The Shameful Gaslighting of Bernie Sanders

PHILLIP: So Senator Sanders, I do want to be clear here. You’re saying that you never told Senator Warren that a woman could not win the election?
SANDERS: That is correct.
PHILLIP: Senator Warren, what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?

I must confess that CNN’s Abby Phillip’s “moderation” in last night’s Democratic presidential debate angered me so much that it took me many hours to get to sleep. It was a betrayal of fairness, a veritable gaslighting, a war on nuance, a willful vitiation of honor, a surrender of critical thinking, and a capitulation of giving anyone the benefit of the doubt. It was the assumptive guilt mentality driving outrage on social media ignobly transposed to the field of journalism. It fed into one of the most toxic and reprehensible cancers of contemporary discourse: that “truth” is only what you decide to believe rather than carefully considering the multiple truths that many people tell you. It enabled Senator Warren to riposte with one of her most powerful statements of the night: “So can a woman beat Donald Trump? Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost ten elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they have been in are the women. Amy and me.”

Any sensible person, of course, wants to see women thrive in political office. And, on a superficial level, Warren’s response certainly resonates as an entertaining smackdown. But when you start considering the questionable premise of political success being equated to constant victory, the underlying logic behind Warren’s rejoinder falls apart and becomes more aligned with Donald Trump’s shamefully simplistic winning-oriented rhetoric. It discounts the human truth that sometimes people have to lose big in order to excel at greatness. If you had told anyone in 1992 that Jerry Brown — then running against Bill Clinton to land the Democratic presidential nomination — would return years later to the California governorship, overhaul the Golden State’s budget so that it would shift to billions in surplus, and become one of the most respected governors in recent memory, nobody would have believed you. Is Abraham Lincoln someone who we cannot trust anymore because he had run unsuccessfully for the Illinois House of Representatives — not once, but twice — and had to stumble through any number of personal and political setbacks before he was inaugurated as President in 1861?

Presidential politics is far too complicated for any serious thinker to swaddle herself in platitudes. Yet anti-intellectual allcaps absolutism — as practiced by alleged “journalists” like Summer Brennan last night — is the kind of catnip that is no different from the deranged glee that inspires wild-eyed religious zealots to stone naysayers. There is no longer a line in the sand between a legitimate inquiry and blinkered monomania. And the undeniable tenor last night — one initiated by Phillip and accepted without question by Warren — was one of ignoble simplification.

Whether you like Bernie or not, the fact remains that Phillip’s interlocutory move was moral bankruptcy and journalistic corruption at the highest level. It was as willfully rigged and as preposterously personal as the moment during the October 13, 1988 presidential debate when Bernard Shaw — another CNN reporter — asked of Michael Dukakis, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

But where Shaw allowed Dukakis to answer (and allowed Dukakis to hang himself by his own answer), Phillip was arguably more outrageous in the way in which she preempted Sanders’s answer. Phillip asked Bernie a question. He answered it. And then she turned to Warren without skipping a beat and pretended as if Sanders had not answered it, directly contradicting his truth. Warren — who claims to be a longtime “friend” of Sanders — could have, at that point, said that she had already said what she needed to say, as she did when she issued her statement only days before. She could have seized the moment to be truly presidential, as she has been in the past. But she opted to side with the gaslighting, leading numerous people on Twitter to flood her replies with snake emoji. As I write this, #neverwarren is the top trending topic on Twitter.

The Warren supporter will likely respond to this criticism by saying, with rightful justification, that women have contended with gaslighting for centuries. Isn’t it about time for men to get a taste of their own medicine? Fair enough. But you don’t achieve gender parity by appropriating and weaponizing the repugnant moves of men who deny women their truth. If you’re slaying dragons, you can’t turn into the very monsters you’re trying to combat. The whole point of social justice is to get everyone to do better.

After the debate, when Bernie offered his hand to Warren, she refused to shake it — despite the fact that she had shaken the hands of all the other candidates (including the insufferable Pete Buttigieg). And while wags and pundits were speculating on what the two candidates talked about during this ferocious exchange, the underlying takeaway here was the disrespect that Warren evinced to her alleged “friend” and fellow candidate. While it’s easy to point to the handshake fiasco as a gossipy moment to crack jokes about — and, let’s face the facts, what political junkie or armchair psychologist wouldn’t be fascinated by the body language and the mystery? — what Warren’s gesture tells us is that disrespect is now firmly aligned with denying truth. It isn’t enough to gaslight someone’s story anymore. One now has to strip that person of his dignity.

Any pragmatic person understands that presidential politics is a fierce and cutthroat business and that politicians will do anything they need to do in order to win. One only has to reread Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes or Robert A. Caro’s Lyndon B. Johnson volumes to comprehend the inescapable realpolitik. But to see the putatively objective system of debate so broken and to see a candidate like Warren basking in a cheap victory is truly something that causes me despair. Because I liked Warren. Really, I did. I donated to her. I attended her Brooklyn rally and reported on it. I didn’t, however, unquestionably support her. Much as I don’t unquestionably support Bernie. One can be incredibly passionate about a political candidate without surrendering the vital need for critical thinking. That’s an essential part of being an honorable member of a representative democracy.

Bias was, of course, implicit last night in such questions as “How much will Medicare for All cost?” One rarely sees such concern for financial logistics tendered to, say, the estimated $686 billion that the United States will be spending on war and defense in 2020 alone. Nevertheless, what Abby Phillip did last night was shift tendentiousness to a new and obscene level that had previously been unthinkable. When someone offers an answer to your question, you don’t outright deny it. You push the conversation along. You use the moment to get both parties to address their respective accounts rather than showing partiality.

This is undeniably the most important presidential election in our lifetime. That it has come to vulgar gaslighting rather than substantive conversation is a disheartening harbinger of the new lows to come.

Why I Don’t Think Elizabeth Warren Can Win

One would need a heart of anthracite to not be wowed by Senator Elizabeth Warren in person. On Tuesday night, at the Kings Theatre in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn — a venue that I was able to walk to from my own stomping grounds, where I am one of a handful of white guys living in a four story building thronged with apartments — Warren was an electric speaker. Wearing a cyan blazer and hitting the stage with the energy of someone at least two decades younger, she filled one of Brooklyn’s finest cathedrals with a series of stump speech talking points in which she discussed her unexpected life decisions — dropping out of a scholarship program to marry her first husband (“Husband #1. It’s never good when you have to number your husbands.”) and why she decided to be a teacher and a professor rather than a lawyer.

One of Warren’s strongest moments was when she described how government could benefit people. She pointed out a time in American life in which toasters would set houses on fire because the toasters would be kept running and a fire emerging from the oven would quickly latch onto an adjacent drape, setting the kitchen and thus the home into a costly conflagration. But when consumer protection laws added an automatic timer to the toasters, the fire problem disappeared. She used this metaphor to segue into her own noble efforts at banking regulation. It was another fine example of how Warren so adeptly connects with smart yet concise everyday comparisons that most Americans understand.

Before this, Julian Castro, who recently abandoned his presidential campaign and seemed to be preparing for a possible role as Warren’s running mate should she get the Democratic nomination, spoke eloquently about the need to include everyone — ranging from those with disabilities to those who are victims of racism and police brutality. And while Castro — dressed in shirtsleeves, relaxed and magnetic on stage — said all the right things, I am not sure if the crowd really understood his full message. I am also not sure if the crowd truly empathized with the two speakers who came before him — whose names I tried to suss out from a Warren volunteer and whose names are tellingly not included on the official Warren website. They were not even included on Warren’s live Twitter stream. But these two speakers felt real to me because they told tales of losing family members due to callous immigration policies and the risks of staying proudly undocumented. Castro and these two speakers were the real America, the America of the 21st century, the America you need to appeal to if you expect to win a presidential election.

I did not take notes, but you have to understand that I didn’t intend to report on this Warren rally at all. I had stupidly believed that the Warren crowd would be a motley group from all walks of life. But on Tuesday night, I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable by how Caucasian and affluent and neoliberal the whole affair was. Despite the fact that one audience member tried to heckle Warren by getting her to badmouth Mayor Pete (to her credit, she didn’t take the bait), the tone was more of a Buttigieg rally rather than a Warren one. The audience was largely white and upper middle-class — a veritable sea of Wonder Bread and Stuff White People Like that unsettled me. As I joked to a friend by text, “This rally is so white that I feel like Ving Rhames.” The volunteers were white. They used ancient cornball slang like “Ditto!” without irony. Was I in Brooklyn Heights or Flatbush? As I stood in line, these people talked of vacationing in France and of the stress of getting out of bed at 2:30 PM and they did not appear to recognize their privilege. I was able to bite my tongue, but I must confess that it rankled me to say nothing. There were complaints among the Warren faithful against Bernie Sanders, about how he was “too mean” and “not nice.” But nothing was said about his policy. Maybe they secretly understood that Sanders is the leading candidate among black millennials and that this is going to be trouble for Warren. The overwhelming takeaway I had was that these white Warren supporters were utterly clueless about how much of a disconnect they had to anyone who isn’t white. I was certain that few of them had ever been poor in their lives.

I watched two African American women try to get into the Kings Theatre, but who were denied entry into the theatre because the Warren volunteers overlooked them in the line and didn’t give them the requisite green sticker that secured them entry. It seemed to me a form of racial profiling. I watched white people refuse to leave tips for the black bartenders who were servicing them. (I dropped a Lincoln into the tip bucket because this upset me.) The first people to leave midway through Warren’s speech who weren’t parents trying to quiet down their kids were African-American. I watched one woman throw up her hands as Warren spoke. And this bothered me. I am sure that this is not the message that Warren wishes to promulgate.

Maybe what I’m trying to identify here is a specific risk-averse form of whiteness. A peculiar timidity that is out of step with these turbulent times and that is certainly contradictory with Warren’s ongoing chant, “I will fight for you!” Just before the rally began, my phone pinged with distressing news of Iran pummeling the Al Asad airbase, which houses American soldiers, with missiles. It was clear retaliation for the American assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. It was, by any objective assessment, the beginning of a major international conflict — possibly a protracted war. Castro and Warren, to their credit, acknowledged this at the beginning of their respective speeches. But I brought this up with the white people who attended the rally, thinking that they would share the same horror for unnecessary bloodshed that I did. I was told to shut up and to not bring this up. Because whiteness is blind and selective about the big issues. Not just with the rich inner lives of people who aren’t white, but with cataclysmic events that produce violence and for which privilege insulates white people.

Then it really hit me. The Kings Theatre was in my neighborhood, which I love with all my heart. According to the 2010 census, only one fifth of Flatbush is white. The average household income here is $56,599, which doesn’t buy you a lot of cheddar in New York but that allows one a modestly happy existence. I recognize my own privilege, but I do not consider myself superior to anyone and I spend much of my time listening to other people’s stories. After all, the whole point of life is to always consider perspectives that are not your own. Who the hell am I to declare my life better? That isn’t what democracy is about.

Please understand that I have the utmost respect for Elizabeth Warren and I think she would make a fine President. But it’s her supporters that have spawned these sentiments. I truly believe they don’t get it. They are simply more sedate versions of the “Bernie bro” stereotype that they have spent the last three years kvetching about. But Bernie spent the last four years learning from his mistakes and trying out an approach that was more inclusive. Warren’s white volunteer base does not seem to understand that you can’t win the 2020 presidential election if you lack the ability to appeal to people who are not white. If you want to do affluent white people things on your own time, such as blowing $180 on a Sunday Funday brunch and complaining about how hard it is to have it all, that’s fine. I’m not going to begrudge you for it. But don’t think for a second that your multicultural myopia will guarantee you an election victory. If you can’t be bothered to remember the names of people who aren’t white and who are genuinely brave and who have truly lived — and, again, I am guilty on this front with the two speakers and I will do better next time — then you have no business participating in presidential politics.

The upshot is that I do not believe Elizabeth Warren can win because the white people who volunteer for her campaign cannot listen. They not only refuse to recognize their privilege, but, if my experience on my own home turf is any indication of a possibly larger national problem, they refuse to do so. Bernie, by contrast, has found support among Muslims and many other groups that the Warren volunteer clan will not talk to because, as nimbly documented by BuzzFeed‘s Ruby Cramer, he has adopted a strategy of presenting stories that represent struggles.

“PEOPLE FIRST” read the letters held by the premium volunteers allowed to sit on stage. But are they really committed to people? Or are they being selective about it?

Elizabeth Warren knew the right neighborhood to go to. But she cannot win because, for all of her dazzling prowess and her willingness to take selfies with anyone who shows up, she cannot reflect the diversity of that neighborhood. And if her present logistical base gets a vital neighborhood in Brooklyn so unabashedly wrong, how can we expect her to appeal to the gloriously variegated possibilities of America?

Joe Biden is a Decent Man, Goddammit!

It was a warm May afternoon and my two daughters and I had been invited to Washington. Vice President Joe Biden was apparently a huge fan of my old podcast The Bat Segundo Show. Just three weeks before my visit to the Beltway, one of Biden’s aides called me out of the blue and said that I was to receive an award. Apparently, Biden very much enjoyed the introductory segments featuring my unsettling alter ego, Bat Segundo, who lived in a Motel 6 and often complained about his ex-wife.

“Every time Joe hears Mr. Segundo’s voice,” said the aide, “he starts hugging people around the office. Your podcast has really worked him into an affectionate frenzy.”

“Hugging people?” I replied.

“Yes. And smelling hair. You know the Biden way.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Well, he believes that the key to connecting with other people lies in taking in their fragrances, ideally through significant inhaling of their hair.”

“I don’t want Joe to smell my hair. Besides, I’m bald and I don’t have any.”

“Can he smell your armpit?”

“No!”

“Can you grow a beard? Joe really likes hair.”

“No. It’s too hot. You know the New York summers.”

“Well, he probably won’t stand behind you and smell your tender aroma anyway. You’re a man.”

“What?”

“He mainly does this with women.”

“I don’t know whether to be perturbed or personally offended! Shouldn’t there be equal opportunity sniffing?”

The aide coughed and quickly changed the topic.

“Listen, you’re doing a great service here. Your interviews with literary authors are top-notch. We want to give you an award. A Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.”

“Really? Gosh, I’m humbled. I mean, I just interview authors. I haven’t even published a book!”

“But you’re doing much more than that. You see, Joe really likes Mr. Segundo. As I said, there’s something about Mr. Segundo’s toxic masculinity that drives him crazy.”

“Uh, you do realize that Mr. Segundo is a fictitious character, right? He’s satirical.”

“Oh, I know that. But Joe doesn’t.”

“Ah.”

But my anxieties were soon put to rest after the aide told me just how decent Biden was. Sure, Joe was a touchy-feely guy. But he was our touchy-feely guy. If Joe liked to smell hair and leap upon total strangers with his ravening bearlike arms and take in other people’s fragrances, then maybe this was the slightly creepy human touch we needed to connect with each other as we advanced further into the 21st century. After all, every liberal I knew was so lonely. Besides, who was I to quibble with Biden’s failure to adjust to modern times? Who was anybody to criticize Joe after their visible discomfort? I was a registered Democrat and Joe was being Joe. It was more important for me to place party unity above such petty concerns as whether or not a man, even one on my side who possessed tremendous political power, was being weirdly inappropriate with his affection.

Anyway, I got on a bus with my two daughters. Lizzie, my youngest, had spent the previous afternoon drawing a large illustration of the kids in Syria. I encouraged Lizzie because I had heard that Joe liked it when kids talked about Syria. I was told by a journalist friend that most of Biden’s foreign policy had, in fact, been inspired by kids whispering nervous sentiments into his ear, often as they were wondering where mommy and daddy were, as he stood mere inches away from them and beamed that wide Biden smile. And this seemed decent, so profoundly decent, of him that I became genuinely moved and finished off the box of Cheez-Its that I had taken along with me on the bus. I wept with great inspiration into the empty red box, thinking about what a great and decent man Joe Biden was as Maggie (my oldest) tried to wipe the orange crumbs from my fingers and asked if I had seen my shrink that week. (I hadn’t.)

The three of us arrived at the Library of Congress shortly after being cleared by the Secret Service. We walked through a long hall into a decorous room, where the vice president was there. Or rather we found out he was there when he stood behind Maggie and shouted, “Boo!” Maggie jumped in fright, but was soon soothed by Joe’s decent hands, which were busy massaging her neck. It was so decent of him, so unusually good for Joe to think about how stiff my oldest daughter was from the bus ride. He was clearly a man who cared. And he soon moved onto my youngest daughter and started massaging her shoulders. It was a decent gesture and a decent massage. And I said to Joe, “Hey, what about me? Don’t I get a shoulder rub?”

Joe laughed, waved his hand in the air, and said, “You have two lovely daughters.”

The new narrative about Biden suggests that he is exploitative and solipsistic in his encounters with women. Although I did not witness what the women who have come forward to criticize Biden experienced, what I do know is that my two daughters had much looser shoulders inside the Library of Congress and that they had stopped paying attention to me, preferring to spend time with Uncle Joe. He habitually nuzzled, hugged, and kidded around with them. He tuned in emotionally, although, when I told him about the box of Cheez-Its I had wept into on the bus, he didn’t seem to listen. He also asked why my wife hadn’t arrived. And I told him that she was busy treating patients at the Kalaupapa leper colony and that she only came out to Brooklyn four months out of the year. “I’m really disappointed she’s not here, Ed,” said Joe. Then he leaned in very closely and said, “But if the two of you are ever in town, bring her along. I have a few comforting words I want to whisper into her ear. And you need to be there when I do this.” And this incredibly generous offer, which was so comforting, demonstrated again why Joe was so decent. I was very proud to be a Democrat that day.

And so I stand with Eve Gerber, Alyssa Milano and The View, and all the others who are willing to look the other way when a decent man presents himself as the inevitable choice for the 46th President of the United States! Let us surrender our moral standards when it comes to our party and honor this tactile politician, this decent man, this great avuncular touchy-feely saint of America! Yes, other presidential candidates are capable of showing the appropriate physical restraint when meeting and listening to strangers. But none of them are as popular, as likeable, or as decent, as Joe Biden!

I, for one, admire Biden’s deviant decency!