcissism, he just feeds on his self-love. He’s someone who will say absolutely anything, he will plagiarize Sanders one minute and Mussolini the next. But for decades politicians haven’t spoken directly to the white working class, which has been pulverized by the globalized economy and by neoliberalism, so it was easy for Trump to feed upon that resentment.
4/ Trump seemed to appeal to many of Ron Paul’s former cadres?
Obviously he did personally appeal to a lot of the Ron Paul people, but Libertarians in general were obviously much more suspicious of Trump. Ron Paul is not a real Libertarian. There was a reactionary element to Paul which you don’t find in a lot of the small-L libertarians.
There are things I like about him, he was one of two or three people in Congress who could be counted on to vote against military intervention and the domestic surveillance state. But Trump was able to seize on the non-intervention issue by constantly attacking her on Iraq war votes. Meanwhile, Sanders was compromised on Libya, Sanders was compromised on Syria, so he could not legitimately raise those issues and he didn’t even really try.
Trump wasn’t and so he was able to attract that kind of right wing anti-interventionist crowd that had coalesced around Paul. If you had ever gone to any of Ron Paul’s campaign events in previous years, those were really raucous crowds. I only saw Trump once, which was in Eugene, Oregon, and it had a similar frenzy, even though Trump has no rhetorical gifts. But the crowds were ready to go and it had a slightly fanatic charge too.
5/ The Libertarians portrayed Gary Johnson as a lesser evil to Trump. What do you think of that argument?
I like Gary Johnson but he was just not the lesser-evil alternative to Trump on that side. The contrast in what they offered in their personalities was jarring. It was like Megadeath versus James Taylor! The dissonance was just too profound.
An Excerpt: 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.
6/ This is one of the funnier political books I have read in a long time. Why did you take that approach?
This election had to be ridiculed. The surreality of it all, the pathetic nature of the choices, and it finally came to this, Trump versus Clinton. And with Sanders stalking around like Banquo’s ghost, I don’t know, it just seemed so totally absurd to me.