This piece was originally published by The Guardian on January 6, 2020.

Despite my center-right politics, I have a strange liking for Bernie Sanders. Of all the Democratic presidential jobseekers on stage at this week’s Iowa debate, he struck me as the most authentic, the least likely to bend his convictions to pollsters or consultants, and the candidate with the best sense of humor.

Sanders’ self-proclaimed democratic socialism once would have been an absolute bar to his presidential aspirations, given the historic antipathy of most Americans toward the doctrine. More than a century ago, the German sociologist Werner Sombart predicted that widespread prosperity would forestall the development of socialism in the United States. As he memorably argued: “On the shoals of roast beef and apple pie, socialist utopias founder.”

But socialism now strikes many Americans as worth considering, in view of the widening economic inequality since the financial crisis of 2007-08. According to a recent Gallup poll, socialism is as popular as capitalism among Americans between the ages of 18 and 39 – and Sanders’ support is driven by young people.

Sanders has proved to be more politically resilient than many critics thought. Despite being the oldest candidate in the race, at 78, and having suffered a heart attack in October, he has recovered from his dip in the polls and now stands among the frontrunners in the upcoming contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. He also raised more money in the last quarter than any other Democratic candidate and has the highest favorability ratings. The current kerfuffle over whether he told his competitor, Elizabeth Warren, that a woman couldn’t win the presidency – she says he did, he says he didn’t – seems unlikely to have a serious impact on his candidacy.

Sanders and Warren compete for many of the same left-leaning voters, so it’s unsurprising that tensions between them are rising despite the non-aggression pact they made back in 2018. A recent Sanders campaign script instructs volunteers to tell Warren-sympathetic voters that “people who support her are highly-educated, more affluent people who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what,” and that “she’s bringing no new bases into the Democratic party”.

Warren supporters have reacted with predictable outrage, and the Massachusetts senator herself told reporters that she was “disappointed to hear Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me”.

But Sanders proponents make the case that the Vermont senator is more likely than other candidates (including Warren) to win over the working-class voters in swing states who gave Trump his electoral college victory in 2016. They can point to a study by two Johns Hopkins University political scientists which found that the 6 million Obama-Trump voters in the last election were motivated more by economic anxiety than racial resentment, and were attracted to Trump’s economic populism and opposition to free-trade agreements.

Sanders, according to this line of thinking, is the only Democratic candidate whose consistent anti-trade, tax-the-rich populism can appeal to such voters. And, arguably, his call for sweeping economic change can mobilize those voters who don’t usually show up at the polls on election day, since they tend to blame both parties for business-as-usual politics. As the Sanders campaign script tells its volunteers, “Status quo candidates lose. Every candidate – both Democratic and Republican – who has run as the safe bet for the past two decades has lost.”

Nonetheless, Sanders faces serious obstacles to obtaining the Democratic presidential nomination. The gentle treatment he received in 2016 from the media and the Hillary Clinton campaign (which ran few negative television or media ads against him) means that many Democratic voters haven’t yet learned about the distinctly non-progressive positions he has taken on certain issues throughout his senatorial career.

Vermont is one of the whitest states in the nation, as well as among the most rural, the oldest (in terms of the age of its population), and with the fewest immigrants. Sanders, to win elections, had to appeal to hunters, older voters and other socially conservative constituencies. This explains his long opposition to gun safety measures (he voted repeatedly against the Brady bill and measures to hold gun manufacturers liable for the damage done by their products), his comparatively late conversion to the cause of gay marriage (he opposed it in Vermont as late as 2006), and his nativist opposition to certain immigration reforms (on the grounds that they would undercut wages for American workers).

If Sanders wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s a safe bet that African American voters in South Carolina will hear quite a lot from his Democratic competitors about his vote for the so-called “Charleston loophole” that allowed the white supremacist Dylann Roof to get the gun he used to kill nine African Americans at a South Carolina church. And although former vice-president Joe Biden has caught heat for writing what became the 1994 crime bill – which, many progressives claim, resulted in mass minority incarceration – Sanders voted for it as well.

Democratic primary voters may also wonder how effective Sanders would be as president. His pitch to his supporters is that, if he somehow were to be elected, some sort of “political revolution” would result in Congress passing multitrillion-dollar plans for a Green New Deal, a top-to-bottom transformation of the healthcare system, a federal job guarantee, free college and student debt elimination, plus other vastly ambitious and expensive plans for education, immigration, housing and so forth.

These promises are unrealistic, and Sanders’ ability to get them past Congress would be approximately nil. The 2016 Clinton campaign’s opposition research file charged that Sanders, largely because of his go-it-alone approach, had a thin record of legislative accomplishment. “Sanders only sponsored one substantive bill that became law,” the document observed, while none of his House amendments had co-sponsors. And Sanders ranks dead last among all senators in the Lugar Center’s Bipartisanship Index for both the last two Congresses.

The chances of Sanders actually becoming president, however, are also close to nil. I say this because in 2016 I got a glimpse of the Republican party’s opposition research book on Sanders, which was so massive it had to be transported on a cart. The Newsweek reporter Kurt Eichenwald, who got to see some of its contents, declared that “it was brutal. The Republicans would have torn [Sanders] apart.”

According to Eichenwald, the book includes damning material such as the fact that Sanders was on unemployment until his mid-30s, that he co-sponsored a bill to ship Vermont’s nuclear waste to Texas where it would be dumped in a poor Hispanic community, that he honeymooned in the Soviet Union, and that he appeared at a 1985 rally in Nicaragua at which Sandinista supporters chanted “Here, there / the Yankee will die.” And then there’s Sanders’ fictitious essay in which he described a woman enjoying being raped by three men…

After the Trump campaign and Fox News got through weaponizing this research, the usual conservative charges against Sanders – that his domestic program would cost nearly $100tn over the next decade, that he would ban individual health insurance, send taxes into the stratosphere, and sympathize with terrorists and leftwing regimes – would seem almost benign. The Republican campaign against any Democratic presidential candidate is guaranteed to be ugly, but against Sanders it would be gruesome. The result most likely would be a Democratic wipeout on the scale of Labour’s under Jeremy Corbyn.

That’s why Sanders is the preferred Democratic nominee of Trump and his aides. It explains otherwise puzzling stories such as Trump coming to Sanders’ defense against Warren’s no-female-president claim, saying sexism is “not his deal”. And while living in Washington has made me cynical in some ways, I would not be in the least surprised if conservative dollars are swelling the coffers of Our Revolution, Sanders’ dark-money Super Pac which doesn’t have to disclose its donors.

Sanders is in many ways an appealing politician whose message has resounded at a moment when both America’s economic and political systems face tremendous voter skepticism. But as a viable candidate to defeat Trump? As they say in Sanders’ Brooklyn birthplace, fuhgeddaboudit.