Before leaving for India, Donald Trump had congratulated Bernie Sanders, frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, for winning the Nevada caucuses. But he mischievously added in parenthesis: “Democrats would work to deny him the nomination.” Pulling back a frontrunner will create chaos in Democratic ranks. In that case, Narendra Modi may well have held a two-term US President in a tight embrace at Ahmedabad’s Motera stadium.
So far, the Democratic race has similarities with the primaries, which led to a Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump contest in 2016. Back then, what was in bad odour with the electorate was the Washington establishment. The two who reached out for the establishment’s jugular from two diametrically opposite ideological positions were Mr Trump and Mr Sanders. But the Democratic National Committee (DNC) had set its heart on Ms Clinton as the party’s nominee for President. In doing so, it overlooked a crucial detail: the national mood was against the establishment, and Ms Clinton, more than most, was the core of the establishment.
We all know what happened. Since I was witness to the drama on that fateful night of the election results, let me reproduce bits of what I wrote: “A dozen or so friends, who had assembled in Lucknow boy turned New Yorker Nusrat Durrani’s trendy DUMBO loft under the Brooklyn Bridge, did not have the heart to uncork champagne bottles because we were not sure which one of the Clinton supporters in the party might be offended. So champagne bottles stood on the table like a row of brooding bishops.”
“Our adorable Jewish world banker friend couldn’t bear to look at the screen. ‘I feel faint; I must leave.’ Another from the state department was on frantic long distance calls advising her family to prepare for the worst. A neighbour banged frantically at the door, and barged in, beads of perspiration on her brow. She could not bear to watch the results alone.”
Our very own Surjit Bhalla had dutifully alerted New Delhi: Mr Trump’s victory would be the “end of Western civilisation”.
The reason I have indulged in this bit of nostalgia, even on the pain of being repetitious, is quite straightforward: the nomination race scripted by the DNC and the improvisations introduced en route could make November 2020 resemble its 2016 version when the party’s biased high command waylaid Mr Sanders when he was ahead in the popularity stakes, by citing a 1962 law.
Now, in 2020, once again Mr Sanders is ahead in the field. This should not surprise observers because the Bernie Sanders phenomena did not recede even after 2016. In fact a Fox News poll in 2017 established his exceptional popularity. The poll showed Mr Sanders +28 rating above all US politicians on both sides of the political spectrum. Trevor Timm of the Guardian, London, wrote: “One would think with numbers like that, Democratic politicians would be falling all over themselves to be associated with Sanders, especially considering the party as a whole is more unpopular than the Republicans and even Donald Trump right now. Yet instead of embracing his message, the establishment wing of the party continues to resist him at almost every turn.”
That was written in 2017. The situation remains unchanged. In fact, there seems to be a greater urgency in Democratic ranks to stop Mr Sanders than to stop Mr Trump winning a second term. This priority has been explicitly spelt out by that superior pundit of American journalism, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. As early as November, 2019, he began to promote Michael Bloomberg, billionaire and former New York mayor, as the Democratic nominee. Mr Friedman demonstrates impeccable manners by making a disclosure: Bloomberg philanthropies has contributed to the museum Mrs Friedman is building in Washington to promote reading and literacy. He agrees: “capitalism is not working for enough people in America”. Having thus protected himself, Mr Friedman eulogises the billionaire aspirant in a column titled “Why I like Mike”.
What can anyone say if the NYT grants him his self-indulgence — and not just once. By the time the Democratic race for the nominee hots up in January, Mr Friedman produces another Michael Bloomberg boosting column. If senator Joe McCarthy were to reappear by some magical incantation, he would hold Mr Friedman in a tight embrace for the columnist’s disdain for an “avowed socialist”. The Trump machine “will cast Mr Sanders as Che Guevara — and it won’t even be that hard”.
Just consider the scale of the exaggeration: America’s best-known columnist conjures up images of Che to scare Americans away from Mr Sanders. The senator from Vermont has to be painted in lurid colours because he describes himself as Democratic Socialist, dedicated to a platform which seeks to reverse inequality.
To make Mr Trump a one-term President, Mr Friedman and his ilk have located the surefire Democratic winner — Mike Bloomberg. This most favoured candidate crossed over from the Republican Party just the other day. Frisk and search operations against blacks and hispanics was a racist nightmare during his terms as New York mayor. Stories of his sexist misbehaviour are legion. He shall be forgiven all his misdemeanours. His big bucks matter. He catapulted onto the stage for the eighth Democratic debate in Las Vegas without having gone through the normal process of primaries. He made a donation of $350 million to the NDC, has already splurged $400 million on ads. Who knows, a billion may still be in the pipeline. American exceptionalism possibly bestows on aspiring candidates a choice: they can drudge their way to the nomination by mobilising the people or, they can simply buy the nomination, off the shelf. In the end the likes of Mr Friedman will probably enlighten us which way to the top is more Democratic?
Mr Trump may well thump his pal on the back during the Motera stadium festivities: “You were clever endorsing me at Howdy Modi; the disarray in Democratic ranks will prove you right.”
The writer is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi...