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Why some conservatives think Sanders is Trump’s biggest threat

“Even though the populists are not socialists, Sanders is speaking their language.”

A campaign sign for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), is displayed in front of a home on February 2, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Is Sen. Bernie Sanders the best possible candidate to run against President Trump, or the worst? For conservatives, it depends.

For some conservatives, Sanders is the ideal foil for Trump — regardless of whether those conservatives are supportive of Trump. Sanders is a socialist, with a record of praising dictators (granted, so does Trump) and arguing in favor of bread lines in the mid-1980s. Some conservative PACs are even airing ads that could help Sanders in the primary. And Trump-skeptical conservatives, who at least say they’d be willing to vote for a moderate Democrat, are sounding the alarm about Sanders’s candidacy, arguing that it would be simply impossible for Sanders to win, his nomination dooming the Democratic Party for a generation.

Richard North Patterson, a conservative writer for the Bulwark, told me, “Off the cuff, Trump would play the socialist card — claiming that Bernie would tax us to death, precipitate unemployment, screw up the stock market, and mishandle his brilliant trade wars.”

The conversation is intensifying as Sanders surges in Democratic primary polling. According to NBC News, he is now statistically tied with former Vice President Joe Biden nationally, and is leading the race in Iowa and New Hampshire. There’s a long way to go, but conservatives who once thought of Sanders as an also-ran behind Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren are starting to take him seriously — and starting to worry.

But there’s another theory of the case, one in which Sanders’s unique candidacy actually provides the biggest threat to Trump. His populist message is aimed squarely at the same people Trump effectively activated in 2016. As conservative writer David French argued, “Trump will run on dystopia. Bernie will run on utopia.” Moreover, in 2020 Trump will be the establishment candidate, while Sanders will be the anti-elite upstart. And this group of conservatives worries that could, once again, prove a winning formula.

This split reflects a deeper and growing divide in conservatism: between traditional small-government, free market, libertarian-leaning conservatives and an emerging populist conservative movement that sees some of its 2016 self in Sanders. In short, how the right is responding to Sanders’s campaign says as much about the conservative movement and its ideological fault lines as it does about him.

One camp says Trump beats Sanders handily — and some aren’t happy about it

The Atlantic’s David Frum put his argument against Sanders simply in an article titled “Bernie Can’t Win.” In his view, Sanders is a fragile candidate with no experience fighting the massive GOP machine. In an interview, he told me that the best case for voting for Sanders “is that you are a left-wing Democrat who thinks it more important to gain control of your party than to win elections.”

Frum added that were Trump not “personally obnoxious,” he’d be cruising to reelection in a country where more Americans are satisfied with the country’s trajectory than at any time since 2005. “Sanders is not only a very weak candidate. He’s a weak candidate running in a pro-incumbent year.”

Slate’s William Saletan agreed, arguing that while Trump might be unpopular, Sanders, and, more importantly, Sanders’s socialism “plays right into Trump’s hands.” “If you think socialism is important enough to risk losing the election, vote for Sanders,” he wrote earlier this week. “But if all you want is a progressive government ... you’re a lot more likely to get it by nominating a pragmatist.”

A number of conservatives have weighed in with criticisms — Commentary Magazine’s Noah Rothman argued that Sanders had not yet been thoroughly vetted by the media, and the Bulwark’s North Patterson wrote that Sanders was Trump’s “dream candidate.”

What unites them is their belief that Sanders will be unable to appeal to voters outside of his passionate base, too bogged down by the “socialist” moniker and a left-wing platform to appeal to fiscal conservatives turned off by Trump’s behavior in office.

In an interview, North Patterson told me that the problem for Sanders isn’t just that he thinks the Vermont senator might not turn out suburban women who put Democrats in charge of the house in 2018, but also that his efforts to pinpoint voters who voted for Barack Obama and then for Donald Trump would run into an anti-government wall. In his view, voters who supported Trump in 2016 were registering their discontent with American politics, not their desire for a more involved state.

“He’s basically arguing for an unprecedented program, based on the notion he can string together these disengaged Obama-Trump voters, who are Obama voters who stayed home [in 2016] and people who rarely vote at all. And low-information voters are susceptible, I think, to an emotional appeal like Trump,” he said.

“They’re not, in any reasonable interpretation, ideological voters who have just been waiting to be awakened by a hard left message. Now, I grant you that the populism has an overlay, but the pre-college and the single-payer and the ‘trust government will do great things for you’ really doesn’t.”

Interestingly, many of the conservatives I spoke with who voiced the most concerns about a Sanders nomination are Trump-skeptical or “Never Trump” conservatives, some of whom might find it personally difficult to vote for Sanders. In Frum’s view, that’s because of the willingness of those conservatives to buck Trump — and their desire to see Democrats refuse a candidate he views as a major risk to the economy and to his hopes for a return to stable politics.

“Trump-skeptical conservatives occupy the lonely ground we do precisely because we are the people most likely to regard Trump as a unique threat to American institutions — and therefore worth a lot of sacrifice of preferences to stop.” He told me that he’d voted for Hillary Clinton to stop Trump — and he hoped Democrats would be equally willing to vote for a candidate more viable against the president.

“We’re not going to return to stable politics in this country until Republicans absorb that their support for Trump exacted a meaningful political price,” he told me, “that this experiment must never, ever be repeated.”

“If instead the price of Trump is a surprise Sanders victory for president, after which Mitch McConnell blockades Sanders’s agenda, then Republicans recapture the House in 2022, then a Trumpified Republican Party campaigns against ‘socialism’ in 2024 against the background of a slowing US economy or maybe outright recession … the only lesson that Republicans will learn from such an outcome was that Trumpism was worth it.”

But other conservatives — particularly populists — think Sanders is a serious threat to Trump

Interestingly, conservatives who lean in a more populist direction — or even perhaps toward Trump — are less sanguine about the possibility of an easy victory over Sanders.

As one conservative pundit told me, “of course” Sanders could win; “the fact that Trump won is itself proof.” The Washington Examiner’s editorial board made the same argument, writing, “It’s possible that Sanders-style populism would bring out more voters in a general election than is obvious to political pundits. After all, we’ve seen this movie before.”

And while Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton couldn’t be more different political figures, Trump’s projected response to Sanders — a purportedly booming economy and stock market, for example — would be eerily similar to her response to Trump himself back in 2016 (Remember “America is already great”?).

While Trump had the advantage of arguing in 2016 that low unemployment numbers were fake and a rising stock market was a “bubble,” he must now argue that those same numbers are now both real and reflect true improvement for the majority of Americans (when a lot of Americans, particularly working-class Americans, don’t own stocks).

Coupled with Trump’s general unpopularity (as David French put it, “Yes, Trump’s behavior is ‘baked in,’ but it’s baked in both directions, and a majority of Americans don’t like it, or him”) economics could prove the linchpin of Sanders’s argument against Trump.

As Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson argued in the Washington Examiner, Sanders could prove effective for “pressing on some populist notes that could woo back working-class voters who might not be feeling the full benefits of the economic boom.”

The Hill’s Saagar Enjeti told me he’s increasingly concerned that the “professional GOP” has hijacked Trump’s message and argued that the best reason to vote for Trump is the economy.

Sure, the economy might be doing well, Enjeti said. “But if you go and you look at about how American workers feel about it, about how the industrial Midwest is faring under this economy, which massively benefits capital and financial institutions, then you start to tell a very different story.”

And a case for Sanders on his ability to counter the power of financial institutions is fairly simple to make. Particularly against Trump, who denounced Hillary Clinton during the campaign for allegedly being unable to “reform Wall Street” and said in January 2016 “I’m not going to let Wall Street get away with murder,” but bragged earlier this year, “I made a lot of bankers look very good” following the signing of a trade deal with the Chinese government.

As Enjeti told me, “The economy, as it is currently structured, is to the benefit of capital and to the benefit of finance. And so a lot of people, and especially [the] professional GOP who are beholden to those people, they still truly believe in ‘trickle-down’ to their very bones.” That means they might miss the appeal of Bernie Sanders.

He said that the 2020 election “really will be a referendum on American working issues and Washington just completely discounts just the sheer anger at the entire political establishment and wish to burn our institutions to the ground, which is what elected Trump in the first place.”

Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro told me, “If Trump runs against Bernie, his economic record alone won’t convince people who feel left behind just as they did four years ago — but Trump does have a leg up against Bernie in a way Hillary wouldn’t have, because he does not treat people in the Rust Belt as anathema.”

But, he added, “For that matter, neither does Bernie.”

The communications director of the Sanders campaign, Mike Casca, told me that economics would indeed be at the core of Sanders’s messaging against Trump.

“The senator is going to make very clear in the general election that Donald Trump lied to the working class when he said he would stand with them. Working people will know they can trust Sen. Sanders because, unlike Trump, he’s always fought for them.”

“He just wants to tax the rich”

But much of the divide between conservatives over Sanders stems from a debate not just about economics, but about the economic platform of the Republican Party, and whether or not 2016 represented a sea change in how the GOP thinks about appealing to working-class voters.

In 2015 and 2016, Trump ran on a populist platform that seemingly embraced “health care for everyone” and preserving Medicare and Social Security while rejecting libertarian bromides about how free trade lifts all boats. As Sanders himself told the New York Times editorial board, “I can’t tell you how much, 3%, 5%, 8%, of people who voted for Trump because he said, I am a different type of Republican. I’m not going to cut Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security. I’m going to have trade policies that work for workers. We’re not going to be shutting down plants in America.’”

Whether Trump believed in his own populist case is debatable, but it worked, with primary voters who didn’t think of themselves as rock-ribbed conservatives, and with independent voters in the general election who found themselves enraged by decisions made in Washington — the same rage at Washington elites, from the media to Congress, that Sanders is attempting to harness.

New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat (who wrote a piece titled “The Case for Bernie” last year) told me, “Even though the populists are not socialists, Sanders is speaking their language. And they have a kind of very general affinity for his complaints, even if they disagree with a lot of the prescriptions.”

“At some level, I feel like Sanders, he just wants to tax the rich. And that’s why he gets out of bed in the morning.”

Douthat added that the difference in how populist conservatives and “Never Trump” conservatives viewed Sanders was based on their different understanding of our current economic moment.

“One of the many divides between the populists and the Never Trumpers is the view of how much did the Republican Party need to change on economic policy,” he told me. “How much did it change? How real are America’s economic problems?”