The scenes from the Cleveland arena last night as the Republican convention nominated Donald Trump for president were truly staggering. Here were a lot of ordinary people, mere outsiders, who had wrested the party leadership away from the establishment. They looked hokey and they acted hokey, and the media made fun of their repeated demonstrations that they were unprepared for a national stage. But they had won. You can call them white nationalist, or isolationist, or populist, or racist, or plagiarist, and many of Trump’s followers surely fit the bill; but again, they won.
They overturned the party leadership by using democratic mechanisms. Shunned by the establishment and often shamed by the media, they did not care, but plowed forward to a partial victory. These people actually created a revolution in the Republican Party, and whether or not they lose in November, Trump’s revolution may well have historic political consequences.
The obvious contrast is to the Democratic Party candidate who ran on a revolutionary message, Bernie Sanders. Next week in Philadelphia he will be an afterthought. A lot of his faithful will be in the streets, but how much of a role will they have in any of the pageantry? Very little. It is Hillary Clinton’s convention; and the media are sure to comply in the parade.
The question that arises is, Why Trump’s revolution succeeded in dislodging an establishment and Sanders’s did not?
The two outsider candidacies mirrored one another. Both men gained crucial financial independence of their party, Trump by using free media and his own money, Sanders by using an internet army of fundraisers at the famous average of $27 a pop. Both men sought support among middle class and working-class white voters with anti-free-trade positions. Both men staked out an antiwar position.
There the similarities end. Trump exploited anti-immigrant and pro-law-and-order resentment to build his movement. Sanders did the opposite; he made bridges to Muslims and the Black Lives Matter activists to build his movement. And while the causes of Trump’s revolution will be debated for years (or decades, in the unlikely event that he wins in November), he plainly tapped into more resentment than Sanders did. It would seem to be obvious that Trump’s Make America Great Again message was a message to a white American nation in its dying throes. Our country’s changing, and Trump’s forces don’t like that. When/if they lose in November, the change will be more formally memorialized than ever.
Bernie didn’t have that 30 percent base of an alienated population to draw upon. Or did he?
That brings me to my concern, foreign policy. Both candidates ran as antiwar candidates, and Trump’s victory must be seen as a rebuke to the Iraq war. The Republican Party gave us the Iraq disaster; and many of the Americans who suffered the most from that historic blunder are in Trump’s following. However freakish the candidate’s statements about American power and militarism, it seems highly unlikely that he will go to war. Trump was against Iraq, as was Bernie.
Today the Republican establishment that supported war is in smithereens. While the Democratic establishment that supported war is stronger than ever. Hillary Clinton is building neoconservative support. Her new big television ad questioning Trump’s foreign policy smarts features her with rightwing strongman Benjamin Netanyahu.
Bernie Sanders never really took on that wing of the establishment. Yes, he made gestures, most importantly in the April 14 debate in New York in which he dared to say that Israel committed human rights atrocities in Gaza in 2014 and said:
There comes a time when if we pursue justice and peace we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time.
But that was about it. Sanders never did run hard against the neoconservatives who were flocking to Clinton, never really took on Netanyahu, didn’t make an issue of Israel’s influence over American foreign policy-making, didn’t push the Palestinian human rights question. In the party platform debates, Sanders folded on these issues while hanging on to domestic social-justice questions. His prime surrogate Cornel West was left out in the cold. West tells our man in Cleveland, Wilson Dizard, that he’s voting for the Green Party, and the party establishment is surely saying good riddance.
The party is against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement aimed at Israel, BDS; while West is for it.
Sanders did not want to drive the neocon/BDS wedge. He was against BDS himself, an inexcusable position for a progressive who supports nonviolent change in Israel and Palestine; and he surely has some generational attachment to Israel as a Jew in his 70s whose parents and he saw the Jewish state as the answer to the Holocaust and who had worked on a kibbutz in Israel as a young man in the 1960s before moving to Vermont. Sanders was more comfortable calling out Henry Kissinger than Netanyahu. Even though Netanyahu is one root of the American problem: he helped sell the Iraq war to Congress and tried to sell an Iran one too.
And lo and behold, with the Sanders coup vanquished, Hillary Clinton is using her relationship with Netanyahu to run for president.
This hawkish foreign-policy political material is still available to a leftwing renegade Democrat, to try and upend the establishment. But meantime that establishment is stronger than ever. In the fiftieth year of the Israeli occupation, the Democratic Party has refused to acknowledge its existence in its platform. Cornel West fought the leaders bravely, and told them that the Israel/Palestine question is the Vietnam war for young people. But the leaders stuck by Israel’s guns.
And though both party platforms suck when it comes to Israel and Palestine, as matters stand, the Republican party platform on Israel may be more useful to critics of US foreign policy than the Democratic one. For while the Democratic platform suppressed reference to the settlements and the occupation, Trump’s revolution was evidently so dislocating that the party adopted a platform that gives Israel all the West Bank and gives up on the late lamented holy grail of the two state solution.
The extreme right supporters of one state sadly mirror the extreme left supporters of BDS (boycott, divestment and sanction), who are also one state supporters who aim to delegitimize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
For anyone who believes as Cornel West does that this issue is the defining issue of our time, a big public battle over the causes and solutions of the conflict is just what America needs. The revolutionary Donald Trump may have done more to advance this hope than the revolutionary Bernie Sanders.