Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders may have lost his bid for the White House in 2016, but he’s sure as hell not ready to fade into obscurity anytime soon. Instead, he’s emerged as a gadfly, loudly and publicly sounding the alarm on what he sees as the country’s troubling descent into authoritarianism under President Donald Trump.
“I can't remember a president who has had more authoritarian tendencies than Trump,” Sanders told me in an interview on Wednesday. “What is going on is not only this rise of authoritarianism but also, simultaneously, you are seeing this country move very rapidly toward oligarchy.”
As Sanders prepared to give a big speech on Thursday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he got on the phone with me to talk about Trump’s admiration for authoritarian leaders, his attacks on the media, the Russia investigation, and more.
Sanders told me he believes Trump has a basic disrespect for the fundamental pillars of democracy — the press, the judicial system — that mimics the authoritarian regimes the Trump administration has cozied up to around the globe. And that combination, he says, is dangerous.
What follows is a partial transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.
There has never been a president, or even a leading public official, who has lied as often or as dangerously as Trump has.
And when the president of the United States lies a whole lot and makes outrageous statements, it's not only bad unto itself, but it also opens the door for other people to be lying and for truth to be disrespected. And that is a very dangerous thing for the fabric of American society.
When he talks about 3 to 5 million people voting illegally in the last election — no one believes that, it is an outrageous lie —- but what that does is tell Republican governors that they should go forward to suppress the vote, to make it harder for people to vote, under the guise of voter fraud.
Every politician has disagreements with the media and how they cover this or that story, and I am certainly one of those. But there has never been a president, or political leader, who has basically said, “Everything you see on mainstream television or mainstream media — the New York Times, the Washington Post, Vox, whatever it may be — is a lie, don’t believe it.”
If you take that to its logical conclusion, and some people have, then where do you get the truth? Where do you learn about what’s going on that you can’t see with your own eyes? Who’s going to help you? It kind of leads you to the conclusion that there is only one person in America who can tell us the truth, and that is the president of the United States.
Do you think he’s a demagogue?
Well, I think that ... let me continue and then you can ask me a question, fair enough?
So you have this unprecedented attack on the media. What this guy is doing is basically telling the American people, “You cannot trust anything in mainstream media.”
Then, on top of that, he is attacking the judiciary system and Department of Justice. A judge rules against him — that is not unusual; judges often rule against presidents and against legislation — but you don't go around undermining the judiciary and calling people “so-called judges” because they ruled against you.
Then on top of that, you have his support for authoritarian leaders.
The American people, I think, whether you are a Republican or Democrat, have a hard time understanding his affection for a guy like [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, who has worked overtime to undermine not only democracy in his own country but also democracy in the United States.
Do you want a good relationship with Russia? Of course you do. But why would you have what appears to be a personal affection for an authoritarian leader? It is not just Putin. It is also [President Rodrigo] Duterte of the Philippines; it is the royal family of Saudi Arabia.
Again: You may want to make alliances, you may not; those are debates you have to have. But for a country like the United States, which has been seen, historically, as one of the great promoters of democracy, why have this affinity for so many authoritarian countries?
I have spoken to conservatives who share these exact same concerns.
Do you see this as a global phenomenon? Why do you think we may be seeing public support around the world for authoritarian characters or politicians? And, go back to my original question, do you think he is a demagogue — is that what you are moving toward saying?
Let me take the last question first. Both good questions.
You can contrast this with a very conservative Republican president named George W. Bush. I opposed Bush on virtually every piece legislation, every initiative, he put forward. Virtually all of them. But if you remember, Bush’s response to 9/11 was to visit a mosque — a very profound statement for a conservative Republican — essentially what he was saying is that we have to stand together, don't judge people by religion or by the color of their skin, and that America is a country which belongs to all of us.
Contrast that with Trump’s effort to start a program in which is he is documenting every crime an undocumented person commits, [his] verbal attacks against Latinos and against Muslims, and his effort, it seems to me, to try to make political points by dividing us up by scapegoating minorities.
That is not what a leader of any democratic country should be doing. That is part of the tradition and history of demagoguery. It divides people up.
That leads to your other question: Is this happening around the world? The answer is yes, it is.
And why is it happening? For a lot of the same reasons it is happening in the United States. The radical changes to the global economy over the last 40 to 50 years, which have benefited some people, no question about it, but have left behind tens and tens of millions of people who are today working longer hours for lower wages, who are worried to death about whether their kids can afford to go to college and whether their kids will ever have a standard of living as high as they themselves have.
A whole lot of people have been left behind in the global economy, in the United States — in rural areas, in inner cities all over this country. A lot of people have been left behind, and they are angry, they are furious, and they think people do not understand their pain. And then you have demagogues trying to explain that the problem is some Mexican farm worker who makes eight bucks an hour or someone who is a Muslim.
Tens and tens of millions of Americans today are struggling to keep heads above water economically.
What rational leadership is about is putting those problems on the table and saying, “All right, here are problems: We’ve got 28 million Americans with no health insurance. How do we deal with that issue?” rather than demagoguing about that issue and blaming minorities for the problems the country faces.
This is certainly an international phenomenon — you see it with the National Front in France, and you see [a] similar type phenomenon with Putin in Russia.
In Berlin this May, you gave a speech where you said, “What has become absolutely clear since the election is that Donald Trump represents something we haven’t seen before in the United States. A trend toward authoritarianism, a normalization of corruption and the rise of oligarchy.” Can you unpack the last part of that sentence?
You got my quote right.
What is going on is not only this rise of authoritarianism but also, simultaneously, you are seeing this country move very rapidly toward oligarchy.
The media doesn't talk about it very often. I do. Because it's frightening, and I don't think the media is comfortable with it — but the truth is in America today, you have the top one-tenth of 1 percent owning as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, and you’ve got 20 people in America owning as much wealth as [the] bottom half of America, and you are seeing 52 percent of all new income generated today going to the top 1 percent.
So just an incredible inequality, in terms of wealth and income, that we have not seen since the Great Depression, since 1928.
On top of that, [we have] a political system in which the Koch brothers and other billionaires are able to spend unlimited sums through Citizens United to buy elections for the candidates who represent their interests.
You add that together with a media which is also increasingly owned by fewer and fewer people around the world. I think it is fair to say we are moving toward oligarchy, where we have an economy and a political system controlled by few incredibly wealthy people.
And [as to] the corruption aspect of this: There is an incredible blurring of business interests for the Trump family with public policy. Is Trump making foreign policy decisions on behalf of the American people and what is best for the world? Or is he making those decisions on behalf of Trump enterprises? That’s a whole other area.
There seems little doubt that Russians attempted in some way to influence our election. How has this played out in terms of how you see the Trump administration moving toward authoritarianism?
Well, that’s a question that obviously is being investigated right now. You are right there is nobody who denies that Russia played a significant role in trying to influence the election on behalf of Trump. So the question being investigated now is was there collusion? And you have [special counsel Robert] Mueller and his team working on that, and you have the House and Senate Intelligence Committees working on that. We will see where that will go.
I don’t have the answer, and I don't want to speak before I have facts in front of us. Trump fired [FBI Director James] Comey. Did he fire Comey because he thought Comey was a bad FBI director and he needed a change in the FBI? If that is the case, that is what a president can do.
Or did he fire Comey because Comey was launching a significant investigation about possible collusion of the Trump campaign with Russia? If that’s the case, then that's just another argument about the movement of this country toward authoritarianism, because that is obstructing justice. And that’s what’s being looked at.
You said a few times that this is a first in American history — but there are aspects of these issues that have repeated themselves throughout history. Do you think this a repeat of something we saw in the 1930s, for example, or otherwise?
Yes and no. Yes — look, we had Joe McCarthy. But I don't know if you have had a president whose actions —- in terms of dishonesty, clear dishonesty, in terms of the attacks on the media, trying to undermine people’s faith in what they see, hear, and read, and support for authoritarian regimes — I don't know if you have had a president who has put all of these characteristics together at one time.
I can't remember a president who has had more authoritarian tendencies than Trump.
What role do you think the media needs to play? What happens when you undermine the Fourth Estate?
Trump says, [essentially] “Hey all of these, ABC, CBS, VOX, everybody else, anybody in the mainstream media, they are all liars, they hate me, they are trying to undermine me, so don't believe a word of it.”
What does that tell the average person in this country? Where will they get the truth?
That is a very profound development. After all, where do you get truth? How do you get truth? How do you know what is going on in Washington, DC? Is it just Trump's tweets? I think when a president says, “This is a [news] story, I disagree with it, this is why I disagree with it” — there’s nothing wrong with that. I do that every day. But to say, “Everything you are seeing in the media is a lie” — wow, that is pretty dangerous stuff.
Let’s not forget that if you had a popular vote that was announced at 11 pm on election night — [Hillary] Clinton won the popular vote by 2.9 million votes. That’s a difference. Emmanuel Macron did not go through a complicated Electoral College which allowed someone who received a minority of the votes to become president; that’s one of the differences. That’s a good discussion. Maybe we can have it another time.