Photo: Bernie Sanders campaigning in Greensboro in 2015. (file photo)

Given the absolute fealty that Republican lawmakers now demonstrate before President Trump, the recent past seems like a reverse speculative fiction so outrageously fanciful that someone must have made it up.

The headline in the New York Times on Feb. 27, 2016 — almost exactly four years ago — literally read, “Inside the Republican Party’s Desperate Mission to Stop Donald Trump.”

The story opens with this apocalyptic assessment by a party mandarin: “The scenario Karl Rove outlined was bleak.”

The opening paragraphs bear quotation in full:

“Addressing a luncheon of Republican governors and donors in Washington on Feb. 19, he warned that Donald J. Trump’s increasingly likely nomination would be catastrophic, dooming the party in November. But Mr. Rove, the master strategist of George Bush’s campaigns, insisted it was not too late for them to stop Mr. Trump, according to three people present.

“In public, there were calls for the party to unite behind a single candidate,” the article continued. “In dozens of interviews, elected officials, political strategists and donors described a frantic, last-ditch campaign to block Mr. Trump — and the agonizing reasons that many of them have become convinced it will fail. Behind the scenes, a desperate mission to save the party sputtered and stalled at every turn.”

The senior party officials, consultants, donors and, yes, journalists who make up the political class often forge a consensus around a type of candidate considered viable, someone who can supposedly gain the support of an electoral majority. The people often have another idea.

In late 2015 and 2016, Donald Trump’s savage xenophobia, fearmongering against Muslims and dystopian descriptions of urban crime and disorder coupled with shameless pandering to the Christian evangelical, gun-rights and anti-abortion movements fueled a white-nationalist insurgency that swept through the Republican primaries, and, against all conventional wisdom, the November general election.

He couldn’t possibly win after he was caught on video bragging about grabbing women’s genitals. And then he won.

There’s another candidate who maintains an ambivalent relationship with his party, whose rallies draw huge crowds, who is supposedly weighed down by fatal liabilities, who commands loyalty from a base of fanatical supporters, and whose appeal reaches beyond the comfortable parameters of the party.

He is an independent senator from Vermont who is seeking the Democratic nomination. His name is Bernie Sanders, and, incidentally, he will be holding a rally at Winston-Salem State University on Thursday.

How can the political class be so blindered? On the Democratic side, far from learning their lesson from the Hillary Clinton fiasco, they promoted Joe Biden, a legacy institutionalist with a platform and persona crafted to appeal to everyone and no one.

The anger in the American electorate has only intensified from 2016 to 2020. Across the political spectrum, it’s fueled by the accelerating wealth divide, endless and exorbitant wars, and the sense that the system only works for a corrupt, politically-connected elite. The centrifugal force of a system that no longer provides a meaningful sense of belonging to the vast majority of its citizens means that the political energy is at the polar ends — expressed in rising white nationalism fed by the tea party on the right, and a warming feeling towards socialism and anarchy rooted in the Occupy movement on the left.

Give the Democratic establishment a frontrunner who can win in November, and what do they do? Pretty much exactly what their Republican counterparts did four years ago.

Just to sample some of the hysteria among the sages of the Democratic establishment, listen to James Carville, Bill Clinton’s political strategist, react to Sanders’ win in the Nevada caucus telling MSNBC host Brian Williams: “If you’re voting for him because you think he’ll win the election, politically, you’re a fool. And that’s just a fact. It’s no denying it, there’s so much political science, so much research that this is not even a debatable question.”

Or Chris Matthews, another MSNBC host. Beyond comparing Sanders’ victory in Nevada to a Nazi invasion, his willful misrepresentation of Sanders’ democratic socialism stands out as singularly bizarre and paranoid. He really said, “I believe if Castro and the reds had won the Cold War, there would have been executions in Central Park, and I might have been one of the ones getting executed.”

Before Sanders’ win in Nevada, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was forced to resign as chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2016, chastised a reporter at the Miami Herald by saying, “We’re a long way from who is going to be our nominee and so that speculation is really not helpful at all.”

Rep. Donna Shalala, another south Florida Democrat, was even more blunt.

“He’s not going to be our nominee,” she said. “That’s a hypothetical question, and since I don’t think he’s going to be the nominee, I don’t have to answer the question.”

Mourn the loss of the political center if you must, but understand where the political energy is.

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