The sun had just mercifully set when I noticed the young woman next to me peering through the bleachers to get a better view of the man with wild gray hair and a dark suit. Suddenly, her eyes were on fire.

“Bernie!” she screamed until she was almost hoarse. “Bernie!”

A few feet away, a scruffy-looking twentysomething raised both arms in the air. At the very mention of “the 1 percent,” his face turned red and he shouted as if encouraging the pastor of a black Baptist church.

“Tell us, Bernie! Go on! Tell us!”

It’s hard to understand the kind of unflinching devotion that Bernie Sanders inspires in his followers without seeing it for yourself. I got the chance on Monday, when thousands of people showed up to hear the curmudgeonly Democratic presidential candidate speak in Sacramento, California.

The crowd, made up, unsurprisingly, of mostly white millennials, sipped on $5 bottles of water while waiting hours in the sun for Sanders to take the stage. And once he did, they hung on his every word, blindly accepting his promises and proclamations about the election as the gospel truth.

“He’s an idealist,” one man summed up after the rally. “He has great ideas and people believe in his ideas. That’s what counts.”

But, actually, that’s not what counts.

Not letting the Democratic Party get so divided that voters refuse to rally behind a single candidate is what counts. Keeping Donald Trump out of the White House is what counts. Preventing him from rolling back years of advancements for women, minorities, and gay and transgender Americans is what counts.

Sadly, Bernie Sanders doesn’t seem to understand that anymore. He’s letting his ego get the best of him. He’s drinking his own Kool-Aid. He’s feeling his own Bern.

And his followers, well, he’s more of a brand than a fallible man to them at this point. He’s “Bernie, the righteous underdog,” not “Sanders, the career politician,” who has been in Congress since I was in junior high school.

They happily buy and sport T-shirts and hats bearing his caricature. They wag their index fingers and quote him. They see Bernie as a superhero for progressivism. But they forget that in comic books, superheroes understand that with great power, comes great responsibility.

Not so with Sanders. Not anymore.

On Monday, it was truly disappointing to watch as he shamelessly sold his followers a bill of goods.

Bernie Sanders, he told them, is “the only one” who is “certain” to beat Trump in a general election. (As proof of this, he cited a recent NBC News poll – you know, because polls have been so accurate in this election cycle.)

Bernie Sanders, he continued, is the only hope for a truly progressive agenda to become a reality in the White House. And so, Bernie Sanders, he promised, is going to “take the political revolution” to the Democratic National Convention in July and fight to win the nomination.

Never mind that, even with his victory in West Virginia on Tuesday, it’s all but impossible for him to catch up to Hillary Clinton. At last count, Sanders has 1,433 pledged delegates and 40 superdelegates to Clinton’s 1,716 pledged delegates and 524 superdelegates.

What happens when Clinton gets the nomination instead of beloved Bernie? If you follow the underdog candidate’s argument to its logical conclusion, his supporters will have no problem justifying skipping the November election rather than compromise their progressive ideals and vote for Clinton.

Bernie says she won’t beat Trump anyway, they’ll say, so why bother?

Because a divided Democratic Party almost ensures a Trump presidency. And that might suit some of the white millennials who came out for his rally. But, for me and for many other minorities, the prospect of living in the United States under a racist, sexist, homophobic, reckless Trump is absolutely terrifying.

The only thing more terrifying is how little Sanders, now clearly filled with his own hubris, is doing to prevent it.

On Monday evening, he openly courted the crowd’s boos of Clinton. Heck, based on the volume of the hateful chants, I couldn’t tell who his followers hated more: Clinton, who multiple people loudly labeled a “liar,” or Trump.

It’s all the more disturbing given the outcome of the rally Clinton held in East Los Angeles on Cinco De Mayo. Hundreds of angry protesters, many of them swearing allegiance to Bernie, descended on the venue to berate Clinton supporters.

Some went so far as to form two long lines and scream at Clinton supporters as they were coming out of the rally. Video shared on social media showed one man screaming, “She’s a liar! Liar! Why are you voting for a liar?!” Another snippet showed a little girl crying, clearly traumatized by the venom hurled her way.

That’s the stuff you see at Trump rallies. That’s not the “future to believe in” that Sanders says he wants to build. That’s a future to avoid.

Bernie has the power to prevent that future from coming to pass by persuading his legion of followers to unite behind a single Democratic candidate, no matter if it’s Clinton or, by some miracle of delegate mathematics, himself.

Selflessly fighting for the greater good is what superheroes do. So help us, Bernie Sanders. You’re our only hope.

— Erika D. Smith is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Readers may email her at

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