Donald Trump has been profligate in his attacks on the Democratic candidates for President, but Super Tuesday, with its unexpected string of victories for Joe Biden, pushed him to new heights of incoherence. At a rally in North Carolina, last Monday, he mocked “Sleepy Joe” for referring to “Super Thursday” in a speech. (Biden had, in fact, caught himself mid-word and, with a smile to the crowd, said, “I’m rushing ahead, aren’t I?”) “You know, maybe he gets in because he’s a little more moderate,” Trump said. But then he added, “They’re going to put him in a home! And other people are going to be running the country—and they’ll be super-left radical crazies.”
Apart from the usual crudeness of Trump’s rhetoric, this picture of Biden as the kindly face of the Red Terror doesn’t make much sense. It may turn out to be just an interim line of insult, as Trump, who had been working up crowds with tales of a takeover by the “radical socialist Democrat Party” and “Crazy Bernie,” recalibrates to account for the solid presence of Biden. Trump’s interpretation will also be news to Senator Sanders and his supporters, who have been portraying Biden as a figurehead of corporate interests. That reading, in turn, critically ignores the role that African-American voters, first in South Carolina and then, on Super Tuesday, throughout the country, played in Biden’s resurgence. He won in Alabama and Texas, as well as in Virginia and Massachusetts, where he also had particularly strong support from women.
And yet Sanders’s electorate was diverse, too; exit polls indicate that he prevailed among Latin and Asian-American voters, and, in some states, among black voters under thirty. He also won young voters almost everywhere, though their turnout was lower than the Sanders campaign had hoped. In California, Sanders’s share of Latin voters under thirty was seventy-one per cent. He accomplished all that without the institutional party support that Biden unquestionably has. (Pete Buttigieg reportedly spoke with Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter before endorsing Biden.) On Super Tuesday, both Biden and Sanders showed real strength. Both still have a path to the nomination, in terms of the delegate count, though Sanders’s is far steeper. Trump should be scared of them both, which is, no doubt, why he’s goading them to attack each other.
Trump spent the morning after Super Tuesday testing different formulations of derision, division, and distrust. He said that Warren, “our modern day Pocahantas,” had cost Sanders her home state of Massachusetts by having the gall to compete there—“so selfish!” (Warren dropped out on Thursday.) Trump tweeted that the “Democrat establishment” had come together “and crushed Bernie Sanders, AGAIN!” And, after crowing over the losses suffered by “Mini Mike Bloomberg,” who left the race after having won only American Samoa, he added, “Now he will pour money into Sleepy Joe’s campaign, hoping to save face. It won’t work!”
Trump has a bully’s instinct for identifying points of tension. His “AGAIN” tweet was a reference to the 2016 campaign, during which he tried to capitalize on the disquiet of Sanders’s supporters in the face of what they saw as the Party leadership’s preference for Hillary Clinton. Sanders echoed those complaints on Tuesday night, when he said, “We’re not only taking on the corporate establishment, we’re taking on the political establishment.” He questioned whether anyone with such backing can bring about real change for working families, as if no good could come of moderation.
Still, Biden’s supporters, particularly those who are, for want of a better word, established, don’t always recognize that significant elements of Sanders’s program are far from wild-eyed. He has pushed the Party in positive directions—for example, in the fight for a higher minimum wage. Biden has countered Sanders’s Medicare for All by emphasizing his own support for building on Obamacare with a “public option.” If anything, the outbreak of covid-19 illustrates the urgent need for some form of universal health care. The winnowing of the field should not be a reason to narrow those aspirations.
Indeed, the debates between Sanders and Biden—the first is scheduled for March 15th—will offer the candidates a chance to make the case for their proposals. (With Biden’s amiable volubility and Sanders’s Brooklynite polemical style, the two of them, both in their late seventies, should put on quite a show.) Beyond policy, when Biden says, as he did last Wednesday, that “character is on the ballot,” and his supporters speak of the former Vice-President, as Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina did, as “a real good man,” it’s important to keep in mind that the true contrast, in that respect, is with Trump, not Sanders.
And then there’s the matter of money. Bloomberg, who has now endorsed Biden, has a storied record as a donor to progressive causes. He put something like a half-billion dollars into his own campaign—the amount of money involved is unsettling, even in the name of defeating Trump—and has said that, if he didn’t get the nomination, he would re-deploy his operation in the service of another candidate he liked. He doesn’t seem to like Sanders much; during a debate, he told Sanders that, in effect, democratic socialism is the road to serfdom. Will that message be included in ads that Bloomberg buys for Biden? The race will already be bitter; it would be best to leave the Red-baiting to Trump. Sanders’s divisiveness is a more worthy target than his dreams, which are shared by many Democrats.
There have been unexpected swings in this race. Thirty-two states have yet to vote, and probably about thirty-two thousand more insults, epithets, and lies are still to come from Trump, as he attempts to distort the picture of the candidates and of the country. Senate Republicans are revving up an investigation related to Ukraine and Joe Biden’s son Hunter, too, which Senator Ron Johnson contends will be useful to a “Democratic primary voter.” One hopes that, amid all the distraction, Biden and Sanders and their supporters will still be able to see one another clearly. “What this campaign, I think, is increasingly about is: Which side are you on?” Sanders said on Wednesday. There is an answer both for him and for Biden: Trump is on the other side. ♦