Bernie’s Russia Problem

Sanders needs to address the role Russia played in his campaign.

Senator Bernie Sanders took the spotlight Monday in a live-streamed town hall focused on inequality. The event came a couple of days after an op-ed in The Guardian in which he criticized “corporate media” for ignoring the rise of oligarchy in the US.

After his presidential run, Sanders has made inequality one of his key issues. But whatever headway he makes on the subject can be partly attributed to the indirect help that he got from at least oligarch, Robert Mercer. The secretive New York billionaire invested in the British data firm Cambridge Analytica, which according to a report in the New York Times, acquired the private information of some 50 million Facebook users in an effort to turn the 2016 election in Donald Trump’s favor.

We already knew Russian operatives waged “information warfare against the United States,” per a February indictment brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. They aimed to move public opinion against Hillary Clinton, we just didn’t know how. With this new reporting, the picture is clearer: Cambridge Analytica and the Kremlin’s troll farm are linked.

What does that have to do with Sanders? Anything that was anti-Clinton was pro-Trump. That meant helping Sanders as well as Green Party candidate Jill Stein. According to Cambridge Analytica’s Head of Product, Matt Oczkowski, Trump voters and Sanders voters were cut from the same “psychographic” cloth:

For an isolated Trump-specific supporter, the three issues were #1 Law and Order, #2 Immigration and #3 Trade. And when you start to understand that profile, an isolated Trump supporter looks a lot like a Bernie Sanders supporter. It is Blue Dog Democrats. It is people who have been disenfranchised by the political system who feel that the government hasn’t done anything for them in the past and who came out to vote this year. They haven’t been out to a voting booth in several elections (my emphasis).

None of this is to say Sanders knew he was being helped. I don’t think he did. None of this is to say he’s in cahoots with anyone. But for the above reasons, like it or not, he got help from not only the Kremlin, but also from a secretive Republican billionaire. The question is, what do you do when oligarchy helped raise your profile in order to run for president again and fight oligarchy?

About that voter profile Oczkowski mentions. Trump can’t accept the growing consensus that he didn’t win on his own. Sanders, I suspect, feels similarly. He wants to believe his “revolution” was a natural springing forth of rage against the prevailing order, not an illusion concocted, partly, online and under false pretenses. To accept that Russian operatives encouraged people to “Feel the Bern” is to accept doubt about his movement.

When backed against the wall, Sanders tends to lash out, just as the president does. After Mueller indicted 13 Russians, Politico reported that “Sanders and his former campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, presented a series of self-serving statements that were not accurate, and that track with efforts by Trump and his supporters to undermine the credibility of the Mueller probe.”

On Vermont Public Radio, Sanders blamed Clinton directly for the Russian effort to aid his campaign: “The real question to be asked is what was the Clinton campaign [doing about Russian interference]? They had more information about this than we did.”

That’s not going to fly with Democratic partisans. Perhaps Sanders accepts this, and he will cobble together leftists, anarchists, and political malcontents outside the party to apply pressure. Blaming Clinton is in keeping with his presidential aspirations. To some Sanders supporters, the problem is not that the Russian government waged information warfare against the United States. They don’t believe it did any such thing.

They do believe, however, that the mainstream media’s “fetish” and “obsession” with “Russiagate” is a hoax designed to deflect scrutiny away from the Democratic Party’s wishes to remain subservient to the 1 percent at the expense of the working people it claims to represent. Blaming Clinton is a way for Sanders to lead the fight against the status quo. In other words, Bernie’s supporters are similar in mentality to Trump’s.

Thomas Frank, author of Listen, Liberal, repeated a talking point common on the left: How could the Russians have installed Donald Trump when they spent a pittance doing it? “The ads themselves are now thought to have been the product of highly advanced political intelligence. So effective were the troll-works, wrote Robert Kuttner on Monday, that we can say Trump ‘literally became president in a Russia-sponsored coup d’etat.'”

But those denying the Kremlin’s assault experience their own version of psychic entrapment. If they accept that the Kremlin sabotaged Hillary Clinton, she’s then a victim, not a villain, and that’s not something people dedicated to overthrowing the neoliberal order can accept. Easier to deny a growing number of facts than do the hard work of making room for socialism, or any counter-establishment thought, inside American politics.

That Thomas Frank mocks Robert Kuttner, co-founder of the American Prospect, no friend of the oligarchy, is suggestive.

While Sanders has always struggled to win over Democratic partisans, his new problem is a divided left. Russia, and now oligarchs, are driving a wedge between leftists of all persuasions trying to make sense of facts as they present themselves and leftists so doctrinaire they are blind to what’s happening.

Sanders knows relying on political pariahs to deliver anything is foolhardy. So expect him to play both sides. On the one hand, he’ll stoke doubt about “Russiagate” for loyalists, while on the other insist it was a “direct assault on the free democratic systems that stand in contrast to the autocratic, nationalistic kleptocracy of Vladimir Putin and his backers in the Russian oligarchy.”

You could say all of this is much ado about nothing. Most voters don’t understand cyber-warfare. But bear in mind a Gallup poll showing 72 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Russia. Sixty percent of Republicans dislike it while 85 percent of Democrats say the same. If Sanders is going to make any headway with Democrats, he’d better change his tune.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.