Bernie Sanders Meets Spike Lee: 'Where Do We Go? Where is the Hope?'
Bernie Sanders charges head-first into a hotel room in midtown Manhattan, a man with no time to waste. This is not the campaign-era Bernie, the Bernie of memes and ice-cream flavours and jokey, Feel The Bern fun. All that has been swept away and replaced with something harder, more urgent, a sense that, with Clinton vanquished, cometh the hour, cometh the man, so that even to call him Bernie at this point feels wrong. In this guise, Senator Sanders, an outsider throughout the campaign, shows himself to be a politician of 40 years’ standing, with a desire to fight politics with politics and no tolerance for weeping, kvetching or the need for catharsis. The only noticeable hangover of his formerly whimsical style is his habit of saying everything twice. Sanders makes “Yup, yup” sound like the gravest assessment in the world.
Spike Lee, on the other hand, is emotional. He campaigned for Sanders and wants a hug from him, reassurance that things will be OK and an acknowledgment that the world has gone mad, appeals towards which the senator shows some understanding and also undisguised irritation. The two men occupy different positions on the same side, one representing the political opposition to Trump, the other the cultural opposition. Lee wants direction from Sanders on how that opposition might work, but he also wants recognition that conciliation with Trump, the politician’s instinct, is not at the expense of core values.
In this, they differ. Lee, like so many of us, might be said to have the luxury of total opposition, of total rejection of Trump and vilification of his supporters. Sanders, somewhat surprisingly given his reputation as uncompromising, takes a more strategic line even than colleagues such as Harry Reid, the senate minority leader, who earlier this month issued a strong repudiation of Trump when he described him as “a sexual predator who lost the popular vote and fuelled his campaign with bigotry and hate”.
Sanders condemns those aspects of Trump, but is reluctant to characterise millions of white, working-class voters as racists, through what I suspect is political pragmatism and deep sentiment, given his own background is white working class. Lee is not so ready to give Trump voters the benefit of the doubt. It is a fascinating exchange.
Bernie Sanders Hey, Spike, how are you?
Spike Lee I feel terrible, Senator.
BS I understand that. I understand that.
SL I want to thank you, though. Because what you did is great. And reading this stuff that’s coming out – the revelations about Wasserman [Debbie Wasserman Schultz, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, who during the campaign leaked emails shown to be biased against Sanders in favour of Clinton] and Donna Brazile [interim DNC chair, who gave Clinton a heads-up on questions in advance of a CNN debate], whom I know. Cheating goes both ways, huh? [Laughs.]
BS Well, you know. We took on the entire establishment and that’s what happens. But we have some enormously difficult times now. We gotta go forward, and I look forward to working with you to make that happen.
SL Well, anything I can do to help. But look at these [Trump] appointees – who’s this guy, Bannon? Brannon?
BS He’s going to be policy adviser or something.
SL You know what Malcolm X said? It was a famous quote that got him into trouble, but that comes to mind. He said, “Chickens come home to roost.” And it seems to me, all this stuff today was a reaction to day one, when Obama put his right hand on Lincoln’s bible. I think things started on the day a black man became president of the United States. This all happened eight years ago.
BS Well, I think, Spike, that’s part of it. I don’t think it’s the whole thing, though.
SL But I think it’s a large part of it.
BS Well, I think a number of people who voted for Obama once, or twice, voted for Trump. And I think the issue is that there are millions of people in this country who voted for Trump but do not accept… I’m not going to deny for a second that there’s a lot of racism and xenophobia and sexism out there; there certainly is. But there are a whole lot of other people who are just really, really hurting. They’re working two or three jobs, they’re worried about their kids, they can’t afford to send them to childcare or to college. And Trump comes along and says, “I’m a champion of the working class.” And he’s a good showman and a good entertainer, and people believed him.
But our job now, it seems to me, is in three areas. Number one: to fight him tooth and nail in any movement toward racism, xenophobia, sexism, trying to divide our country up. And number two: if he is at all sincere – and we will see if he is – in developing programmes to create jobs and raise wages, I think we should work with him. But I’ll tell you what also concerns me, not just for this country but the planet, is this guy thinks that climate change is a hoax. Well, let me tell you, it ain’t a hoax. Climate change is real, and if we don’t transform our energy system, the planet we leave for our kids and grandchildren may not be a pretty place.
Lee: 'Were you ever offered the vice presidency? Would you have taken it?' Sanders: 'No, and probably.' Photograph: Christopher Lane for the Guardian
SL What also is troublesome, which I’ve tossed and turned over at night: the man has the nuclear codes.
BS Yup, yup.
SL [Laughs incredulously.] The man has the nuclear codes.
BS I agree.
SL Excuse me, if I may, sir; you know I love sports. I’ve seen it too many times, when a team thinks they’ve got it all won, just wrapped up, and you see players go down the sideline and start celebrating, and then they reach the goal line and fumble. The Clintons – and I’m not asking you for a comment; this is my opinion – thought they had it won. And what do the great coaches always say? Keep playing until there is no time on the clock! And it seems to me the Clintons were celebrating before the day was up.
BS [Mirthlessly.] Ha.
SL It was not Hillary Clinton’s birthright to be president of the United States of America! And Trump, he played it like he was going to keep going at this until the whistle blows, until time has run out.
BS Right. You’re right. Now, no one can deny that Trump was holding three or four rallies a day, he was running all over this country, working 20 hours a day. And that’s the truth. But I think that speaks to, Spike, something that goes beyond Hillary Clinton. It really goes to the very nature of the Democratic party.
SL The DNC!
BS That’s right. And it calls for the transformation of the Democratic party, and making it clear it’s going to be a party that brings together blacks and whites and Latinos and women and gays, and everyone else. But it’s also going to be a party…
SL Would you say that it’s a shambles, now, Senator – the DNC?
BS Yes. Yes. And I am supporting…
SL There’s a whole lot of finger-pointing going on.
BS Yes. I think we need a house-cleaning. I think the DNC needs an entirely new direction. I think it needs leadership, and I think it needs to be very clear about the fact that it stands with working families and is prepared to take on the billionaire class and Wall Street, and corporate America, and the drug companies and the insurance companies. People are hurting. And we need a programme that stands with working families and brings people together.
SL Were you ever offered the VP position, sir?
BS No. Absolutely not.
SL Would you have taken it?
BS Er. Probably, yes. But that’s again looking through the rear-view mirror.
SL I mean, we’re all looking upon the debris and trying to say, excuse my language, what the f? I mean, when I woke up that morning, the world is different. It’s a different world.
BS It is a very different world. And it’s a very frightening world. [Brusquely.] But we gotta get beyond that.
SL The man has the nuclear codes.
SL Let me ask you another question. How can you tell another country that they’ve got to pay for a wall? Or fences? How does that work?
BS Well, Spike, I think what you are going to find is that a lot of the hyperbole, a lot of the rhetoric that Mr Trump used in his campaign, ends up not being terribly relevant to the real world.
SL So you think his voters are not going to hold him to the outrageous stuff he said he’d do?
BS Well, I think in some ways they may not. I think what we’ve got to do is hold him accountable for the statements he made about raising wages and creating jobs, and I think we gotta fight him tooth and nail on the outrageous…
SL But how do we do that if they [the Republicans] have the House and the Senate? How do we do that?
BS Well, we do it because it turns out that, on every major issue facing the American people, our view is the popular view, the view supported by the American people, and Mr Trump’s is not. For example: we are going to work hard to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. The vast majority of Democrats and, actually, Republicans believe in that. We’re going to fight to rebuild the infrastructure and create millions of jobs, making public colleges and universities tuition-free, dealing with student debt, childcare – all of these issues have the support of the American people. We have got to put him on the defensive, and that speaks to a need where you can play a great role – you and other people who know how to do media – which is to bring people together around the progressive agenda.
SL All right, but doesn’t the president of the United States appoint the Supreme Court justices?
BS Oh, he sure does. All right, look. That’s the reality, Spike; you’re talking about reality. Yes, he’s going to be the president. That’s the fact. Our job is to determine what we can do in opposition to him. That’s where we are right now. And we have to be very, very smart about that.
SL We’re going to need your leadership, sir.
BS Well, Spike, here’s the story, to the degree that my leadership means anything. It means we bring people together. You know what? The vast majority of the American people do not think that Roe v Wade should be ended. Our job is to make it clear that if he goes forward in that direction, there is a price to pay. What politics is about is this: you may hold a point of view, but if I can rally massive opposition to your point of view, you may rethink that point of view. That’s where we’re at. I do not think the American people want to overturn Roe v Wade. I do not think that the American people want to be deporting millions of people. I don’t think the American people want to stop Muslim people coming into this country. But I do think the American people want an economic agenda that works for working people, not just billionaires. So the way you defeat or slow down your opponents is that you bring people together, and you show that he is on the wrong side of history. That’s the best we can do.
SL What are your comments, Senator, on the uprising we’ve seen across the United States after the results?
BS Well, as you just indicated, you and I woke up that morning very disturbed and upset, and people are taking to the streets to express their disappointment and their anger. Our job is to convert that anger into a constructive effort to stop Trump’s worst policies and to force him to do something that’s relevant to the American people.
SL Haven’t there been several studies done that show you would have defeated Donald Trump?
BS Yes. There have been several polls that suggested that.
SL [Long silence.] Hmmm. This is a rhetorical question, but I just want readers to understand this, very clearly. Where do we go? Where is the hope?
BS OK, here is where the hope is. The hope is to understand that the Democratic party has stumbled very significantly in the last number of decades. It’s not just this election, Spike, as disastrous as it has been. It is the fact that the Republican party controls the Senate, controls the US House, controls something like two-thirds of the governor seats in this country, and that the Democrats have lost over 900 state legislature seats in the last eight years. What that tells me is that the Democratic party has got to very fundamentally rethink who it is and where it goes. It has to shed the current situation where it’s a party of the liberal elite, a party of wealthy people who give substantial sums – we can use that money, that’s fine, but it must reidentify itself as a party of working people. Whether you’re black, white, Latino, there are millions of people today who are working longer hours for lower wages, and they’re seeing almost all new income and wealth going to the top 1%. The Democratic party has got to say we are on the side of the 99%. Our party is not about having fancy fundraisers, it’s about going into union halls, veterans’ halls, farm communities, the inner cities. It has to bring people together around the progressive agenda and make government work for all of us and not the 1%. That’s why I’m supporting Keith Ellison [as prospective chair of the DNC].
BS Keith Ellison. Of Minnesota.
SL Oh, yes. He’s the Muslim brother, right?
BS Yes. He’s a very good guy, and he’s the co-chair of the house progressive caucus. Very progressive guy. And I think Keith understands that the future of the Democratic party is a grassroots party. So I’m going to be supporting him and shaking up the Democratic party.
SL Let me ask you another question. The coalition that Obama got, that put him in office – did the Clinton campaign think it would automatically win [those people] without having to work? I don’t understand it. Because I did not feel the energy there was for Obama – even for you – for Hillary Clinton. I respect the woman, but the enthusiasm wasn’t there.
BS I think nobody would argue with you on that. What we have seen is that in 2008 Obama ran a historical campaign where the turnout was extraordinarily high: enthusiasm in the minority community, strong support in the white working class, and that carried over in 2012. But in 2016, what we saw – I think your point is quite right – it would be hard to suggest that the people of this country were enthusiastic about the Clinton campaign. There was not the energy we have seen in the Obama campaign, and what ended up happening was voter turnout was low. She won the black community overwhelmingly, but turnout was low. She lost a lot of white, working-class people. That’s just the fact.
SL I’m still trying to figure something out.
BS How she lost white women?
BS I’ll tell you how. A, Hillary Clinton got more popular votes than Donald Trump. Let’s not forget that. B, Every poll I saw showed Donald Trump was enormously unpopular. C, A lot of people who voted for Donald Trump did not vote for his racist statements, his statements on immigration, on women. They didn’t support that. But what Trump tapped into is a lot of economic angst and anger and frustration.
SL You think people can separate the racist and sexist comments he made from his policies?
BS Yes. I think what they are saying is, “I need a job, my kid needs to go to college, Mr Trump is promising that. I think he will probably not carry through on his racist, sexist policies. Let’s vote for the economic issues.” That’s what I think happened. So you had a lot of white, working-class women who did not appreciate his sexist remarks, but who do want to see an improvement in the economy.
I gotta run now, Spike, but let’s get together in the not too distant future.
• Our Revolution: A Future To Believe In by Bernie Sanders (Profile Books, £14.99) is out now. To order a copy for £12.29, go to bookshop.theguardian.com. Chi-Raq, directed by Spike Lee, is in cinemas 2nd December. This conversation has been condensed as part of the editing process.