America, Assemble: Why Trump is Thanos, Bernie is the Hulk, and Biden is Captain America (Part 3)

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

II. Hulk Smash

In the New York Times, Jennifer Finney Boylan recently drew parallels between Bernie and the Hulk (“Bernie Angry. Bernie Smash!” March 4th, 2020). I thought of the same analogy weeks ago, and was pleased to see the sentiment is shared.

First and most obviously of all, she writes: like the Hulk, Bernie’s always angry.

Thinking of the Sanders campaign, I’m put in mind of the first “Avengers” film, when Captain America turns to Bruce Banner at a moment of crisis and notes, “Dr. Banner, now might be a really good time for you to get angry.”

“That’s my secret, Captain,” Banner replies, before hulking out. “I’m always angry.”

Less obviously, consider the person in whom the Hulk resides. Banner’s schizophrenia is not accidental. The Hulk’s raw, raging power is world’s away from the cool intelligence of the ingenious scientist, yes. But reading the Hulk allegorically, they are of a piece. It’s well known that highly intelligent people are less happy than the average person. One likely reason is that they are simply more aware of more of the world’s problems. An adage that you will see folks on the Left bandy about quite often is “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” If you want to see this in action, drop in on liberal Twitter some time.

For the most part, progressives are not angry for irrational reasons. Indeed, pound for pound, they see more of reality than conservatives do, and they feel more of reality than moderates do, but they also feel powerless to change any of it. That is, if you’re paying attention to the world (Banner), you’re going to be outraged (Hulk). The problem is that that kind of anger eats away at your soul, and can lead you to resignation and despair, on the one hand, and resentment and a desire to break things, on the other.

A second parallel between Bernie and the Hulk is the claim made by progressives that we have to “smash capitalism.” Not improve it. Not reform it. Not curb its undesirable social and environmental byproducts. Smash it. We must disregard the evidence of history that no other system produces broad-based prosperity, improves the material quality of life, reduces mass violence, and furnishes the very economic means for a robust social safety net. This inability to make distinctions — between neoliberalism and social democracy, between Republicans and center-Left Democrats (or even less progressive Democrats!) — tracks the Hulk’s inability to distinguish friend from foe, helpful from harmful actions, in the throes of his bottomless rage. Take note: at one point, the Hulk even destroys his own house.

The Hulk analogy is strengthened by another, less obvious parallel with progressive politics: they’re green at the outside, red on the inside. As I mentioned in Part 2, during the Cold War, environmentalists were derided as “watermelons”: on the surface, they advocated for environmental causes, but deep down, the right-wing paranoia went, they were really commies who wanted to destroy capitalism. By “green” here, I do not just mean environmentalists, but the cluster of moral and politics commitments people who care about the environment generally share. And By “red,” I not only mean an ideological orientation against capitalism, but an emotional disposition. As has become clear in the last several years in the culture wars, the Left often prides itself on the rhetoric of equality and tolerance and inclusion, but in practice, it is often and easily triggered. Whether in the form of Bernie Bros, Social Justice Warriors, or the online lynch mobs of the liberal Twitterati, progressives are easily provoked by right-wing trolls to hulk out.

Let us be clear (as Bernie likes to say): I am not drawing a moral equivalence between Ben Shapiro and Naomi Klein, between Breitbart and Harpers, between Fox News and MSNBCThe progressives possess an intellectually and morally superior — that is, more true, good and beautiful — worldview and set of values than the Right. But that is precisely the point. It’s up to the higher level of consciousness to take responsibility for the lower level of consciousness.

If you’re a right-leaning person who thinks trolling SJWs is funny and deserved, then reading that last sentence, you’re probably going to feel like that’s just typical liberal condescension. But ask yourself whether you’re not engaging in your own form of condescension. If you’re a left-leaning person, you’re probably going to find the sentence offensive because you’re allergic to developmental hierarchies. But notice: you’re implicitly committed to the idea that it’s better to be nonjudgmental than judgmental; that egalitarianism is better than hierarchy; that inclusion is better than exclusion; that, in short, your view is better than the other view.

So own it. But don’t react to the trolls. Don’t stoop to their level. Don’t recognize and empower their frame. Don’t play their game. Not just because they’ll always win, but more importantly, because that creates a negative feedback loop, the symbiotic circle and perpetual cycle of rage and retribution that fuels the culture wars in general and Trumpism in particular. The Left, in other words, needs to take responsibility for the part it unconsciously plays in this cultural dynamic — and that means getting control of its inner Hulk.

But let us also be clear : the form of political economy that has dominated in the last 40 years has done terrible social and environmental damage. Call it what you want — neoliberalism, free market fundamentalism, corporate socialism — it is deeply flawed and constitutionally incapable of dealing with the main problems of our time. We should be angry at spiraling economic inequality, the costs of housing, health care, and higher education, and the refusal to seriously engage the climate problem. The Green New Deal is absolutely not a Red New Deal, a democratic socialist plot to turn us into Venezuela. Social democracy is not democratic socialism. Democratic socialism is not state socialism. And so on. But that doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater by attacking capitalism tout court, as progressives so often do. Unfortunately, throwing babies out with bathwater is kind of what the Hulk does. Smash first, ask questions later.

Spiderman had clearer vision: early in the campaign, Mayor Pete argued that we’re not talking about capitalism vs. socialism; we’re talking about capitalism vs. democracy. The question is not replacing one of those things with the other, but deciding which one is more important. During the Reagan era — which is, de facto, the last 40 years — we have privileged capitalism. It is time — to use Thanos’ word — to restore balance.

But there is a deeper sense in which Bernie is like the Hulk.

In the opening scene of Infinity War, Thanos’s debut makes clear that he means business: he promptly strangles one god (Loki) and nearly kills another (Thor). But before his demise, Loki plays the card that up until this point in the series, acted like a deus ex machina: “We have a Hulk.” The Hulk hurtles to engage Thanos, but for the first time, he is physically outmatched: Thanos is stronger. For the remainder of Infinity War, the Hulk is impotent. Banner is unable to summon him and has to rely on a Hulk-size Iron Man suit to contribute in the struggle to stop Thanos. A struggle that fails.

It’s not until five years later, in the next film, that we get Hulk 2.0. Banner has found a way to permanently resolve his Jekyll and Hyde problem and integrate man and monster, brains and brawn. This is a long way from where Banner starts. We learn, in Avengers, that Banner tried to commit suicide by putting a bullet in his mouth, only to survive and have the Hulk spit it out. His arc moves from seeing the Hulk as a disease and trying to kill it, to embracing and incorporating it into his being. And tellingly, the integratedHulk does not indiscriminately smash, but helps to bring the Avengers back together, leading a dejected Thor back into the fold. This Hulk is the one who is able to wield the restored infinity gauntlet and reverse Thanos’ cosmic snap, bringing things back into balance. In short, the Hulk’s rage had to be integrated in the person of Banner, and the Avengers team as a whole, for them to win the battle against evil.

Writ large, the Hulk stands to the Avengers as Bernie stands to the Democratic Party. Long has the party struggled and failed to unite its moderate and progressive wings. The passion predominates at the progressive pole, perpetually making the perfect the enemy of the good in its zeal to smash the Man, the Machine, the System, the Patriarchy, the Establishment, Capitalism, Neoliberalism.

The conclusion that “we need a Hulk” is tempting. It is what guides the electoral philosophy of the Sanders movement: that the strategy of “persuasion” — seducing swing voters in the middle — should be replaced by “mobilization” — generating massive voter turnout by firing up the base and bringing new people into the political process. Another way of putting this is that we should counter Trump’s right-wing populism with Sanders’ left-wing populism. That the total potential pool of disaffected, disengaged voters disgusted with the Washington consensus will lilt left given that Sanders’ populism would be appealing not just to the white working class, but to black and brown voters as well.

It’s true that “true independents” are an endangered species. It’s also true that White Christian America is aging and shrinking. According to Robert Jones, from 2008 to 2016, the percentage of the population that identify as “white Christian dropped from 53% to 42%. Read that sentence again. But it’s also true that Democrats face geographical disadvantages due to the electoral college and the nature of Senate representation that makes it much harder for a Hulkish mobilization strategy to work for them. And while a demographic tipping point that triggers a GOP ice age is probably in the offing, it won’t kick in for another two or three decades.

We saw in 2016 they can lose the popular vote by millions yet still win the electoral college comfortably, even while alienating vast swaths of the electorate. As Ezra Klein explains in his new book, “To win, Democrats don’t just need to appeal to the voter in the middle. They need to appeal to voters well to the right of the middle. In the Senate, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver estimates that the average state is six points more Republican than the average voter. So when Democrats compete for the Senate, they are forced to appeal to an electorate that is far more conservative than the country as a whole.” Even if a Sanders smash campaign miraculously mobilized young and non-voters to win the electoral college, it would likely result in massive down-ballot carnage, killing any hopes of meaningful legislation and effective governance in a Sanders administration. While the Democrats are condemned to play the persuasion game, the Republicans, Klein writes, “have learned to win power by winning land, rather than by winning hearts and minds.”

Mobilization is also easier for the Right because uniting is also easier for them: their voting population is more demographically and ideologically homogenous, their identity more monolithic: white, Christian, and old. It was easier to fuse together two worldviews — social conservative, highly religious traditionalists and fiscally conservative, more secular modernists and libertarians — given this underlying identity and given a common external enemy during the Cold War. After the fall of the Soviet Union, and with the cooling of the war on terror, the Right’s Us Vs. Them psychology, which needs and feeds on an Evil Other to make sense of the world, turned within.

The Left, however, not only has to speak to and corral a diversity of popular identities — white, black, Latino, Asian — but two worldviews that are starkly at odds with one another: modern liberals and postmodern progressives. This tension has torn the party apart since the early 1970s, with George McGovern’s historically progressive and disastrous presidential campaign (to which Sanders’ has, notably, been compared). It may well have cost Hillary the election in 2016, due to depressed (and, in some cases, treasonous) voting among Sanders supporters. It threatens to do the same in 2020.

If the Left does not assemble, we all lose.

The Hulk’s physical strength, when separated from his desire to smash, gives the Avengers the power to reverse Thanos’ carnage. But it is not the Hulk that leads them into battle to defeat the Titan once and for all.

To be continued…