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John Doyle: The mercurial magic of the Bernie Sanders phenomenon

What is this thing, the extraordinary rise and success of Bernie Sanders? A tie with Hillary Clinton in Iowa and a strong lead in the polls heading into New Hampshire. Let’s look at it in a mercurial context that matters now – visuals, messaging and the support of powerful people.

About 10 days before Monday’s Iowa caucus, 74-year-old Senator Bernie Sanders addressed the Democrats of Iowa in a TV ad. He said nothing in the ad. But the message was this: “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together.”

It was and remains devastatingly effective political messaging. Meant to sway Iowa, it was, of course, also available online. The number of registered Democrats in Iowa is about 585,000. Apart from TV viewers, the ad has been viewed almost three million times on YouTube.

The one-minute ad features Simon & Garfunkel’s 1968 song America, which opens with, “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together” on its soundtrack, and features scenes from Sanders’ massive campaign rallies, along with images of everyday Americans at work in offices and on farms.

Since it first aired, it has been mocked, both by Bill Maher on his HBO show and by Trevor Noah on The Daily Show. The latter failed to find any “message” in it and dismissed it as a kind of political information gibberish.

It isn’t that. America is a dauntingly melancholy song. It is an aching quest for some meaning in the place and idea that is “America.”

The song and the Sanders ad ends with, “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike/They’ve all come to look for America/All come to look for America.” Connected visually with the raucous, cheering and huge crowds at Sanders’ rallies, it’s an invitation to join in this quest for a meaningful America.

Like those late-campaign Liberal ads that showed Justin Trudeau speaking at a loud, crowded rally, bellowing, “In Canada, better is always possible,” the Sanders ad is successfully selling the ecstasy of change, hope and togetherness.

Except, of course, Sanders is elderly and stooped, lacking Trudeau’s youth and charisma.

Bernie Sanders is an astonishing success story in this U.S. presidential cycle. There is a peculiar but ingenious dynamic at work. He’s attacked or dismissed as “angry,” the mere flipside to Donald Trump, but that put-down has little impact. He’s also been relentlessly parodied by Larry David, who has done a hilarious, uncanny Sanders impression on Saturday Night Live.

In fact, David will host this week’s SNL (Saturday, NBC, Global, 11:30 p.m.), the point being that it’s actually Sanders – as played by David – hosting the show. But Unlike Tina Fey’s annihilating depiction of Sarah Palin, David’s portrayal of Sanders humanizes the elderly senator, giving a craftily affectionate endorsement to his authenticity. It’s part of the mercurial and ingenious dynamic at work.

And if anyone is wondering why the 74-year-old, stooped and unpolished in demeanour, is capturing the loyalty of so many young people, just look at who Sanders has behind him in the entertainment world. Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy and American Dad, and a wizard at the coarse-humoured animation that appeals to millennials and the Generation Y audience, introduced and endorsed Sanders at a rally in Los Angeles a few months ago.

Before that, last August, Sarah Silverman introduced and endorsed Sanders in front of a crowd of 27,000 people at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, saying, “His moral compass and sense of values inspires me.” She listed the ways in which Sanders was right – his work on civil rights in 1960s, gay marriage in the 1980s, opposing the Iraq war and promoting the regulation of Wall Street. “Bernie is not for sale,” she said.

Hillary Clinton might have Lena Dunham, Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand on her side, but Sanders has the coolest of cool comedians in Silverman. And in emotional impact, she outweighs any number of multimillionaire entertainment-establishment types.

Eight months ago, when Jon Stewart was still anchoring The Daily Show, he spoke about Sanders’ entry into the presidential race and the media dismissal of him as a left-wing loon: “We’ve all become so accustomed to stage-managed, focus-group-driven candidates that authenticity comes across as lunacy.”

Exactly. The Sanders phenom is one of those instances in which the vast gulf between mainstream media – everything from CNN to New York Times pundits – is obvious. So often Sanders is dismissed as “dangerous” or a fringe candidate because he’s not bothered about being called “a democratic socialist.” To the mainstream media, the label is wielded as a destructive weapon.

To Sanders’ supporters among the young and the savvy in the entertainment industry, the label is meaningless. It’s the man they’re following, not a label. And if a 74-year-old can seduce with “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together,” then the phenom and its strange magic is far from over.

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