The Vermont senator and one-time presidential hopeful speaks to Ed Pilkington about the state of the progressive movement in an age of Trump and Brexit
By Ed Pilkington
March 10, 2017 “Information Clearing House” – “The Guardian” – The Guardian: You’ve had a front-row seat at the start of the Trump presidency, how do you assess what is happening in the new White House?
Bernie Sanders: Obviously, these are very scary times for the people of the United States and, because the Unites States is the most powerful country on Earth, for the whole word. The bad news, the very bad news is that we have a president who is a pathological liar. I say that not in a partisan way because I have many conservative friends who I disagree with on every issue who are not liars, they believe what they believe. But Trump lies all of the time and I think that is not an accident, there is a reason for that.
He lies in order to undermine the foundations of American democracy. One of the concerns that I have is not just his reactionary economic program of tax breaks to billionaires and devastating cuts to programs that impact the middle class, working families, lower-income people, children, the elderly, the poor, but also his efforts to undermine American democracy in the sense of making wild attacks against the media, that virtually everything that mainstream media says is a lie. And we have reached the stage where a United States congressman named Lamar Smith from Texas – and I’m paraphrasing him but you can look up the quote – said ‘Well, if you want to know the truth the only way you can really get the truth in America is directly from the president.”
And you have a president who has called a judge nominated by George W Bush a “so-called” judge because he issued an opinion differing with the president. He has come up with wild accusations about 3-5 million illegal people voting in the election which is an attack on every election official in the United States of America and basically suggesting to the American people that the elections do not reflect reality, that the elections are fraudulent.
So what you have is a president who says that what you read and see is fraudulent, that judges are not real judges if they offer an opinion different than him, and that elections are not based on real vote counts but are also fraudulent. You have all that and more going on, which leads to only one conclusion: and that is that the only person in America who stands for the American people, the only person in America who is telling the truth, the only person in America who gets it right is the President of the United States, Donald Trump. And that is unprecedented in American history. George Bush was a very conservative president, I opposed him every single day. But George Bush did not operate outside of mainstream American political values.
G: What is Trump’s endgame, what does he want from all this?
Sanders: What he wants, I think, is to end up as leader of a nation which has moved in a significant degree toward authoritarianism where the president of the United States has extraordinary powers, far more so than our constitution has provided for or the values of the American people support. Obviously, the only way to defeat that trend and to defeat economic policies which will benefit the 1% at the expense of everybody else is for massive grassroots resistance, and clearly we are seeing that right now. And there are many examples of that, I don’t only mean the Women’s March or the many, many tens of thousands of people who have come out to town meetings expressing opposition to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act or some of the rallies that we have organized last weekend all over this country – about 150 rallies in 130 congressional districts, tens of thousands of people coming out demanding meetings with their members of Congress to protest against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
G: Describe what went through your mind when you heard President Trump talk about protecting the environment in his first joint session with Congress
Sanders: Among many other statements, here is a president who is clearly the most anti-environmental president in the history of this country, this is a president who thinks climate change is a hoax despite what virtually the entire scientific community says, this is a president who has appointed a gentleman called Scott Pruitt to be administrator of the EPA whose job will be to dismember the Environmental Protection Agency, who has appointed Governor Perry of Texas to be secretary of energy. A president who just literally on the day he gave his speech issued an executive order which significantly weakens regulations to protect clean water in America. So to talk about protecting clean air and water on the same day that you issue a regulation that will increase pollution of air and water is hypocritical beyond belief. It took some effort not to laugh out loud, it really was, the hypocrisy was beyond belief.
G: Do you think the much-vaunted checks and balances in America are strong enough to resist Trump?
Sanders: That’s a very good question and that is exactly the issue that many of us worry about and that many of us are working on. I would say that that question is better offered to many of my Republican colleagues. I have very conservative Republican colleagues who believe in democracy, who are going to fight for their reactionary economic views but who do not believe in authoritarianism. It is incumbent upon them, in this moment in history, to stand up and say that what Trump is doing is not what the United States is about, it’s not what our constitution is about. They have got to join us in resistance. Actually I hope in the coming months to be working with some conservative Republicans who I disagree with on every economic and environmental issue you can imagine, but to say to this president that you are not going to undermine American democracy.
When the president of the United States says that 3-5 million people voted illegally in the last election, when one of his spokesmen says that busloads of people came from Massachusetts to go into New Hampshire in that election to vote illegally this is 100% totally delusional and lies. But what it does do, and it’s important to understand what his goal is, it sends a message to Republican reactionary governors around the country to go forward and expand their efforts to suppress the vote. If it were true that 3-5 million people voted illegally, that would be a real crisis and we would have to do something about it. But it’s a total lie, it’s not true, so as long as you maintain that delusion you are giving red meat to Republican governors to suppress the vote which is very, very frightening.
G: How serious in your view are allegations that the Trump campaign might have colluded with the Russian government in interfering with the 2016 presidential election?
Sanders: For a start, what we know to be a fact, is that Russia played a very heavy role in attempting – successfully, I think – to impact our election. That is unacceptable. The evidence is that they have done it before and they will do it again. For all democracies around the world it is not acceptable that democratic institutions are being undermined by an authoritarian government and we ought to figure out how we deal with that – how we protect our democracies and at the same time make certain that Russia stop doing what it is doing. It is absolutely unacceptable. I think probably Obama was not as strong as he should have been in getting that message out to Putin.
So that’s Number One: There’s no question but they did do that. They had many many, hundreds and hundreds of paid employees. What the exact mechanism is, who paid them may not be clear, but there were people working with the approval of the Russian government trying to undermine American democracy.
Number Two: What we don’t know and what absolutely needs to be investigated is whether or not there was direct collusion between the Trump campaign and these Russians.
Number Three: What we need to know is what kind of influence the Russian oligarchy has over Trump. Many people are kind of astounded. Here he is seemingly in strong disagreement with Australia, with Mexico, with long-term allies but he has nothing but positive things to say about Mr Putin who is an authoritarian leader, who is every day undermining democracy in Russia.
G: Turning to the challenge facing progressive parties in the age of Trump and Brexit, what is your sense of the global threat to the left?
Sanders: One of the reasons for Brexit, for Trump’s victory in the United States, for the rise of ultra-nationalist rightwing candidates all over Europe, is the fact that the global economy has been very good for large multinational corporations, has in many ways been a positive thing for well-educated people, but there are many, many tens of milions of people in this country and all over the world who have been left behind by globalization. In this country, one of the facts that Trump pointed out in his speech that actually was a true fact is that in this country we have lost some 60,000 factories since the year 2000. Millions of decent-paying jobs in manufacturing have disappeared, some of that is due to automation, a lot has to do with disastrous trade policies which benefited the CEOs of large corporations at the expense of American workers. This is true in many parts of the world.
Trump picked up support from people who felt that the elites, the economic elites, the political elites, forgot about them. And the truth is the economic and political elites did forget about them.
We have seen in this country, not widely known in Europe, that inflation adjusted to wages for millions of workers today is lower than it was 40 years ago. So you have got millions of people today working two or three jobs, people who are working longer hours for lower wages, you’ve got half of older workers in America, 55 to 64, who have literally nothing in the bank as they face retirement. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country on Earth. We have massive income inequality. So what’s happened in America and in many parts of the world is that globalization has done well for the folks who assemble at Davos, for the ruling economic elite of the world. In this country alone you have seen a tenfold increase in the number of billionaires.
G: How did the Democratic party in America allow a billionaire like Trump …
Sanders: A phoney billionaire …
G: … a phoney billionaire to stand in front of other billionaires in the Waldorf and say he was going to put the steelworkers back to work?
Sanders: That is an excellent question. And the answer is, as I think many people certainly in this country understand, is that what we have seen over the last 30 or 40 years is a Democratic party that has transformed itself from a party of the working class – white workers, black workers, immigrant workers – to a party significantly controlled by a liberal elite which has moved very far away from the needs of the middle class and working families of this country. So if you were to go out on the street today in any place in this country and ask working people whether they think the Democratic party is the party of the American working class, very few would say yes. If you did that in the 1930s under Franklin Delano Roosevelt they would say yes, there was a clear distinction.
Let’s not forget it was a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who deregulated Wall Street; a Democratic president, Clinton, who pushed for Nafta; a Democratic president, Barack Obama, who pushed as hard as he could for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Now in my view Clinton did some very good things, in my view Obama did a lot of good things, but that is the reality and it is within that context that a space developed for a total phoney like Donald trump who by the way manufactures many of his products abroad in China, in Mexico and Turkey in low-wage shops to come in and pose as a defender of American workers.
G: The space you identify that Trump has exploited can also be seen opening up in Britain, Europe and many other countries.
Sanders: The problem has been that for some people in the liberal – and I consider myself a progressive and not a liberal for that reason alone. You can be 100% in support of the civil rights movement, for criminal justice reform, for comprehensive immigration reform, for women’s rights, for protecting the environment and being extraordinarily aggressive in transforming our energy system from fossil fuel to sustainable energy and at the same time be a champion of white workers and black workers and Latino workers and immigrant workers – there should not be a dichotomy. But what has happened is that for many people in the Democratic party they said, ‘Well, I believe in women’s rights, I believe in civil rights, I believe in immigration reform, criminal justice reform,’ and that has been the emphasis at the expense of the needs of a shrinking middle class and massive levels of income and wealth inequality. The truth is we can and should do both, it’s not an either, or it is both.
G: Was Trump’s victory on election night a shock to you?
Sanders: I wasn’t expecting it but it wasn’t a shock. When I went to bed the night before I was thinking two-to-one three-to-one that Clinton would win. I thought Clinton would win. But it wasn’t like ‘Oh there’s no chance that Trump could do it’, that was never my belief. I thought he had a chance – I would say two-to-one, three-to-one for Clinton, but I was not shocked.
G: Has the Democratic party done enough to search its soul about why Clinton lost, and what to do about it?
Sanders: The answer is, we will find out soon enough. The proof will be in the pudding, according to how Tom Perez [the newly elected chair of the DNC] and how he ends up leading the party. I supported Keith Ellison for that role because Keith is in his heart of hearts a grassroots organizer who believes in grassroots politics. He believes in the need as I do to fundamentally transform the Democratic party from a top-down party to a bottom-up party. Tom Perez said during his campaign to become chair that he agreed with Keith that there was no space between them in that view. But the proof will be in the pudding in the direction that Tom takes the Democratic party.
There needs to be a fundamental acknowledgement that the model of the Democratic party has been a horrific failure, no ifs, buts and maybes. It’s not just the presidential election, it’s not just the loss of the Senate and the US House, it’s not just the loss of governors chairs all over this country, Republicans control almost two-thirds of the governors’ chairs – Democrats have lost over 900 legislative seats in states all over this country. There are states where there is virtually no Democratic party at all. When an election takes place the Democratscan’t even put up a candidate for the US Senate. That’s how pathetic it is. There has to be that understanding that what has been done in the past has been a horrific failure and there needs to be a fundamental restructuring.
G: You have been calling for many years for a stronger economic message at the heart of the party. Do you see that starting to happen?
Sanders: I sure do. Let me say where I see it. I see it in the platform of the Democratic party today, a platform that doesn’t go as far as I would like to go, but it was one that Clinton and I worked on which is far and away the most progressive platform in the history of American politics. It is a platform which stands with American people.
Keith Ellison did lose the effort to become chair, but running within the heart of the Democratic establishment. If this had been an election where Democrats all over this country could have voted, Keith would have won by a landslide. Keith had some 700,000 signatures on a petition supporting him to become chair of the DNC. This was an election that took place among 450 Democratic insiders and Keith almost won that. So between the change of the platform to make it a progressive document supporting the needs of working families, the fact that Keith did very well within the Democratic establishment, tells me that the Democrats understand that their past models are wrong, are ineffective, and there needs to be a model that says, ‘Yes, we are the party of working families, we are going to take on Wall Street, we are going to take on the insurance companies, the drug companies, corporate America, we are going to fight for a government that represents working people not just the 1%.’
G: The greatest threat to the progressive movement would be division, it’s a dangerous moment globally in terms of unity on the left. How confident are you that splits can be avoided?
Sanders: You saw at the DNC that five minutes after Perez won he asked Keith to become deputy chair. Again, we will see what happens, how far Tom moves in the right direction. But that was a gesture of unification, of an understanding that especially in the era of Trump we have to got to bring the progressive movement together in a unified way.
G: You play a role in that as the leader of one side of the argument. How do you see your personal role?
Sanders: I’m going to Mississippi tomorrow, last week I was in Kansas, I expect in a couple of weeks to be in West Virginia. I’m going to many red states around this country. I believe that one of the many failures of the Democratic party has been to concede entire states many of which have high levels of poverty where wages have gone down significantly to Republicans.
My job is to substantially increase the number of people participating in the political process. We’ve been quite successful in this, getting more and more people to run for office, to participate. That’s what I will be focusing on.
G: Do you think you would have won against Trump had you been nominated?
Sanders: I don’t think it’s a worthwhile speculation. The answer is, who knows, who knows. The answer is, possibly yes, possibly no.
G: What strategy should Senate Democrats pursue with Trump’s picks, notably Neil Gorsuch, his choice for the vacant US supreme court seat?
Sanders: We need to understand where Gorsuch is coming from, make clear the American people understand where he is coming from, then reach a conclusion. I happen to believe that [the campaign finance opinion] Citizens United is one of the worst supreme court decisions in the history of this country, we need to know in general where Gorsuch comes from. I happen to believe that women have the right to control their own bodies, and we have to know where Gorsuch comes from on that issue. I am deeply concerned about Republican efforts to undermine democracy through voter suppression, where is he coming from on that issue? Obviously the supreme court has got to respect workers’ rights and not just rule time and time again on behalf of large corporations. Where is Mr Gorsuch on that?
Now I think we know where Judge Gorsuch is on all of that. Our job over the next month or two is to get that information out to the American people.
G: That’s a rational, principled response. When Republicans were in the minority in the Senate they at times simply blindly said no. Some people say that’s what progressives should now do.
Sanders: There are reasons to say no. You don’t say, ‘I’m going to vote no before I even know who the candidate is.’ If you want to explain to the American people, the American people want to understand why you are doing it, you explain why I worry about the future of democracy when we have voter suppression and we continue Citizens United. What is Judge Gorsuch’s view on that, I think his view is the wrong view. That’s why you vote. I think it’s more effective to give a rational reason.
G: In a video you posted on Facebook Live just after Trump made his joint address to Congress, you said that you thought the Republicans were on the defensive. That’s a bold statement. What did you mean by that?
Sanders: Republicans have said over and over again, before and after Trump’s election, they are going to repeal the Affordable Care Act, this is the worst thing that ever happened to the American people, it is gone forget about it. Well, a funny thing has happened since. Millions of people in one form or another have been actively involved in saying, ‘Excuse us, if you want to improve the Affordable Care Act let’s do it, but you are not simply going to repeal it, throw 20 million people out on the streets without any health insurance, do away with the health insurance they now have, their protections in terms of pre-existing conditions, of what people have to pay for their insurance if they have a serious illness etc etc.’ Now it turns out that the vast majority of the American people say, ‘You will not repeal the Affordable Care Act unless you have a better replacement.’ And now the Republicans are scrambling, day and night, they are embarrassed, and that tells me they are on the defensive on that area.
G: And do you think that defensiveness comes from the resistance rallies that are being held all across the country?
Sanders: Absolutely. When Republicans now are literally afraid to hold public meetings, some of them are arguing, ‘Oh my God we are afraid of security issues’, it tells me they know that the American people are prepared to stand up and fight and I believe on issue after issue you are going to see them on the defensive.
G: How much is the resistance happening organically, and how much is being organized by you and by the network you built up during your 2016 campaign?
Sanders: I think it’s both. There are people who without any outside effort are reading the papers every day, they are hearing and seeing a president who lies all the time, seeing a president who wants to dismember the Environmental Protection Agency, doesn’t believe in climate change, who is going to war against a woman’s right to choose, who is doing horrible things in trying to divide this country up. When the president talks about his great concerns about violent crimes being committed by undocumented people in this country but ignores some of the horrific crimes that have taken place by native-born Americans, the American people say, ‘This is not the country that I want to see and I’m going to fight back.’
And then on top of that you are seeing a very active progressive movement – Our Revolution which came out of my campaign, and other groups – which are rallying the American people. The Women’s March which was quite spontaneous, which brought out millions of people in this country and all over the world. These are indications of the willingness of the American people to fight back for democracy, fight back for workers’ rights, women’s rights, the environment.
G: Is part of your strategy similar to that of the Tea Party, to unseat establishment Democratic politicians by encouraging more radical candidates to stand in primaries?
Sanders: That’s not my decision. It’s a decision that people on the ground are going to have to make. It’s their states, it’s their congressional districts, it’s an issue that people are going to have to make as they analyze the political situation area by area.
G: You can give a helping hand, using your massive database of 5 million email addresses of your supporters.
Sanders: We have used that – not we, I’m not actively involved in the day-to-day efforts of Our Revolution. But Our Revolution has played a good role with some success. But again it’s a decision that will be made by people on the ground in their own communities.
G: What would you say to a young person who is feeling scared, close to despair, thinking the country has moved against them. What should they do?
Sanders: This is what they should do. They should take a deep reflection about the history of this country and understand that absolutely these are very difficult and frightening times, I would not deny that for a second. But also understand that this country has had a very rocky road in terms of democracy and civil liberties and civil rights. In moments of crisis what has happened time and time again is people have stood up and fought back. So despair is absolutely not an option.
I ask people if they are white to think deeply about what it meant to be an African American in the southern states in the 40s and 50s where people were treated in the most disgraceful manner imaginable, where they were humiliated, where they were attacked, where they were lynched, yet people did not give up, they fought back effectively. I would ask people to remember that a hundred years ago women in the United States did not have the right to vote, couldn’t go to university, couldn’t do the jobs they wanted to do – they stood up and fought back. A hundred years ago kids were working in factories, there were no such things as public schools, and yet working-class people fought with great courage to create movements which protected their living standards and dignity. And just more recently, and young people are familiar with this, think of the history of the gay rights movement in this country where 15-20 years ago you had state after state attacking people because of their sexual orientation and yet with great courage the gay community stood up and fought back. And now the Republicans are absolutely on the defensive on those issues.
So in times of difficulty historically the American people have stood up and fought back and I believe that’s what we are going to see right now. And to the degree there is any silver lining in this whole process it will be that the American people will understand that they cannot take democracy for granted, we cannot continue with one of the lowest voter turnouts of any major country on Earth and that people have got to be deeply involved in the political process so that we will not see any more Trumps.
G: Turning to Britain, your brother Larry, how much discussion to the two of you have over Brexit and UK politics? Do you talk often?
Sanders: We do every once in the while, not lately actually, we haven’t. But yeah we talk once in a while.
G: Are you keeping up with the British side of Brexit and the challenges we have been discussing, given so many parallels?
Sanders: I don’t want to say I know more than I do, but obviously I am somewhat informed of that.
G: Jeremy Corbyn is under a lot of pressure at the moment, how do you see his position?
Sanders: Again I don’t know all the details, but what Corbyn has established pretty clearly is that there is a huge gap between what was the Labour party leadership and rank-and-file Labour party activists, and he made that as clear as clear could be. What needs to be I think is leadership has got to reflect where working people and young people are in the UK and that’s true all over progressive movements all over this country. Too often we have a political establishment which removes itself from the day-to-day struggles of ordinary lower-income people and that has got to change.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Information Clearing House.
U.S. adds 235,000 jobs in first full month of Trump White House: The U.S. economy churned out 235,000 new jobs in February in the first full month of the Trump White House, signaling steady growth ahead and all but assuring the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates soon.
Americans Flood Back Into The Labor Force Under Trump: The number of Americans no longer in the labor force plunged since December. The combined two-month addition of 912,000 was the biggest drop in the “not in labor force” series on record.