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Will the Country Vote Red for Trump or Red for Socialism?
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This book tells the story of the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary, the most left-wing primary in the history of American presidential elections. I began work on the book in early 2019, when there were roughly two dozen candidates. I followed those candidates on the campaign trail throughout the debates, the impeachment of President Donald Trump, and the sudden outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in the late winter of 2020, just after Super Tuesday.
The book was completed in early May 2020, when former vice president Joe Biden had all but secured the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.
Biden was not the most left-wing candidate in the field, which was dominated by “progressives,” including Biden’s main rival, “democratic socialist” Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Yet Biden was arguably the most left-wing Democratic Party nominee ever. Former president Barack Obama, endorsing his former running mate, declared: “Joe already has what is the most progressive platform of any major-party nominee in history.”1
On every single issue, Biden had been forced, by his rivals and by his party’s voters, to adopt policies far to the left of his lifelong positions. He endorsed almost every “democratic socialist” priority and program. He wanted “Medicare for All” to be a choice, and proposed a “Green New Deal” with more generous deadlines than those demanded by the far left. Otherwise, there were few distinctions. Like Sanders, Biden saw the 2020 election as an opportunity “to fundamentally transform” America.2
It remained to be seen whether Biden would, in fact, be the nominee, given growing concerns about his age. By the end of April, many political analysts had begun to suspect that the party would find a way to replace Biden with another candidate. “Neither party has ever had to replace someone at the top of the ticket,” observed the respected political data website FiveThirtyEight.com,3 but the possibility was real.
New concerns arose when Biden faced allegations that he had sexually assaulted a staffer, Tara Reade, in a Senate hallway in 1993. He denied the accusations, but Democrats who had insisted in recent years that all women had the right to be believed were increasingly uncomfortable with their presumptive nominee.
Biden had already promised that his running mate would be a woman, but some women urged that he be replaced. “Democrats need to begin formulating an alternative strategy for 2020—one that does not include Mr. Biden,” wrote Elizabeth Bruenig of the New York Times.4
No one could even be sure what the election itself would look like. Democrats pressed for a national mail-in ballot, ostensibly for fear of exposing voters to the coronavirus in polling places; Republicans fretted over the possibility of fraud. President Donald Trump promised to return to his trademark campaign rallies, but it was unclear when, or whether, large public gatherings would be safe again.
Whatever the outcome, one thing remained true: the Democratic primary had been the most radical contest the country had ever seen. Trump, arguably, had governed as the most conservative president since Ronald Reagan—or Calvin Coolidge. The choice American voters faced in November 2020 had never been more stark—or more consequential.
The book you are about to read has been a labor of love. I hope you will enjoy reading it almost as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Pacific Palisades, California
May 12, 2020
18 Iyar/Lag BaOmer, 5780
“Nothing is more interesting than revolution, or should I say insurrection, because all the imagery of revolution comes from insurrection, which is a different thing.
“Everything we want in a society is what we find brought out in people in the moment of insurrection.
“This is the moment the true socialist worships and thinks will be incarnated in the society on the morning after.”
—Norman Rush, Mating: A Novel5
“FIGHT THE POWER”
Nine days before the virus canceled all the rallies, I stood on a media riser in a crush of bodies, fighting for a camera angle as Bernie Sanders stooped over a podium to address tens of thousands of people in a crowded-to-capacity hall that would, by month’s end, become an Army field hospital.
I could almost understand the appeal of it all. I could feel the tug on my heart, so many years later.
I could feel the urge to vote for Bernie Sanders, “democratic socialist.”
If you had told me, as a college student, twenty-five years before, that a presidential candidate would emerge who would embrace a visionary idea of what a perfect society could be; that he would be a veteran of the civil rights movement, one with years of practical experience at nearly every level of government; that he would be Jewish, like me, yet embraced by African American icons from Cornel West to Public Enemy, the latter about to take the stage with him; there is no question that I would have voted for him, volunteered for him, joined the throng of sign-waving supporters standing before him.
“We are not just a campaign, we are a multi-generational, multi-racial grassroots movement,” he said.6
“We are going to stand together, black and white, Latino, Native American, Asian American. We all going to stand together, gay and straight.… So let us go forward.… Let’s transform this country,” he concluded. The crowd roared.
The theme of the March 1, 2020, rally, one of the last before the crucial Super Tuesday primary vote, was “Fight the Power”—one of Public Enemy’s most celebrated and controversial songs.
In my junior year of high school, sometime in late 1992 or early 1993, I had been kicked out of the school library for a week for shouting “Fight the Power!” as I watched a stern-faced, gray-haired librarian notorious for draconian discipline walk one of my friends through the reading room.
(It turned out he had simply been helping my friend find a book.)
“Fight the Power” was an odd look for a presidential campaign, especially that of a major-party front-runner. It was a bold throw-down, a brash statement that Bernie Sanders, 77, was not going to “pivot” back toward the center, was not going to pander to the moderates or the independents—that he was going to remain every bit the socialist revolutionary he had always been.
Onstage, the rappers took their places, with two dancers in military fatigues and tactical vests. It almost looked like a Third World coup had taken place.
Chuck D, the venerable 59-year-old prophet of hip-hop, addressed the crowd over the mic. “Put your fist in the air if you believe in truth to power, and truth in the first place!” he exhorted.7
Dedicating his performance to his father and grandfather, he explained his support for Sanders. “It’s about truth, and connecting yourself to a fucking agenda you can feel, instead of sitting on the couch, not doing a goddamned thing.”
Paying for health care, he said, was a “struggle in this damn country.” Likewise with paying for child care. And “climate control,” he said, “resonated with me.”
“You got to get your ass up and vote for something,” he added. “I don’t do this shit much, but listen to me. Time to grow up, and somebody got to put the big-ass pants on.”
The crowd cheered. A few moments later, the beat kicked in, and the song started again. It was “Bring the Noise,” another Public Enemy classic—minus the charismatic Flavor Flav, the group member famous for wearing a giant clock around his neck beneath flashing gold teeth.
(Flav had been expelled from the group earlier that day for refusing to join the rest of the group in backing Bernie Sanders.8 He said he did not want Public Enemy to be the “soundtrack of a fake revolution.”9 Every revolution, real or fake, has its purges.)
It was crazy—but also fun. I could feel the beat moving my feet, feel the urge to lose myself in the bouncing crowd. This is what I once had dreamed politics could be, the moment of insurrection, America’s true revolution.
And just two days hence, on Super Tuesday, if the polls were right, it would take over the Democratic Party, like it or not—for better or for worse.
In many ways, it already had.
Whether he won or not, Bernie Sanders and his supporters had shaped the 2020 Democratic Party presidential field into the most left-wing group of candidates in American history, one in which even the supposedly “moderate” candidates were proposing ideas that had been considered too radical for mainstream politics a decade before.
They would either bring their party to ruin—or usher in a new United Socialist States of America.
BACK IN THE USSA
Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, socialism had become the key issue in the 2020 presidential election.
How had it become so dominant, at least among Democrats? And what did it mean for America’s future?
This was not merely a case of Republicans labeling Democrats and their policies as “socialist” to paint them as too extreme. As Sanders himself often delighted in pointing out, many of the social policies now taken for granted by many Americans were once derided by conservatives as “socialist.”
In any other year, perhaps, the “socialist” label could have been easily dismissed as partisan hyperbole. Even in 2016, when Sanders ran a strong campaign for the Democratic Party nomination, he and his supporters were seen as a minority, a left-wing fringe, not representative of the party. He was not even a Democrat.
But by 2020, his ideas had been adopted, at least in part, by nearly every single Democratic presidential candidate. And he had been joined on Capitol Hill by a new cohort of self-proclaimed democratic socialists whose policies had reframed the American political debate.
Democrats could not deny that socialism was on the ballot. A few criticized it—notably, Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire former three-term mayor of New York City, who entered the race late and was seen by many moderate Democrats as their party’s only hope. He called Sanders’s proposals “communism”—not just “socialism”—adding that they “just didn’t work.”10
But many Democrats, if not most, embraced or at least accepted the party’s leftward shift.
In an election where Democrats had a good chance of making Trump a one-term president, the party’s embrace of socialism meant that two things were possible.
One possibility was that the Democratic Party was about to repeat the mistakes of 1972 and 1984, when it nominated candidates who lost the general election in landslides largely because they were too far to the left of the American electorate. Senator George McGovern (D-SD), running on an antiwar platform, lost every state except Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia, to President Richard Nixon;11 former vice president Walter Mondale, running on a pledge to raise taxes, won only his home state of Minnesota, and DC, against President Ronald Reagan.12
The other possibility was that the American people were about to elect the first socialist government in the country’s history—with explicit plans for radical and irreversible changes to the Constitution, the law, the economy, the health care system, immigration policy, national security, and American society in general.
Even the candidates who claimed not to be socialists embraced their rivals’ socialist policies.
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) adopted Sanders’s health care plan, “Medicare for All,” and joined him in promising to eliminate private health insurance. She added a wealth tax, proposing to confiscate 2 percent of what the richest Americans had saved after paying taxes in the past—though critics pointed out that the idea was likely unconstitutional.13
Former vice president Joe Biden, who led the polls throughout the early months of the campaign, was the most left-wing front-runner in American political history. He promised to raise taxes immediately, end the use of fossil fuels, and use federal taxpayers’ money to pay for abortions, among other proposals. He wanted to make Medicare for All voluntary, not mandatory. And, like his rivals, he proposed to make health care free for illegal aliens.
If President Donald Trump was failing, if his rhetoric and style were so intolerable, a middle-of-the-road candidate with moderate policies and minimal qualifications would have sufficed. Instead, Democrats proposed socialism—albeit a “democratic” version—as the alternative.
To hear Sanders describe it, American society was so broken that only socialism could fix it. The economy, he said, was working for billionaires, but not for “working-class people”—whom, he said, “are suffering under incredible economic hardship, desperately trying to survive.”14 The United States, he pointed out repeatedly, was the only industrialized nation not to guarantee government-funded health care to all of its citizens. And Trump, a member of the billionaire class, who appeared to defy all political boundaries and conventions, represented a creeping authoritarianism that only socialism could smash.
Other Democrats might not have seen the country in such dark and dire terms. But in the early days of the campaign, Trump looked vulnerable.
Perhaps Democrats were so confident of victory that they sought to seize the opportunity to enact the sweeping changes that they had only dared dream about or whispered to each other quietly, beyond the hearing of journalists (who agreed with them) or conservatives (who would object). Perhaps Trump’s own disruptive victory had shown them that the old political constraints did not apply.
Or perhaps Democrats, too, were victims of an ongoing political change that they had long encouraged but could no longer control.
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT
I witnessed that change firsthand—though my own political transition was in the opposite direction.
When I cast my first vote in 1996, as a 19-year-old Harvard sophomore and a self-identified radical leftist, I wrote in Ralph Nader’s name on my Illinois absentee ballot. By the time I graduated law school in 2009, I was a Tea Party conservative Republican.
I had grown up in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, which was disproportionately Jewish (like me) and also conventionally liberal. In high school, I was inspired by The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which I had found on display in that school library during Black History Month. I found the story captivating despite the protagonist’s brief descent into anti-Semitism. Here was a man struggling to find the truth, adjusting his views over time through the benefit of experience but grappling with great questions about race and justice and fairness and freedom.
These themes resonated with my sense of historical guilt. I had been born in South Africa, and though my family immigrated to the United States when I was just eight weeks old, I felt more and more conscious of the burden of that history.
I approached the high school’s “Afro-American club” and asked to join—not on the basis of my South African roots but simply as a white student who wished to learn more. Cautiously, the club’s president accepted me.
I arrived at Harvard at the same time as the charismatic African American Studies professor Dr. Cornel West. I took his class “Race, Nation, and Democracy,” which took in the broad sweep of left-wing thought and radical politics. I was mesmerized and took the worldview of the class as essentially correct—that the United States was a country of noble ideals but with an evil, continuing legacy of white supremacy. I wrote breezy, agitprop term papers such as one calling for what I called “transformative communication”—an argument for more left-wing bias in the media, the better to encourage Americans to support radical change.
My turn to the right was not inevitable. It began subtly—during college, in fact. Armed with utopian visions and ambitious goals, I had worked and volunteered for several left-wing causes, in each case finding that political reality did not quite conform to my ivory-tower visions. In class, working toward my degree in environmental science, I noted my professors backing policy recommendations that they, and I, knew were somewhat ahead of scientific “consensus.”
Still, when I left Harvard, I thought of myself as something of a radical progressive. I won a fellowship to study in South Africa—a country that fascinated me not only because of my roots but also because it was in the throes of a miraculous political transition from apartheid to democracy. The new African National Congress (ANC) government had adopted many of the radical policies I favored.
It was in South Africa that my political shift began in earnest. It was impossible to ignore that however well-intentioned the country’s left-wing policies were, many of them were failures in practice. The country’s aggressive affirmative action policies, for example, often hurt the very people they were aimed at helping. Forcing white teachers to take early retirement, for example, meant that black children in public schools generally received a worse education than they would have before the end of apartheid.
When the second Palestinian intifada started in the Middle East in September 2000, the ruling ANC sided with the Palestinians, embracing what I knew to be a false narrative of Israel as an apartheid state. I found myself debating senior members of the government I had admired—who, when presented with incontrovertible facts, declared them to be unimportant.
Eventually, I became a speechwriter for the country’s center-left opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. When I returned to the United States for law school, I still thought of myself as a Democrat. But my views felt out of step—especially after the left opposed Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT), an observant Jew, in his 2006 reelection primary. His crime had been supporting President George W. Bush’s War on Terror.
If there was no room for Joe Lieberman, I thought, there was no room for me. (Democrats underestimate just how much their intolerance of dissent drives people away.)
I confronted the fact that I had previously thought of Republicans as racist, greedy, and intolerant. I was none of those things.
But my ideas—about individual liberty, about the dangers of big government, about the importance of the Constitution—lined up with the conservatives.
I made the switch. And eventually, after running a bold but unsuccessful campaign for Congress in my hometown in 2010, I found my way to Breitbart.
THE GUY FROM BREITBART
This book emerged as the result of my political coverage of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary for Breitbart News. Breitbart.com is a conservative website founded by my friend and mentor, the late Andrew Breitbart.
Andrew grew up as a West Los Angeles liberal and was only introduced to conservative talk radio through his future father-in-law, the legendary actor Orson Bean.15 As he noted in his memoir, Righteous Indignation: Excuse Me While I Save the World,16 Andrew began to see through the politically correct pieties with which he had surrounded himself.
Andrew befriended and worked for Internet news pioneer Matt Drudge, who wanted not only to create an alternative to the mainstream media but also to beat it at its own game. Drudge broke the story that President Bill Clinton had been having an affair with an intern—a story that mainstream outlets had spiked and that led to his impeachment, though not his conviction or removal from office.
In the years that followed, Andrew spread his wings. He helped Arianna Huffington set up the left-wing Huffington Post—amused, as he put it, to show that there was little difference in outlook between an openly liberal website and supposedly objective media institutions like the New York Times.
But Andrew had bigger goals. He was not content with commentary and punditry. He wanted to change the way news was written, to talk about subjects the media preferred to ignore, and to give an army of “citizen journalists” the means to tell their stories.
In 2009, Andrew began launching the “Bigs,” a series of blogs that aimed to expose the left-wing bias at the core of America’s most powerful institutions. Big Hollywood was the first, followed by Big Government, which burst onto the scene with a series of undercover videos by the youthful investigative journalist James O’Keefe. Big Journalism and Big Peace followed. Then, in 2012, Andrew planned the consolidation of the Bigs into a single, twenty-four-hour news service: Breitbart.com.
Three days before the planned launch, Andrew died suddenly. He was 43. He left a wife, four children, and hundreds of thousands of fans behind.
Fighting through tears, the rest of the Breitbart News staff managed to launch the new website. I had been named editor-in-chief six months before, adding that to my original title of in-house counsel. For the eighteen months after Andrew’s death, I worked harder than I ever had before. We could not replace Andrew, but we could fulfill his mission.
In September 2013, I traded places with Alex Marlow, who had been Andrew’s first hire straight out of the University of California, Berkeley and has a better understanding of the media landscape than almost anyone else in the news business. As Alex took the reins in DC, I became senior editor-at-large, a title that gave me less responsibility and more freedom.
Liberated from the administrative challenge of overseeing the daily operations of the website, I could focus on journalism. I put together a small team of reporters to cover California—blue-state correspondents for our red-state readership.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, that meant covering the protracted battle between Sanders and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, much of which took place on the West Coast. It was a bitter and bizarre fight for the ambivalent legacy of Barack Obama, torn between the left-wing utopianism of his “community organizing” youth and the Beltway establishment he had embraced in office.
Later in the campaign, I was assigned to cover Donald Trump as he carried out what many—including me—believed was a doomed presidential campaign.
Amazingly—shockingly—Trump won, and I coauthored a book about it: How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution.17
In approaching the 2020 election, I was more open to the potential of insurgent political campaigns and paid close attention to the radical takeover of the Democratic Party. Perhaps I was particularly sensitive to it, given my left-wing background: I understood the roots of the new “Resistance” to Trump and the passions animating it.
What I knew was that to cover that movement properly, I needed to be on the campaign trail.
Not everyone wanted “the guy from Breitbart” there. The very name “Breitbart” was a warning sign, to many, fairly or not. As you will read—or have heard—I had more than one run-in with presidential candidates who would have preferred not to have me there. But I got the story anyway.
And it is the story Andrew Breitbart anticipated a decade ago: that America would increasingly face a clear choice between Tea Party and Occupy18—between the restoration of its founding ideals or a democratic socialist revolution in the style of the rivals America had defeated.
“The authors of this guide are former congressional staffers who witnessed the rise of the Tea Party.… We believe that protecting our values, our neighbors, and ourselves will require mounting a similar resistance to the Trump agenda—but a resistance built on the values of inclusion, tolerance, and fairness.”
—Indivisible, “Introduction to the Guide”19
The campaign against President Donald Trump began the moment he took office—if not the moment he was elected.
In a celebrated—and widely mocked—video that became the subject of endless Internet memes, a bespectacled woman in a fluorescent green jacket reacted to Trump’s inauguration with a primal scream: “Noooooooo!”20
Many Democrats never quite recovered from the shock of Trump’s surprise victory in the wee hours of November 9, 2016. But some snapped into action.
They called themselves the “Resistance.”
The Resistance—named both for the underground that fought the Nazis in occupied Europe in World War II and for the rebel army in the Star Wars sequels—began just a few days after Donald Trump was elected president. But it had deeper roots.
It drew from the radical left-wing activism of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which President Barack Obama’s administration had cultivated as a counterweight to the conservative Tea Party movement after Republicans won the U.S. House in a landslide in 2010. And the Occupy movement, in turn, had connections to the antiwar movement of the George W. Bush era, the antiglobalization protests that began in Seattle in 1999, and other past left-wing efforts.
Some enraged left-wingers actually rioted in the hours and days after Trump’s election. Chanting “Not my president,” protesters “smashed windows and set garbage bins on fire” in Oakland, California, and blocked traffic in downtown Portland, Oregon. Similar protests erupted in Seattle and Philadelphia.21
New demonstrations erupted the following weekend after President-elect Trump’s announcement that Stephen K. Bannon would be his senior White House adviser.
Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, had become a prime target of the Clinton campaign in August 2016, after he joined the Trump campaign as its CEO. Clinton had delivered a special address in Reno, Nevada, to mark Bannon’s appointment. “The de facto merger between Breitbart and the Trump Campaign represents a landmark achievement for the ‘Alt-Right.’ A fringe element has effectively taken over the Republican Party. This is part of a broader story—the rising tide of hardline, right-wing nationalism around the world.”22
Few of those present even knew what the “alt-right” was, as I had discovered by asking them.23
- On Sale
- Jul 14, 2020
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Center Street