Bernie Sanders is running for reelection to the Senate in Vermont this fall. But he is also running around the country, holding town-hall meetings and leading get-out-the-vote marches in states across the country. In the countdown to the November 6 election, the 2016 presidential contender (and potential 2020 candidate) has talked up single-payer health care in South Carolina. He has traveled to the US-Mexico border in Arizona. He has campaigned for gubernatorial candidates in Michigan (Gretchen Whitmer), Colorado (Jared Polis), Maryland (Ben Jealous) and Florida (Andrew Gillum), and appeared with US Senate candidates such as Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin and Jacky Rosen in Nevada, and with US House candidates such as Liz Watson in Indiana and J.D. Scholten in Iowa.
Many of his stops have been on college campuses, where the senator has urged the young voters who so ardently supported his presidential run two years ago to turn out for progressive contenders this fall. Before a rally at Arizona State University in Tempe, he sat down with The Nation to discuss his sense of urgency regarding the midterm elections that are now just days away.
The Nation: There’s been a real edge to your criticism of Donald Trump as you have hit the road for these last campaign stops. You’ve been very blunt about his demagoguery.
Bernie Sanders: Trump is a demagogue. He is a pathological liar. I say that with no pleasure; I have many conservative friends who are not pathological liars, who are honest, and we just disagree.
Trump is also somebody who clearly does not respect democracy, who in fact is working overtime to undermine democracy in this country. When you attack the media as “enemies of the people,” wow. Now we’re so used to this [Trump’s extreme statement]. But if you and I were chatting three years ago and we said we’d have a president of the United States [who] attacks the media as “enemies of the people”—so that anything the media says, people should not believe a word of it—we would have said that’s beyond the pale. You have a president that is insulting and attacking our democratic allies but feels very comfortable with authoritarian types—whether it is Putin or [Mohammed] bin Salman—or even has personal affection for Kim Jong-un. This is a person who does not believe, in my view, in democracy and who is very much an authoritarian personality.
TN: What is the best way to put this presidency, and the politics of this moment, into perspective?
BS: What I have said for many weeks now is that people have fought and died—and I am thinking about World War II and the suffering that took place in Europe and Asia—for democracy, and for what our Constitution is about. And we now have a person in the White House who is trying to undermine all of that. So I think the fight has got to take place on many levels.
Number one: We have got to expose him for what he is.
Number two: We have got to give people a vision of where this country can and should go.
TN: Your counsel is to address Trump and extremism, but also to provide an alternative vision.
BS: Exactly. It’s not good enough to just beat up on Trump. You beat up on Trump and people say, “Yeah, you’re right but so what? Why vote?” Here’s where I’m very proud, where I think the American people should be very proud: What we have shown is that the American people want bold ideas. A poll came out today [showing that] 70 percent of Americans support Medicare for All. The American people support making public colleges and universities tuition free. The American people support raising the minimum wage. The American people support massive investments in our infrastructure. More and more people support transforming our energy system away from fossil fuels. Criminal-justice reform. Immigration reform. All of those ideas are now kind of mainstream ideas. And our job right now, which is why I am here [on a college campus], is to get young people, to understand that you have got to get involved. It’s not good enough to believe in these ideas, support these ideas; you’ve got to make sure these ideas are implemented, and the only way you do that is by getting involved in politics and voting.
TN: The 2018 midterms are offering real-time tests of what you are saying. There are candidates who are running the way you are talking about, running these boldly progressive campaigns. As regards framing out a new politics, how important is it that they win?
BS: They’ve already won. We have candidates all across this country who have already won. I just saw [Illinois congressional candidate] Chuy Garcia yesterday, Chuy is going to be a congressman. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is going to be a congresswoman from New York. She did it. Rashida Tlaib is going to be a congresswoman from Detroit. She did it. It’s happening. It’s not just at the national level. You have great candidates winning in local races. Right here [in Arizona’s Maricopa County], there was a county recorder who was responsible for the fact that in 2016 people had to wait on line eight hours [to vote]. She was defeated by a candidate supported by Our Revolution. That same story is taking place all across the country. Some candidates may not win, but they are doing damn well. What we have seen happen is that you are seeing more first-time candidates saying: “You know what, I can do it.” JD Scholten [the challenger to far-right Congressman Steve King] is a first-time candidate.
TN: Quite a few first-time candidates are winning nominations and mounting major races this year.
BS: That’s right. That’s what the political revolution is about. In past years, people have gone to the Democratic Party and the Democratic Party would have said: “Young woman, you’re wonderful, and in 10 or 20 years you can maybe run for Congress. But we have five people in front of you right now.” It ain’t happening like that now. That’s the kind of change we’re seeing.
TN: There is a sense of urgency this year, within the Democratic Party and beyond. What if Democrats win big on November 6? What should their first move be in Congress?
BS: Trump will still be the president, but it is absolutely imperative that [Democrats] come up with bold initiatives that they have promised the American people they would do. If not, it will be just awful.
So, I think there has to be [immediate action]. It’s raising the minimum wage nationally to $15 an hour. It is implementing our legislation for Medicare for All—it’s a four-year phase in, and the first phase-in is lowering the eligibility age from 65 to 55 and covering all the children. If Democrats bring that forth and we pass it, you will have 80 percent of the American people saying,: “Thank you Democrats. I’m 57 years old and I can’t afford my health insurance now,” or “I have a kid who’s not insured.” It will be enormously popular. It will be enormously important to tens of millions of the American people.
In other words, all that I am saying is that they have got to be bold. And here’s something that will surprise you: I am not so sure that Trump will be busy vetoing away all of these things. I believe Trump has no politics at all—he is a 100 percent opportunist. You remember that in his former life he supported Medicare for All, supported a tax on wealth, supported a woman’s right to choose. He has no politics, he is a 100 percent opportunist who only is concerned about winning and his own personal well-being. If a $15 minimum wage comes to his desk and he has to tell his working-class supporters why he vetoed it, I am not so sure that he will. But, be that as it may, if the Democrats gain control of Congress, within the House and the Senate, it is absolutely imperative that they come forward immediately with a bold agenda.
TN: It sounds like what you are really saying is that Democrats will need to turn the volume up higher than Trump.