Sen. Bernie Sanders appeared on Fox News for over an hour last night, doing one of those televised “town hall” things where news people in suits (in this case network regulars Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum) and regular folks take turns asking a presidential candidate questions that the people producing the town hall told them to ask.
From what I can tell, the people over at the conservative news stalwart were extremely excited to host Bernie on the network, much in the same way that a hungry bear is excited to host a hiker in its den. Greg Gutfeld, the host of the network’s The Five and a man so smarmy that he probably even sleeps in a suit, ran a segment in which he bragged about how hard he would have owned Sanders if he’d been hosting the town hall. He then had Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum appear in front of a countdown to the Sanders town hall so that Gutfeld and his co-hosts could ask them the sort of questions you might ask a pro wrestler before they hop in the ring with Daniel Bryan. At some point, Gutfeld’s professional understudy Jesse Watters encouraged Baier and MacCallum to ask Bernie whether he wore boxers or briefs. Clearly, Fox News was hoping to turn Sanders’s town hall into an opportunity to discredit him, and the rising insurgent left he and a handful of other politicians represent.
Conventional wisdom would dictate that given that Fox News is essentially a propaganda machine for Donald Trump, the network is the enemy and should not be engaged with. And while that’s true, Bernie does not give a fuck. He’s by some metrics the most popular politician in America, and at 77, this may be his last shot to personally enact the sort of drastic societal change he’s been advocating for since the 1970s. Dude’s gonna go for it.
Mercifully, I do not have any regular viewers of Fox News on my speed dial, but the sense I got from watching Bernie’s performance was that he had the crowd, the members of whom were presumably handpicked by Fox News to give Sanders the maximum amount of grief, eating out of the palm of his hand, much to the chagrin of Baier and MacCallum. When they tried to nail him for the crime of “being a millionaire,” Sanders just shrugged and said, “Eh.” When they accused him of wanting to let felons vote because they would probably vote Democrat, Sanders said, “Oh, come on!” When they tried to get him to talk shit out of Joe Biden, he responded, “I’m not gonna fall for that!”
He lightened the mood during a particularly terse exchange with MacCallum about how to pay for Sanders’s Medicare for All proposal by pausing to say, “We’ll get through this together.” Every time he evaded one of their traps, the audience cheered, though whether they really were excited about Sanders’s policy proposals or simply loved the spectacle of watching him outsmart Baier and Maccallum’s lazy lib-baiting remains an open question. The most spectacular backfire of the evening occurred when Baier attempted to prove that Sanders’s Medicare-for-All idea was unpopular by telling the audience to raise their hands if they were in favor of switching off their private insurance to a state-run system, only to have everybody raise their hands and cheer.
Trump clearly noticed how well Sanders did, because by the morning he’d turned his potential Democratic opponent’s appearance into fodder for a conspiracy theory. “So weird to watch Crazy Bernie on @FoxNews,” he tweeted, adding that, “@BretBaier and the ‘audience’ was [sic] so smiley and nice,” as if the idea that Bernie Sanders could win over a live audience anywhere was so absurd that the only way it could happen on Fox News would be through the conspiratorial machinations of disloyal Fox News producers, aided by Baier’s personal betrayal of Trump.
I get the sense that Sanders won the crowd over both because he was willing to call bullshit on the current system when he saw it — something that resonates with the non-powerful, regardless of their political persuasion — and because he was unafraid to crack jokes. Jokes at the expense of Donald Trump, jokes at the expense of Fox News, jokes at the expense of the absurdity of Bernie Sanders appearing on Fox News. In general, the town hall felt like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but one where Larry David’s weird obsessions and social faux pas actually end with him getting out ahead.
The similarities between Larry David and Bernie Sanders are well-documented. Both are old Jewish guys with thick Brooklyn accents who are seemingly driven by their preoccupations (David’s tend to involve stuff like taking a multi-week trip to New York in order to get out of doing some volunteer work, while Sanders’s tend to involve billionaires not paying enough taxes and/or universal health care, but still). David has portrayed Sanders numerous times on Saturday Night Live, and while they haven’t always been complimentary — such as when Larry-as-Bernie popped up on a parody of The Price Is Right to announce, “If I lose, I’ll bring everyone else down with me!” — Bernie seems fine with the parody, even going so far as to gamely appear alongside David when he hosted the show to volley his idiosyncratic pronunciation of the word “huge” back and forth in a sketch about the unfair distribution of lifeboats on a sinking ship (get it?). Additionally, it was revealed in 2017 that Sanders and David are actually distant cousins.
But now, Bernie Sanders seems to be turning the tables and doing a full-on Larry David impression. The senator is in a very different position than he was when he ran in 2016. Rather than the underdog who is figuring out how to run for president as he goes along, he’s spent the better part of 2019 not running against his fellow Democrats, but by placing his ideas up against Trump’s and implicitly asking voters whose policies they like better. He’s also made attempts to give voters a better sense of who he is as a person, speaking about his own personal history as a civil rights activist fighting housing discrimination at the University of Chicago.
Sanders, however, clearly hates talking about himself and would much rather focus on his pet issues. Foregrounding his sense of humor, as he did last night on Fox News, is perhaps a method of splitting the difference between the personal and political: by cracking jokes, he’s able to shift a discussion in the direction of his choosing, while still showing people he is a real human being who is capable of resonating with people on a level beyond policy. He didn’t toss out carefully rehearsed one-liners last night, but instead reacted to the political farce he’d agreed to take part in with improvised bon mots. If Bernie Sanders weren’t so quick on his feet, this could have been an unmitigated disaster. But then again, everything on Curb Your Enthusiasm was improvised, too.