The last American Democratic Socialist to have any kind of a shot at the presidency was Eugene V. Debs, who ran from prison and won six percent of the popular vote. Until Bernie Sanders came along, no American who dared use the word “socialist” to describe himself even came within spitting distance of someone else who was within spitting distance of the White House. And yet, in his greatest moment of triumph, Bernie Sanders might be the most miserable guy in politics right now. He knows he might be watching the movement he created sweep President Trump into the White House.
During a speech yesterday to his 1,900 delegates in an unreasonably packed ballroom, Sanders made sure to point out just how much his movement had achieved. They pushed Hillary Clinton to the left on trade policy, minimum wage, and more. They got the party to cut the number of the controversial “superdelegates” from over 700 to just 250 (they’re the party officials who are allowed to award their votes regardless of how the primaries turn out). He got the hated head of the DNC fired. And when Sanders brought all these things up, his audience cheered, wildly and justifiably overjoyed at their shared accomplishments.
… and then he insisted that they all needed to get behind Hillary Clinton, and the room erupted into a chorus of boos and angry shouts.
And one tiny elderly man yelling, “Boo-rnie.”
“This is the real world that we live in,” said Bernie, while delegates chanted “Bernie or bust,” “Put her in jail,” etc. “Trump is a bully and a demagogue,” said Sanders, and people in the crowd responded, “So is Hillary!” The whole crux of his speech hinged on getting his supporters to embrace Clinton as the best possible choice … and it just failed, miserably. Sanders actually first endorsed Clinton weeks ago, which provoked a variety of furious memes from some of his supporters.
But I think we all assumed those folks were an angry minority. Surely most Sandernistas would eventually choose Hillary “Living embodiment of disappointment” Clinton over Donald “Casually suggests the sitting president is in league with ISIS” Trump. But the people in this room weren’t just Sanders’ most fervent supporters; as delegates, they’re also very much plugged into their state and local parties. These 1,900 people, nearly all of whom booed every mention of Clinton, represent many times their number in voters.
I stayed after the speech and talked to 20 or so of them. I was only able to find three who outright said they were willing to vote for Clinton. Delegate Kae Robbins of Tennessee was one of these, and she was hardly onboard the Hilltrain: “We had to agree to support the democratic nominee [when we were sworn in] … Not endorse, but support.”
It’d be easy to put a lot of this resistance down to Bernie Bros. But I specifically avoided asking young white dudes their opinion because, y’know, I have internet access. The delegates who just couldn’t get behind Hillary included Cynthia Cox-deBoutinkhar, from Ohio:
“I was hoping he would do a Ted Cruz thing,” she said (referring to Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump, not all the Zodiac murders).
And Martese Chism, who told me rather bluntly, “We’re not going to come around to Hillary from this convention.”
Shortly before Sanders suspended his campaign and endorsed Clinton, a poll suggested 45 percent of Sanders supporters would refuse to support Hillary Clinton. Those numbers are from back in June, but the chorus of boos yesterday and the multiple delegates who told me they hoped Sanders would “Pull a Cruz” and refuse to back Clinton during his convention speech made it clear that she still faces a huge — maybe insurmountable — amount of resistance.
This is all deeply frustrating from the point of view of anyone who doesn’t hate Clinton or is balls-out terrified of the implications of a Trump presidency. I am in that boat, and I found myself getting very angry at these people who seemed willing to elect a human grease fire because their favorite guy lost. And then I met Brian Seligman, a disabled Marine Corps veteran who was hit by a truck several years back. He lives on disability now and has trouble feeding his family.
In his eyes, Bernie Sanders was the only candidate who gave a fuck about guys like him. “No one is willing to help me,” he said, and broke down in tears as he pulled a picture of a squirrel out of his pocket. He sobbed and explained that hunting squirrels and other small animals was how he kept his children from starving when the food stamps ran out for the month. Now, the good news is that most Americans have seen their economic prospects improve over the last eight years, but that’s zero fucking comfort to a guy who has to hunt squirrels to keep his children fed.
And it’s also sort of the point. A lot of the Bernie or Bust people are your traditional Bernie Bros. But many, many more of them are voters who, for the first time, see a candidate who is speaking to their issues, and giving that up would be like throwing away a life preserver. Even if they’ve now washed ashore, and it’s preventing them from escaping a tiger that’s coming after them.
We’ve seen this story play out before in a wealthy, well-educated country. You already know the example I’m going to use, and you’re going to groan. Hear me out, this isn’t a “Trump is literally Hitler!” thing.
From 1919 to 1932, the Social Democratic party was the largest, vote-gettingest political party in Germany. And in 1932, despite this, Adolph Hitler rose to power and purged the shit out of them. The Nazis are generally portrayed as rising to power on a wave of angry popular support, but as I’ve pointed out before, they never won more than 42 percent of the vote. Most Germans were actually in agreement that Hitler, and Nazism in general, was a bad idea. They just couldn’t agree on anything else. The Communists refused to compromise with the Social Democrats, the Social Democrats refused to compromise with the regular Democrats, etc.
Everyone voted for the very narrow parties, and candidates, who spoke to them as farm workers or factory laborers or whatever job it is you do while wearing lederhosen. The vast majority of decent people picked the candidates who most spoke to them, and the craziest 40 percent of the country went with the angry, shouting guy. Maybe this sounds like Godwinning, but I’m pretty damn sure Sanders himself has the same fear. Late yesterday, he sent out an email pleading for his supporters to stop disrupting the convention. And during that speech in front of the delegates, I caught a glimpse of the fear on his face when it became clear his attempt to get everyone “Ready for Hillary” had failed.
Not pictured: an adorable bird, hope.
There he is, repeatedly shouting into the void that a Trump presidency means blowing apart nearly every single thing he has stood for, rolling back decades of progress. It doesn’t matter. He can see what’s coming, and may be powerless to stop it.