Lieblein: The possibility of a Jew in the White House

Bernie Sanders (Wikimedia Commons)

A Trump versus Sanders showdown in November would be nothing short of a matter-antimatter collision — a primordial, unhinged, reptilian-brain battle between absolute opposites. The upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong movie feels like a mere undercard bout by comparison, and the American body politic- and the rest of the world- seems to know it.

All through the run-up to the 2016 presidential race, even as Hillary Clinton inevitably ground her way to the nomination, and for years after the election result, the possibility of these two caricatures given sentience squaring off remained. There were the “Bernie would’a won” whispers, which could never be quieted. There were the periodic Donald Trump tweets, showing sympathy whenever Bernie Sanders seemed to get a raw deal. And every so often, you’d get a think-piece about how the Bernie Bros and the Trumpeteers were barely distinguishable.

So strong was the admiration for, and enmity against, these two men that even here in bland Canada, you could barely focus on domestic happenings for all the unsolicited intrusions and opinions about one or both members of this iconic duo.

Bernie’s supporters will be the first to tell you of the inevitability of the first Jewish Democratic nominee for president of the Untied States. And after his victory in New Hampshire, it’s time for the Canadian Jewish community to start taking the possibility of President Sanders very seriously.

In the primary system, a sense of invulnerability is all it takes to send a candidate rolling mightily to victory. We remember how seasoned politicians crumbled in Trump’s wake four years ago, as attacks bounced harmlessly off of the eventual president. While Joe Biden’s campaign is in seeming freefall and Elizabeth Warren loses ground by the day, Bernie weathers attacks on his campaign’s toxicity towards women, its tolerance of anti-Semitism, his own full-throated embrace of communism and his own sparse record of achievement in the senate.

Even completely fair questions about how Bernie plans to pay for his plans, or whether he’s merely a Democrat of convenience, or whether he’ll even survive the campaign given his recent heart attack, come and go like stones dropped into a deep pool of water, leaving barely a ripple.

It is not for a lack of information about his negatives that Sanders continues to rise. Like Trump, there is a sense that people know about Bernie’s worst impulses and considerable faults and don’t care: the so-called movement is bigger than the candidate. For his sake, it helps that Sanders personally seems incorruptible, believing so deeply and acting so consistently that he earns grudging respect from many.

Indeed, the antipathy conservatives have for Sanders and his ideology (and, in some cases, his religion) means that they will have a lot of difficulty campaigning in the same aloof manner in which Boris Johnson dealt with Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. For years, we’ve seen the Democrats fall victim to their own frustration with Trump’s disdain for convention, or basic human decency. Expect Bernie to elicit the same fatal unhinged reaction from his conservative opponents, at which point the only question becomes: who blinks first?

It is a far cry indeed from the campaign of 2000, where prospective Democratic vice -president Joe Lieberman’s Jewishness was fretted over to the point of distraction. Would it be an issue? the Jewish journals wondered endlessly, concerned that the fact that accusations of dual loyalties could derail the entire campaign.

Fast forward 20 years and nobody’s worried about whether Bernie will become a lightning rod for anti-Semitism, because the question is how much of a lightning rod he will be. Of course Trump’s more white nationalist-adjacent supporters will hurl every slur they know at Bernie. But the joke’s on them, because if critics within the Jewish community can’t tar Bernie with the charge of being soft on anti-Semitism, a group of online pseudo-Nazis will only succeed in drumming up sympathy for Sanders with their hatred.

On top of everything else, expect this campaign to flip the script on the way we think about responding to anti-Semitism in political campaigns, for there is every indication that Bernie will respond to outright Jew-hatred in the same “based” way he responds to every political smear.

Some of us may have never dreamed of a Jew in the White House, and others may have never dreamed of this Jew in the White House. But as the looming confrontation draws ever nearer, it is becoming more difficult to see how that possibility could be prevented.