How Bernie Can Help Beat Trump

Bernie Sanders will not be the Democratic nominee for president -- but he can play a key role both in defeating Donald Trump and in building a movement for change that lasts beyond November.

Conventional wisdom suggests Bernie drop out now, to allow Hillary Clinton to focus on defeating Trump. But Hillary's best chance may actually be if Bernie stays in -- maintaining an independent campaign where he can continue to talk in his own voice about why voters need to defeat Trump. And, if Hillary is the nominee, that means electing her.

Bernie maintaining his independence gives him the best shot at both defeating Trump and continuing to build a movement for change. For only if he speaks in his own voice, with a clear difference between his voice and Hillary's, can he bring along those millions of Americans, old and especially young, who have been inspired by his message, and who are distinctly uninspired by hers.

As Bernie told 13,000 of us at a Seattle rally, "Change happens when people look around them and say, 'The status quo is not acceptable.'" But Hillary Clinton is the quintessential candidate of this status quo. And for this and other reasons, she is warmly despised by millions on both the right and the left. Yet she's also America's realistic alternative to avoid the prospect of President Trump. And, once the nomination is settled, Bernie can play a key role in making that clear.

It's an open question whether enough Americans see the danger in a Trump presidency to defeat him by voting for Clinton, rather than staying home. Fifty-three percent of young voters expressed a negative view of Hillary in a recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll -- although Trump's negatives, at 74 percent, were even higher. It's possible that nothing she says at this point will convince them.

But they do trust Bernie, and his authenticity is a key element of this trust, maybe the key element. He builds on it not by folding his tents and going home, but by continuing to campaign independently of Hillary, not only through the California primary and the Democratic Convention, but afterwards as well. He has to remain disciplined, which means no gratuitous attacks on Clinton, and emphasizing at every turn his first and loudest message: that his supporters must help defeat Trump by voting for Hillary.

He'll do that by making clear the stakes -- on issues from climate change, to immigrant rights, to Trump's manifest eagerness to suppress all dissent, to the Supreme Court. But Bernie needs to get this message out in a way that his supporters will trust -- because many would likely reject exactly the same message coming from Hillary.

That means he can't be perceived as Hillary's tool or as selling out to her. The authenticity and independence he's maintained so far are crucial. And the only way for him to keep an independent voice is to continue running an independent campaign - with the first goal of electing Hillary and, then, of keeping up the pressure on her post-election. That means continuing to organize after the primaries end, traveling to key states, speaking to large audiences, and building momentum and organization.

This wouldn't be Ralph Nader electing George Bush by drawing off voters from Al Gore. Every talk Bernie gives should make clear the unequivocal goal of getting Hillary elected, along with as progressive a Senate and Congress as possible and progressive down-ballot candidates. This means voting, but also volunteering to bring others along, because that's what it will take. Bernie would make clear that sitting out the election, or voting for any third-party presidential candidate, means helping to elect Trump. And that risking a Trump victory is not an acceptable option.

The critical element is for Bernie to continue speaking in his own eloquent and authentic voice, building a visibly independent movement that speaks to people's real sense that those who hold power (including the Clintons) have dealt them a raw deal. If Bernie's supporters see his campaign as subservient to hers, they'll stop trusting him and many will stay home. If they see him continuing to speak for himself, while offering a framework for continued hope and idealism, they're far more likely to listen, and to keep participating.

Hillary will like some parts of what Bernie has to say - and will intensely dislike other parts. So be it. Americans who want to move beyond the stale status quo need a credible leader, and for the moment that leader is Bernie Sanders. Bernie can even say, honestly and forthrightly, that Hillary is not his ideal president, while explaining how she is vastly preferable to Trump. He can explain the reasons and the stakes, while also explaining the links between people turning out in November and the longer-term movement we need to build to expand what seems politically possible.

He can make clear that this election isn't about Hillary, or whether his supporters like or trust her, but about the clear and present danger that Donald Trump represents to what's left of American democracy, not to mention the planet. And that if enough people organize and bring enough others to the polls, we have a chance not only to stop him, but also to build something positive far beyond the current election.

If, by doing these things, Bernie Sanders helps America avoid the ominous prospect of President Donald Trump, he will have performed a patriotic service of historic importance. For the past year, Bernie Sanders has been a national beacon of hope and optimism in an otherwise bleak American political landscape. We need his independent voice through November and beyond.

Ethan Casey is the author of Home Free: An American Road Trip (2013) and the new essay "America: Now What?".