Just about six weeks ago, before the coronavirus consumed every aspect of American social and political life, Bernie Sanders appeared well-positioned to win the Democratic presidential nomination. The reasons for his campaign’s swift demise will be debated for years to come, and they are certainly multifaceted. However, one of those reasons is fairly straightforward, yet has received little attention from his supporters, detractors, and the wider media: Sen. Sanders got “Russia-gated.”
It happened at a critical juncture, just as his electoral strength was reaching an apex. Rather than fend off this damaging attack, though, Sanders accepted the premise behind it — thus solidifying the attack’s potency and, arguably, sealing his fate. Of course, to even turn the neologism Russia-gate into a verb is a bit of a farce. But that owes to the general farcical nature of Russia-gate — a political virus that has infected the U.S. body politic for four years now, before being superseded (at least temporarily) by the current biological virus outbreak.
So as the postmortems commence in earnest after the suspension of his campaign last week and his formal endorsement of Joe Biden on Monday, it’s worth retracing the chronology of this highly consequential Russia-gating episode, seeing as it may well have hastened Sanders’ collapse — and all-but-assured that Biden would be the Democratic presidential nominee.
At 4:16 p.m. Eastern time on Feb. 21, word leaked to the Washington Post that Russia was “trying to help” the Sanders campaign. The resulting article was thinly sourced, inflammatory, and played into the most sinister perceptions of what Sanders might be up to — so of course it rocketed with warp-speed across the entire media ecosystem. “People familiar with the matter” were quoted as relaying that “U.S. officials” had briefed the senator to inform him of “Russia’s efforts to interfere” once again in American democracy — evoking traumatic memories of 2016, at least for anguished liberals — and that he, Bernie, was the alleged beneficiary.
Everything about it was straight out of the well-rehearsed 2016-2019 Russia-gate playbook. Vague, unverifiable claims; reckless granting of anonymity; credulous media acceptance of a scintillating but empirically flimsy narrative. What did this latest round of so-called Russian interference even purportedly consist of? It was never clarified, and that’s by design. Because we know past allegations of Russian interference had largely consisted of scattered Facebook posts and Twitter bots that were spuriously linked to the Russian government. Virtually zero accountability was ever imposed on the innumerable political and media actors who were responsible for propagating evidence-free Russia hysteria as it related to Donald Trump, however, so there was very little appetite to apply any real skepticism to these new Bernie-related charges either. Especially not by the legacy media, which had bought into earlier iterations of supposed Russian perfidy hook, line, and sinker.
Accordingly, Wolf Blitzer burst onto the airwaves that February afternoon (with the obligatory “breaking news” orchestral arrangement in the background) to intone: “A pretty significant development. A formal briefing now, by the U.S. intelligence community, to Senator Sanders that the Russians are trying to help him.”
“That’s right Wolf,” chimed in Evan Perez, the “senior justice correspondent” for CNN. “It’s happening again.”
Indeed, “it” was happening again, but not in the way that Wolf and Evan claimed. What was actually happening was another weaponization of purposely vague “Russian interference” innuendo, which just about everyone associated with the Democratic Party, including Sanders himself, had egged on for years when it functioned as a convenient cudgel against Trump. Even the Bernie-sympathetic press — most notably online left-wing “alternative” media — had cheered on the shambolic Mueller investigation and its various inane offshoots. So they lacked the standing, awareness, and/or credibility to object when similarly fallacious charges were leveled against Sanders. Because if there was any bona fide interference on display during that period in February, it was perpetrated by the anonymous security state officials — along with their compliant media partners — who once again took it upon themselves to interfere in the U.S. electoral process by spreading unfounded geopolitical conspiracy rumors.
But rather than defend himself against what was clearly a scurrilous attempt to destroy his reputation with Democratic Primary voters — most of whom had consistently identified Russia as America’s greatest enemy — Sanders disarmed himself. Instead of pointing out the absurdity of this suspiciously timed leak, aided and abetted by his antagonists in the corporate media, he chose to validate the premise of his own Russia-gating.
Americans are “sick and tired of seeing Russia and other countries interfering in our elections!” Sanders fulminated melodramatically after the Washington Post story hit. “The intelligence community has been very clear about it.” Not a shred of skepticism evinced about the veracity of the extremely harmful claim — that Russia was interfering on his behalf. Just uncritical acceptance of wholly unsubstantiated “intelligence community” gossip filtered through the conniving corporate media, which in other circumstances Sanders had been glad to pillory.
Like clockwork, the ensuing MSNBC headline blared: “As Putin Meddles in 2020, Bernie Sanders Hits Back and Reveals He Knew of Operation Before Debate.” But wait a second: Had it been factually established that Putin was indeed meddling in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race? If so, where were those facts? (Answer: nowhere to be found.) What was the precise nature of this alleged operation? Almost two months later, and we still have no idea. The story seems to have been forgotten. Which probably says something about the legitimacy of the story to begin with. But for Bernie, the (partially self-inflicted) damage was already done.
And it was a precision strike. Throughout the Trump era, a supermajority of self-described Democrats have expressed the belief that Russia “tampered with vote tallies in order to get Donald Trump elected president” in 2016. Not just lightly interfered with some small-scale social media chicanery, mind you, but literally hacked the nation’s election infrastructure to put Trump in the White House. Which is of course demonstrably false, but still widely believed by Democrats. The depiction of Trump as a Kremlin-conspiring infiltrator has now dominated left/liberal political consciousness for going on four years, notwithstanding the cruel disappointment of the anticlimactic Mueller Report. Democratic presidential candidates (including Sanders) had already been competing amongst themselves for who could take the “toughest” line on Putin. And by the time of his own Russia-gating, a Russia-focused impeachment trial had just concluded, one explicitly predicated on the thesis — articulated by Nancy Pelosi — that when it comes to Trump, “all roads lead to Putin” as evidenced by his treasonous conspiring with the Kremlin. So the Democratic electorate had been primed after several emotionally intense, paranoia-inducing years to view all Russia-related news in the most alarmist possible light. If you want to “trigger” an MSNBC-watching liberal of a certain age, simply say “Russia.”
From Peak to Nose-Dive
It’s within this frenzied context that the Russia-gating of Bernie Sanders, who at the time was seeking votes of inordinately energized, media-attuned Democratic Primary voters, must be understood. The Washington Post article was published just hours before the Nevada caucuses, held on Saturday, Feb. 22, although judging strictly by the outcome of that single contest it had no discernible impact. Sanders won a blowout victory, his largest of the entire primary campaign by far — defeating his nearest rival, Biden, by a walloping 27 percentage points.
As it turned out, the result was deceiving. Nevada was the last major caucus state of the 2020 primary cycle, and since his 2016 run, Sanders had always over-performed in caucuses — which place a high premium on ground-level organizational prowess, an asset his campaign had in spades. Caucus-goers are more engaged in the electoral process than the typical voter, seeing as they must have at least some understanding of the arcane caucus system in order to participate. As such, a low-turnout caucus dominated by left-wing activists in an idiosyncratic Western state was clearly not representative of the rest of the country. (Numerous caucus states that Sanders had won by large margins in 2016 — such as Minnesota, Maine, Idaho, and Washington — he subsequently lost in 2020 after they converted to higher-turnout primaries.)
So whatever “momentum” Sanders may have had after his victory in Nevada proved illusory: The true test would be South Carolina, followed by Super Tuesday, when a huge portion of the Democratic primary electorate was set to vote. And in that pivotal 12-day period — from Feb. 21, the day the “Russian interference” story first began circulating, through to the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29 and culminating on the Super Tuesday primaries of March 3 — one of the factors influencing Democratic primary voters’ perceptions of Sanders was that he was being helped by Russia. Sanders’ decision to meekly accept this ridiculous narrative, instead of refuting it, was time he never got back.
Right at the outset of the Democratic primary debate in South Carolina on Feb. 25 — and during the portion where most viewers were tuned in — his oligarchic nemesis Mike Bloomberg launched into a broadside, capping off the days-long Russia-gating ambush. “Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump should be president of the United States,” Bloomberg fumed at Sanders. “And that’s why Russia is helping you get elected, so you lose to him!”
Did Sanders rebut Bloomberg’s malicious assertion that Russia was actively helping him to get elected? No, he did not. Instead, he rattled off a standard Democratic Party talking point by addressing himself unconvincingly to Vladimir Putin. “Mr. Putin,” Sanders declared, “if I’m president of the United States, trust me, you’re not going to interfere in any more American elections.” So was Sanders confirming that Putin had in fact been interfering in the race on his behalf? It kind of sounded that way. In the previous week’s debate, on Feb. 20 in Las Vegas, Sanders even speculated that “Bernie Bros” allegedly exhibiting excessively antagonistic behavior online may in fact be Russian agents. “I’m not saying that’s happening,” he clarified. “But it would not shock me.”
As such, Sanders set the groundwork for, and was complicit in, his own Russia-gating. But it didn’t begin in February 2020. Just before his slim victory in the New Hampshire primary, Sanders denounced Trump for “cozying up to Putin” — whatever that means, exactly — and one of the TV ads he had blanketing the airwaves displayed a grim image of Trump and Putin committing the gravely collusive act of shaking one another’s hands. (Emblazoned on the ad was the caption: “MOST CORRUPT PRESIDENT.”) The stage-setting actually went back much further. In 2017, Sanders ominously warned: “We need to know if President Trump’s foreign policy represents the best interests of this country or the best interests of Russia.” In 2018, he postulated that Trump was “under Russian influence because of compromising information they may have on him” — just a half-step away from the fever swamp dreamlands of the most looney-tunes Steele dossier obsessives. By May 2019, Sanders had proclaimed his support for impeaching Trump solely on the basis of the Mueller Report.
It’s true that Sanders wasn’t as single-minded about the Russian collusion conspiracy, or even the offshoot Ukraine impeachment saga, as many other high-profile Democrats. It’s also true, however, that when he did broach those topics he was still quite vehement. Whether he did this in an attempt to broaden his appeal among more mainstream Democratic voters, or because he actually believed the conspiracy theories, is an open question. The result was the same either way: Once the Russian interference narrative boomeranged back on him, he was utterly ill-equipped to object. And it was all eminently foreseeable. Sanders himself had been cited in the Mueller Report as an alleged beneficiary of Russian interference during the 2016 primary cycle when he ran against Hillary Clinton. Because he’d become complicit in the peddling of Russia hysteria in the interim, he forfeited his standing to challenge the underlying logic of the story line. After the February episode, the task of defending him vociferously instead fell to Tulsi Gabbard, who wrote a scathing op-ed outing the disingenuous media and intelligence community over their tactics. She was evidently more eager to defend Sanders than Sanders was to defend himself.
Days later, Sanders was buried in South Carolina by a devastating landslide. He then lost resoundingly on Super Tuesday even in states his campaign had expected to win, including Texas and Massachusetts. There are obviously other reasons besides Russia-gate for Sanders’ precipitous decline – for one, the news media assigned almost mythical status to Biden-backing South Carolina Democrat James Clyburn. It’s also clear that the composition of the Democratic primary electorate changed considerably from 2016, with turnout increasing almost across the board (at least pre-coronavirus). In general, these newly activated voters were not left-wing activists or college-aged revolutionaries. They were instead “normal” Democrats who simply wanted to defeat Trump. And if they were told at a crucial moment that Sanders was being propped up by the same hostile foreign country that they also believed was responsible for installing Trump, it would not be surprising for this to significantly harm Sanders — limiting his ability to grow his electoral coalition at precisely the moment when he needed to do so.
Maybe it was a trap for Sanders that he could not escape: He couldn’t have challenged the Russia-gate narrative without alienating Democrats who for years had accepted it as absolute gospel. But those sections of the party were alienated from him anyway, and by echoing the standard partisan hoo-hah lines on “Russian interference,” he increasingly came across like any other run-of-the-mill Democratic politician — erasing the distinctions that made him such an appealing novelty in 2016 when he vastly over-performed against Hillary Clinton. This time, he vastly under-performed against Biden.
Sanders also created an absurd paradox where he was coerced into accepting the premise of an attack specially designed to destroy him. We’ll never know the exact political effect of this, or even who exactly launched it. All we can definitively know is that his encounter with Russia hysteria happened at the most inopportune possible moment, and immediately preceded his electoral implosion.
Over the years, Russia-gate has racked up many casualties: the credibility of the media, the ability of Trump to govern effectively, and the national political psyche writ large — just to name a few. Now we can throw another casualty onto the smoldering heap: Bernie Sanders’ presidential ambitions.