The return of the PUMA: Opposition to Sanders creates opportunities for Trump

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 led to the rise of the so-called #resistance, a suggestion that a unified front would stand against him in 2020. It’s been argued that this election would be a once-in-a-generation face-off between the Trump rump of the GOP and a broad coalition of political interest groups, marginalized communities and right-of-center never-Trumpers. This idea, however, has quickly gained an asterisk as we race toward November.

Whether or not Senator Bernie Sanders wins the nomination this year, his candidacy has resurrected a phenomenon that bristled party loyalists and passive supporters alike: the PUMA. Originally meaning “Party Unity My Ass,” PUMA—or People United Means Action organization—was a loose coalition of supporters of former Senator Hillary Clinton. Their opposition to the aggressive “Obama Boys,” who championed the Former President in his first campaign against Clinton was a core grievance that manifested in eventual total opposition to the two-term commander-in-chief.

If past is prologue, then it should be no surprise that the more vehement supporters of the candidacies of Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Mike Bloomberg, Amy Klobuchar and others would likewise be prepared to throw away their vote if Sanders were nominated. It’s certainly true that Sanders himself has a large agglomeration of supporters who would never support a Democrat otherwise, but the growing rump of never-Sanders voters, hashtag #neverbernie, is an echoing squeak of past rat-fucking. Beyond mere angst over the loss of their preferred candidate, the Anti-Sanders Squad has made overtures toward both blank tops of tickets and third parties, supposed heresies in Democratic circles.

So what happens if the PUMA catches the rat?

An election where marginal Democrats, hardline centrists and ur-liberals throw the vote away to lead Trump to victory will not be seen as a failure of Democrats, but rather, of Sanders. His rhetoric was divisive, his approach too harsh, too critical of capitalism. It isn’t about defeating Trump, but rather resuscitating a wheezing post-1980s liberalism that tacked hard right into Nixonian politics in order to hold fast against a fictive conservative monolith. 

Never mind that the defeat of George HW Bush occurred amid fears of liberal destruction of cities, former-President Clinton ran on a platform of “Yes, Democrats destroyed our country, but I’ll fix it,” dooming millions to the loss of their social safety net while enriching the financially set.

Once again, however, Democrats are set to demand a fastidious, hardline liberalism that embraces capitalism and demands blood oaths against anything resembling socialism. Among these PAYGO PUMAs there is little to suggest a good faith belief in social good and welfare, merely a Gilded Age Social Darwinism tempered with a smidge of sneering attacks on wokeness and protest here and there. Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos are lionized in ways that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Davis were; the latter’s appeals to shared wealth and warnings against moderation in the face of tax-averse centrism are no longer part of the Democratic Party’s canon in many corners of the political arena.

If Bernie wins the nomination, does that mean he’ll be dragged down by blue in tooth and claw Democratic Party purists? Perhaps not; as with 2008, it’s very possible that the sound and fury will pass like a fart in a gale leaving only a few fringe characters like the Palin-boosting post-2008 subset that is now floating in the sticky albumen of Sanders Contraism. It’s also equally likely that adequate numbers will give comfort to Trump in the form of a blank top of the ticket or by merely staying home. This is all dependent upon how far the self-styled purists of the party will go to prove to voters, regardless of the results of the primary, that Sanders is not welcome.

Does this PUMA still have claws?