Heading into Super Tuesday, the media appears at its collective wit’s end. After the victory of Joe Biden in South Carolina, many attempted to portray a new day until the they faced polls in the morning showing Bernie Sanders again surging in states from California to Texas to even Massachusetts (where Elizabeth Warren is struggling to win her own state). Described as the “nightmare scenario,” the media and political establishment in Washington is back to clutching its pearls and speaking of a convention strategy to block Sanders, including Warren whose campaign calls such a move the “final play.”
The continuing support win for Bernie Sanders has sent the D.C. political and media establishment into vapors. On the eve of Super Tuesday, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke all lined up to endorse Joe Biden to try to stop the momentum for Sanders. Others are growing more and more shrill. Democratic strategist James Carville proclaimed the winner to be Valdimir Putin. His point was that both Sanders and Trump continue surging despite unrelenting attacks in the media. The fact is that many in Washington still cannot compute why so many voters will not listen to them about Sanders and Trump. The reason is that they are valued for the one thing that the establishment cannot offer: authenticity.
In 2016, I wrote a column on what I thought was a curious trend I was seeing in various states far outside of the echo-chamber of Washington some interesting anecdotes. On a trip to Alaska, I encountered support for the candidacy of Donald Trump in surprising numbers despite his portrayal in the media as a fringe candidate for what Hillary Clinton called a “basket of deplorables.” More importantly, the appeal for Trump was not the racist dog whistles so often denounced in the media. Rather, voters viewed him as authentic in a way that is entirely unimaginable in D.C. He was the outsider who would challenge the establishment and the collective opposition of the political and media elite only reaffirmed that appeal.
I returned recently to Alaska and spoke to some of these same voters to see how they now view Trump. What I found was not just continuing support for Trump but also support for Bernie Sanders. Both of these very different politicians shared the key element of authenticity for voters, who also resented the coordinated attacks by the political and media establishment.
One of my stops was Mike Carpenter’s trading post on the way to Denali National Park, a shack covered in a mountain of detritus from pelts to animal traps to a human hand in a jar. All prices are negotiable but advice comes free. Four years later, Carpenter remains a Trump supporter, only more so. With a MAGA hat now prominently hung over the counter, he said that Trump proved to be even better than he had hoped. He was sent to Washington to disrupt it and he did.
Sitting outside in front of the outpost was “Red” Cooney. (Red said no one knows his real first name but his Mom). Red, 75, is from Minnesota and has been in Alaska for 50 years. He also supports Trump. Like Carpenter, he recognized that Trump lies and engages in shady deals. However, he also viewed him as authentic in that he did not hide those traits. He is, in a way, authentically inauthentic. He does not ask for people to view him as a moral example, but he someone who delivers on the deal. The other person who was the talk of the outpost was the political antithesis of Trump: Bernie Sanders. People saw both men as not just honest, but brutally honest. Red estimated support in the rural area as “25 for Trump, 25 for Sanders, and the rest don’t care.”
Authenticity is a word rarely applied to Trump, but it remains his greatest selling point outside Washington. While rarely acknowledged, Trump has fulfilled many of his campaign promises with his push on immigration, the wall, taxes, Jerusalem, renegotiating NAFTA, dropping the Iran deal, rolling back regulations, opening areas like the artic to drilling, finishing the Keystone pipeline, gutting Obamacare and other promises. More importantly, he does not try to pretend what he is not: honest or moral. He openly talks about delivering wealth and having people vote their pocketbooks. He is the ultimate car salesman who you don’t trust but still want to get a good deal from.
Bernie Sanders is genuinely authentic. Indeed, Sanders seems immune from changes from clothing or political styles. There was never a popular time to be socialist but Sanders never budged. To the contrary, he praised Castro and spent his birthday in the Soviet Union during the cold war. He changes his positions at the speed of tectonic plate shifts. That is why you can hate socialism but love Sanders because you know (like Trump) exactly what you are getting. Elizabeth Warren in comparison was known as a pro-corporate, anti-consumer academic for much of her career before being a champion of the downtrodden.
For the establishment, Sanders’ authenticity is precisely the problem. He is the real deal who is unlikely to change as president any more than he did as a Senator. CNN and MSNBC have stood out in the level of open anti-Sanders bias. Many were shocked by the hostile questions against Sanders by CNN’s Abby Phillips in the presidential debate. Sanders may be surging across the country (and even pulling ahead of Biden in Texas), but NBC’s Chuck Todd objected to people even calling Sanders a “frontrunner.” Others like Chris Matthews has denounced Sanders as leading the country to a socialist nightmare while James Carville has called him a “communist.” Hillary Clinton has been virtually campaigning against him, including declaring that “no one likes Bernie.” Perhaps but many are voting for him, because, unlike Clinton, they know what they are getting with Sanders.
While trumpeting the new “Red Scare,” the establishment is pushing Biden and Klobuchar who continue to change positions to court voting blocks. For example, when she started to campaign in Nevada with one of the largest Hispanic populations, Klobuchar suddenly dropped her support for English being taught as a first language in public schools. She also previously supported building a wall along the Southern border until it became anathema to liberals. Biden has notoriously changed or denied positions on the campaign trail, including denying his support for the Iraq War.
The impression of these candidates is that what we see is merely the artificial product of image makers, pollsters, and speech writers. It is all pre-fabricated until they are post-fabricated. Voters had the same reaction of the character Tony Stark when he dismissed Captain America in the movie Avengers by saying “Everything special about you came out of a bottle.”
This election is shaping up precisely in the same way. Screaming about sociopaths or socialists only convinces many that they are real threats to the hated status quo. The more that the media screams about the end-of-days with Trump and Sanders, the more people want to bring about that day.