In June 1953, construction workers in East Berlin went on strike to protest a pay cut. Although it was quickly crushed by the Communist government, which called in Soviet tanks to bolster the Stasi, the uprising was irrefutable evidence that all was not well in the workers’ paradise. It also prompted the poet Bertolt Brecht to make a wry suggestion: Given that the people “Had forfeited the confidence of the government,” perhaps it would be easier “for the government / To dissolve the people / And elect another?”
Even before November 8, it was not difficult to find similar views among a broad spectrum of the American media, from Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen’s dismissal of Bernie Sanders’s “predictable and one-dimensional attack on Wall Street,” to Jamelle Bouie’s declaration in Slate that Hillary Clinton was right to label Donald Trump’s supporters “a basket of deplorables,” to New York Times columnist David Brooks’s bland assertion that Trump voters “are just going with their gene pool.” Way back in September 2015, you could read George Packer in The New Yorker sneering at Sanders not only for his “tendency to drone on like a speaker at the Socialist Scholars Conference circa 1986” but for the sin of offering “simple answers to difficult problems.”
The specter haunting our centrist press wasn’t Trump, whose candidacy would never have lasted past the first primary without the constant promotion of a slavish media. Nor was it Sanders, whose insurgent campaign was dismissed and deprecated by the same corporate media that mostly ignored him for as long as possible. No, what really worried the establishment was the people themselves, and the thought that after decades of being offered a forced choice between two paths to their own extinction—the gently managed, technocratically assisted suicide offered by the Democrats, or the savage Darwinian winner-take-all sweepstakes of the Republicans—working-class Americans might do more than simply stay home. They might refuse to play along.
Hillary Clinton, with a little help from her friends at the Democratic National Committee (and a tag team of wised-up liberals in the media), managed to contain the threat of Sanders’s political revolution. Clinton then went on to wage a campaign that, though genuinely inspiring to millions of women, offered the rest of the electorate little more than the promise of four more years—with the threat of President Trump to herd them into the Democratic camp. But with the exit on the left thus blocked, the millions of Americans who wanted real, radical change—rather than the ethical alibi offered by third parties—were left only with an opening to the right. We all know what happened next.