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We Can’t Go on like This

Lamenting the end of Mike Gravel’s anti-war presidential campaign

The Mike Gravel presidential campaign, which shut down last week, will probably be remembered as a curiosity singular to the late 2010s, when American politics spun out of orbit for good, and the solemn, useless rules of the spectacle were discarded. The campaign, often and mistakenly likened to a Weekend at Bernie’s venture, was the brainchild of two precocious teenagers who convinced Gravel, an eighty-nine-year-old former Democratic senator from Alaska, to lend them his Twitter account and allow them, in the deliciously acidic manner of true digital natives, to disseminate his ideas as widely as they could. The aim was noble: to get the unabashedly leftist, anti-war senator onto the debate stage, where he could offer a necessary rebuke to the tired, and ultimately dangerous, foreign policy consensus still embraced by most Democrats and Republicans.

Sadly, the Gravel teens, as they were dubbed, could not quite get him over the hump. Gravel met the 65,000 donor threshold for the July debate in Detroit but the Democratic National Committee blocked him because he didn’t poll well enough. By certain accounts, pollsters hadn’t used Gravel’s name much. He didn’t make any campaign appearances in Iowa, New Hampshire, or anywhere else. He remained in Alaska, blessing the teens’ efforts and fielding calls from journalists, including me. A few weeks ago, I reached out to Gravel to talk to him about the campaign, which at the time hoped to qualify him for Detroit.

There are Democrats like Joe Biden, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, who believe the modern Republican Party is not the revanchist vessel of Donald Trump’s bigotry. Gravel, understandably, has no use for them.

“I don’t buy this concept that well, you gotta be moderate, you gotta reach across the aisle. Hell, there’s nobody on the other side of the aisle,” Gravel told me. “They’ve all gone over the cliff like lemmings with Trump. The solution is to enact the agenda of democratic socialism and the best opportunity to do that is with an idiot like Trump on the other side of the contest.”

Gravel is best known for reading the Pentagon Papers on the floor of the Senate and getting them entered into the congressional record.

Gravel, who has particular distaste for his old colleague Biden—“Joe is personally a nice guy; his ideology is Neanderthal”—is an uncomfortable reminder that many of the sins perpetrated by the United States long predate Trump and much of the rot in our republic has little to do with him. Trump didn’t invent the militarized border, profiteering healthcare, forever wars, or structural racism.

Speaking with me, Gravel called Biden’s past opposition to busing “appalling and, to a degree, racist because he was conspiring with the racist leadership in the Senate on fighting busing. In addition to that, his treatment of Anita Hill was also appalling, and this is in a leadership position. These are not teenage activities. This is mature political leadership that really runs afoul of the needs of the people. So Joe’s got a record, and it’s not a record that supports the needs of the ordinary working man.”

Gravel served from 1969 to 1981. A strident opponent of the Vietnam War and the draft, he is best known for reading the Pentagon Papers on the floor of the Senate and getting them entered into the congressional record. In 2008, he also attempted a presidential run. His closest analogue, both in age in ideology, is Bernie Sanders—he backed the Vermont senator last week—and he is an admirer of Tulsi Gabbard (whom he has also backed), another fierce critic of American foreign policy who has drawn condemnation from mainstream Democrats.

Why Gravel? Why did he bother? Had the campaign progressed to television, where he could’ve gobbled more time airtime than vapid pretenders like John Delaney, he would have litigated a case no candidate, outside of possibly Sanders, has bothered to make—that the American military-industrial complex is uniquely destructive, a cash succubus and murderer of both American soldiers and innocents abroad.

“The military-industrial complex has worked its way into our culture, our religions, our government, our athletic events—it’s all militarized cultures there,” Gravel said. “We’ve drugged the American people, or we’ve brainwashed them into thinking there are threats all over the world, that we have to spend all this money on the military. I don’t know any nation that’s threatening us.”

While most Democrats, adherents to the church of the #resistance, would scream “Russia” in response, Gravel has a counterintuitive but traditionally leftist take: America is still the hegemon all other nations fear the most. If Russia undermined our 2016 election, they’re several dozen away from catching up to us—we interfered with at least eighty-one elections between 1946 and 2000, by one scholar’s count.

“We haul out China and Russia. They’re not threatening us,” Gravel argued. “If you really wanted to assess who really is the most war-like and bellicose nation in the world, all you got to do is see who spends the most money on war-making. It’s far and away the United States . . . so where is the threat going to come from? Somalia? It’s ridiculous.”

Gravel’s 2020 slogan was rather simple: No More Wars. Few current candidates have so aggressively and earnestly embraced the cause for peace.

For all the handwringing the presidential candidates undertake on domestic affairs—to impeach or not to impeach!—much of what impacts the lives of most Americans is determined by state legislatures and governor’s mansions, many of them still dominated by right-wing Republicans. Pundits feed the fiction, propagated by the campaigns, that the president is some kind of wish-granting sun-god who will immediately alter the very fabric of the nation upon assuming the throne.

The power of the presidency lies abroad, in hard and soft power, commanding what is the largest and most powerful military force on the planet. A president, almost unilaterally, can rain hellfire on an entire region of the world, as George W. Bush did with Iraq. He can, like Donald Trump, wage asinine trade wars, threaten nuclear annihilation, and keep funding military bases in places they no longer belong.

Gravel’s 2020 slogan was rather simple: No More Wars. Few current candidates have so aggressively and earnestly embraced the cause for peace. No More Wars, like the Green New Deal, is entirely aspirational, but it speaks to the existential challenge of a twenty-first century in the inferno, with climate change destabilizing continents, food and water shortages looming, and the United States unwilling to abandon their ludicrously expensive war machine. Foreign policy will be domestic policy because our fate is so intertwined with the rest of the planet’s.

Buried beneath the absurd camp of the Gravel campaign, with the sick Twitter burns and its principal decked out in sunglasses, was this fundamental truth. We can’t go on like this. We will need politicians, in 2020 and beyond, who are courageous enough to save humanity from itself.