What Democracy Looks Like

Three Days Loitering at the DNC

Day One

Rigged Election, Lies, Lies, Lies

I’m off the bus in the center of Philadelphia on the first day of the Democratic National Convention, trying to find my hotel, when I look up from my phone and notice that a lot of things are happening. I see a masked protestor in a full-bodied “Lady Mac-Death” costume with a sign exhaustively detailing Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy decisions. I see an older woman answering “Fuck off you corporate whore” to a question from the media about what she would say to Hillary’s face. I see people holding these signs: “Demexit”, “Democrats Drop Bombs”, “Hillary Clinton For Prison”, “Eat Your Pheasant, Drink Your Wine, Your Days Are Numbered, Bourgeois Swine”, and shouting these things: “Hell no DNC, we won’t vote for Hillary,” “Bernie or Jill, but never Hill” and “1,2,3 — fuck the DNC; 4,5,6 — fuck the DNC.”

My assumption had been that the political convention of a left-wing party would inspire predominately right-wing protests. In fact, my impetus for coming in the first place, if I recall, was a desire to try to have reasonable conversations with Trump supporters, of whom I personally know very few. However, due to the unpredictability of this election cycle, and my underestimation of the level internecine conflicts amongst Democrats, and the fact that sometimes I’m just wrong about stuff, I was wrong. These protests I’d stumbled into — still holding my luggage — were organized well in advance by the Bernie or Bust (BOB) group. Seeing them, it’s clear that they’re something of a coalition; diverse in race and age, and coming from movements with tangentially related interests — registered Greens, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter — united under their common, outright refusal to support the presumptive Democratic Party nominee.

I find out I’m at Philadelphia City Hall; the surrounding area has fountains and a few food venders on its perimeter, and is completely covered in cement, amplifying the already brutal heat. Somebody shouts “Feelin’ the Bern today, hot as all fuck!” and gets a decent laugh. On the building’s South side, crowds gather around booths where flyers and pamphlets are handed out. Protesters are interviewed by alternative media outlets. I’m trying to gauge the level of radicalism; though they appear a bit flashy in groups, my one-on-one interactions — particularly with a patient, articulate man holding a “Veterans for Bernie” sign — have so far shown them to be well informed, level-headed, and decidedly un-crazy.

My friend Will, who’d invited me to meet him here in Philadelphia, shows up. We push into a crowd that’s formed around a speaker, who, it turns out, is Green Party nominee Jill Stein. She’s rallying them, emphasizing the movement’s grass roots origins: “They may have the media on their side, but we have a more powerful tool — social media!”

When she finishes, I realize that the actual protest is only now starting: More marchers — thousands, at least — snake around City Hall and pour onto South Broad Street, where a section is marked off for them, across from which dozens of sun-glassed, cross-armed, stone-faced police officers watch. The supply of protesters seems endless, so much so that I almost start to wonder if they’re pulling off some sort of circular, clown-car trick. Many are elaborately costumed. Signs says things like “Thank you Julian Assange,” and “Debbie Shultz has Lizard Eyes, Rigged Election Lies, Lies, Lies.” Will is trying to take a video to post on Snapchat, but we can’t quite find a good vantage point without getting engulfed. He mouths “Holy shit” to me, and I agree.

Given that I’d been mentally preparing to see Trump supporters, I had to shift some internal gears. The pivot, however, actually wasn’t that drastic; in the predictably liberal, millennial bubble that is Brooklyn, when friends get together to agree with each other about politics over drinks, they actually speak about the two groups with similar incredulity and yes, sometimes, disdain. “Who are all of these people,” they ask, rhetorically, “and what on Earth are they thinking?”

Barbaric

Will is attending the DNC with his uncle, a mayor directly involved with Clinton’s campaign. Knowing that I don’t have a pass to get into the Wells Fargo Center where the convention itself is being held, he anyway offers me a spot in his Uber ride downtown so that I could be in the general area, where I presume the protests will continue.

I take up his offer, and after we arrive and go our separate ways, this happens:

The parking lot is huge and empty and fenced off — there’s no obvious exit within eyeshot.

On my way to the perimeter, two police officers approach me — one, a younger black woman, already clearly angry, the other, an older white woman, already clearly a lot angrier. They demand to see my credentials.

“Oh, I’m not going in. I got a ride here, and I was just finding my way out so — ”

“Then tell me why we shouldn’t arrest you right here!”

“Wait, what?” I stammer. I show them my palms. I try to explain that nobody had even asked for my info, that I was just dropped off. I mention the mayor, I mention Uber. When I say Uber, they look at each other and get angrier.

“Uber! This is really getting fucking ridiculous. We’re on high security here, so don’t fuck with us! If you took an Uber, what’s the driver’s number?”

I tell them that I don’t have it, since I didn’t order the car myself.

One of them takes out handcuffs.

“Hold on!” I plead. I ask them to let me call Will, who I pray is still within arm’s reach of the mayor (who I pray isn’t in the middle of doing press).

“He better not fuck with us either, or he’s in trouble!” the angrier one says.

I call Will and, trying hard to keep a steady voice, ask him to get the mayor to send me whatever information he can.

We wait for the texts to come in, and the angrier cop keeps yelling.

“Have you seen what’s going on in the news? They’re killing cops! One of those ‘Black Lives Matter’ people walked up to me from behind earlier. I’ve got a family at home! We’re not fucking around! Protesting is one thing, but killing people! That’s barbaric!”

I try to reiterate that I’m not looking for any trouble, which, for some reason, enrages her even further.

“You realize the DNC is federally protected? I could get the Feds involved right now! Matter of fact, I’m gonna go talk to them!”

She leaves. I’m left with the less angry officer. The mayor (finally) texts me the Uber receipt, which includes the driver’s info. She takes a picture of it with her phone. I tell her that I understand that they’re on high security, and that I respect what they’re doing, and really didn’t mean to inconvenience them. I say something that makes her laugh (though I can’t remember or even imagine what it may have been.) She explains that they’ve been having problems with Uber letting people past security, that there had been a few tense confrontations, that she has a 10-year-old daughter. She makes clear she isn’t done being angry, but there are now hints of sympathy coming out from both parties, which feels like progress.

The angrier officer returns, bitter, and clearly disappointed by what “the Feds” had told her, and she tells me they’ll escort me out.

I walk behind them staying completely silent, obviously. We’re 20 feet from the exit when I see two people, a man and a woman, probably in their late twenties, skipping and mock-sneaking as they approach the exit from behind us.

I get a clear, fully-formed premonition of what is about to happen. I’m right.

“Excuse me! Where are your passes?”

“We don’t have them! We just took an Uber, okay?”

“Stop right there!”

“Look, Uber let us in, if you’ve got a fucking problem with that, take it up with them!”

“Oh really?”

The officer pushes her hard against the fence, and starts to zip-tie her hands behind her back.

“Oh seriously? Seriously?” the woman yells.

The man takes out his phone and starts recording. Other officers surround the scene, getting close to the man without actually touching him. All of this action blocks the exit I was about to take. I clasp my hands behind my head. “Fuck,” I say to myself.

A new officer notices me. He approaches, and points to the couple.

“What…who are you?” he asks. I take a deep breath and explain everything in what I’d like to imagine was clear, lucid English.

He sizes me up, then looks back at the couple, then back at me. He’s silent for longer than I’d like him to be.

“Just go,” he says, and points me to another exit off to the side.

So I leave, and stop right outside the exit where a small crowd has now formed, some of them filming, and I stand with them, and continue to watch a woman getting arrested for being caught up in the exact same situation I’d been in but doing a slightly worse job of handling it.

Communism Water

I walk up the street towards a gate in the fence surrounding the Wells Fargo Center, where protesters are gathering. A shirtless, heavily bearded man holds out a bottle of water.

“Communism Water?” he says.

“What’s that?”

“Tastes just like real water, but it also has a splash of communism to it. There were these 2-A right-winger people, so I gave it to him and said ‘enjoy your Communism Water.’”

I take my Communism Water, and share with him my surprise at seeing so few conservatives.

“Yeah, they were pretty cool. I’m actually very pro gun-ownership. Useful for executing fascists. I mean, you can’t hug it out with Nazis in the 1940s.”

Earlier, somebody else of the same persuasion had told me something similar: “We need guns, war, revolutionary war. The bosses aren’t going to give up their power, which means we have to take it from them.”

These are the anarchists — the group takes the left’s skepticism of social hierarchies to its logical conclusion and advocates eliminating them altogether, and by any means. They’ve shown up this week with bandanas, megaphones, and matching “Revolution: Nothing Less!” shirts and “America Was Never Great!” signs. In fairness, whether they’ve shown up to join in the Bernie or Bust crowd or as a counter-protest to it is up for debate; I’d make the case for the latter. Evidence: fliers they hand out excoriating Trump, Clinton, and Sanders — Trump and Clinton for reasons you could guess, but also Sanders for falsely coopting the word “revolution.” Further evidence: at City Hall, they were seen neighboring a pro-Bernie booth shouting “Fuck Bernie Sanders!”(from what I saw, the Sanders supporters politely ignored them.)

The Communism Water vendor clarifies that regarding guns, he draws a line at open carry, but that there are more important issues to focus on: “Toxic masculinity, racism, Islamophobia — the things that drive the kind of culture that makes people want to carry firearms to begin with.”

I want to unpack this with him — the possibility of common ground between the far left and far right, the circularity of left-wing extremism justifying violence, the more obvious problem of prohibiting open carry without a government to do so — but before I can, he’s on to handing out Communism Water to the next person.

I run down the street.

The Devil You Know

Out of breath, I catch up to the group that could only be the aforementioned “2-A guys” as they’re on their way to the train station. A few of them have “Blue Lives Matter” posters, and point them somewhat menacingly towards everybody that they pass. I approach one of them, a paunchy, tough looking man holding a sign that reads “DON’T BELIEVE THE LIBERAL MEDIA!” I tell him that they’re the first right-wing protesters I’ve seen. I sound oddly giddy.

“Well, I’m a registered Democrat, and a Union member, but yeah, I’m supporting Trump.”

“Democrats for Trump! I’ve heard about you!”

He laughs nervously, then expounds on some of his views: His fundamental concerns are with due process — he worries that both parties, under the influence of “big money,” have let “the standard of how to actually run the government” slowly slip away.

“And you think Trump is the best candidate for due process?” I ask.

His demeanor changes. I worry that he worries that I’m conducting some sort of gotcha-media ambush on him (I could be misinterpreting — he may have just been giving my question serious thought.)

“I think he’ll bring back some of the way it’s supposed to work, and be fair to everybody. Obama was the biggest mistake ever — he didn’t do anything for blacks. And now there’s no black leader. Al Sharpton isn’t a leader. And of course, we’re dependent on people like Hillary, and Trump, and Sanders. So we’re not too far behind.”

“So you’d agree with some of the others here that none of the options are great?”

“Yep. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.”

We speak for awhile. He’s very friendly, and interested in knowing about me and my background. I get him to agree, with some hesitation, that both Obama and Bush had been excessive in their expansion of executive power. His feelings about Black Lives Matter are less dismissive than his friend’s signs had had me expect:

“Of course black lives do matter, and of course that was something that needed to be said. But things got out of hand, and people have gotten radical, and committed serious violence, so it’s important to stand up and say ‘Blue Lives Matter.’ I think ‘All Lives Matter’ is the best message, and I wish we didn’t have to split people up into groups like this, but that’s just where we’re at right now.”

I ask him if they’ve had any tense confrontations:

“They have stuff to say. They assume we’re anti-gay, for example, but we’re not. One or two of us — maybe those guys, I don’t know what their views are. But people just assume we’re the angry white males, when that’s not really the case.”

“Do you think it’s good that the party generally seems to be putting less emphasis on gay issues?”

“I’m a Democrat!” he says.

“Oh, right, you said that,” I say.

I’d forgotten.

We Trusted You

Back by the gate, a group of Bernie or Busters (BOBs) are chanting towards the Well’s Fargo Center. DNC attendees occasionally walk by close enough to hear them. Some protesters leave when it starts to rain, but most stay. A young, bearded, redheaded man offers me and all of the strangers around him plastic bags to keep our phones dry; I seem to be the only one taken aback by this gesture.

He’s chatty. His name is Brett. He tells me he drove in from out of state with his Dad to join the protests. Earlier that day, the two of them had simultaneously engaged in two different acts of civil disobedience; Brett, along with a subset of the marchers coming from the Civic Center, planted themselves in front of a courthouse that displayed a confederate flag, demanding it be removed, which it eventually was. He showed me the local news report about the incident on his phone (“Cool, huh?”). Meanwhile, his Dad, with a few others, snuck into the Wells Fargo Center grounds and sat on the grass until they were arrested. They’d gotten in via Uber.

One question about his strict Bernie or Bust stance is enough to get him going, and I get the most exhaustive explanation of refusing to vote for Hillary I’ve heard yet. Bullet points: the Democratic and Republican parties had been dangerously converging over the years, particularly over the most important issues, namely, the expansion of the War on Terror and the concentration of power in the finance industry. Trump and Sanders, in their different ways, are outliers to this trend, while Clinton is, at best, right in the problematic, right-shifting middle. The recent email dump from WikiLeaks, exposing some alarming collusion between Hillary and the DNC against team Sanders, only confirmed what most progressives had already known.

Sensing less than complete disagreement, he asks how I could still be planning on voting for her. I deliver a Trump spiel: I tell him I’ve been losing patience with my liberal friends who try to classify Trump as another neocon. How the hallmarks of neo-conservativism — foreign intervention, evangelical Christianity, strict Constitutional interpretation, and pro-big-business economic policies, are all things Trump either hasn’t emphasized or has specifically contradicted. If you filter out the frequent lack of clarity and consistency in his positions, you do get an issue set that adds up to a familiar ideology, though one we aren’t used to seeing in mainstream American politics, and one whose potential rise I do find scary and dangerous enough to make opposing him top priority.

He asks what exactly I would label that ideology. What I wanted to say was “American nationalism”; in a cheap effort to appeal to his sensibilities, I instead go with “American fascism.”

He agrees without hesitation, but remains unfazed.

Trump’s demagoguery, he argues, would actually end up being a net positive; congress would be in a deadlock, and there’d be a bipartisan realization that we need to start curbing executive power. Most importantly, it would accelerate the “Berniecrat” movement and lead to something of a national uprising, whereas a Clinton presidency would lull leftists into a false sense of complacency.

I reply that putting Trump in the White House in the hopes that events play out that way is playing with fire. His response shocks me; he thinks the whole discussion is moot anyway, and that the only utility of voting in this election is to elevate third party candidates: given Hillary’s lack of support among true progressives, a win for Trump is at this point virtually guaranteed. “Unless of course she just steals the election — maybe that’s why the Democrats aren’t scared!” People near us who’ve been eavesdropping laugh, anxiously.

The rain picks up. Brett takes out a tarp that reads “Feel the Bern” in rainbow typeface. The two of us are huddled under the tarp, which is itself under a tree, but we’re still getting fairly wet. We watch the protesters from a distance; the harder it rains, the louder they get. One popular chant is a call and response: somebody shouts “Show me what democracy looks like!” and rest respond with, “This is what democracy looks like!” I remember first hearing this years ago from the Occupy crowd. It always struck me as a bit misguided and pretentious, a step too close to “Hey, look at us! We’re protesting!” I decide to keep this particular thought to myself.

Later that night, over drinks, I’d learn more about Brett than anybody else I’d meet that week. He currently lives in Maryland, where he grew up. He’s 23 years old and has never been to a house party. He prefers the company of women to men, since men “are always talking about their sex lives.” He’s finishing up his college credits, and then will either attend culinary school or become a police officer. This last part causes me to double take.

“Yeah, I’d love to be one of the good ones, that respects citizens’ rights and doesn’t shoot people for being brown. I think it would be really interesting to be a part of the system.”

We barely talk politics that night, so I don’t explain that in between being at the gate and meeting him at the bar, I’d gone back my hotel room to dry off, and I’d watched some recaps of what had been happening inside the convention center on CNN. More specifically: that I’d watched Senator Elizabeth Warren, long-time friend and ally to the Berniecrats, explaining in perfectly sensible terms why she was now officially endorsing Hillary, and how I was surprised at my own disgust in seeing the Sanders crowd shout out “We Trusted You!” over her in response; that I started wondering if maybe I’d reached some juncture in growing older and becoming less forgiving of radical tactics; that I found myself thinking about extremism and consistency and political compromise, and was having an internal struggle in clearly demarcating the line between taking a noble stand and just being a rude, stubborn asshole.

Day 2

Poli-tricks

Will and I are staying at the Marriott — the mayor had gotten us a room. The hotel occupants are mostly all DNC-related. It’s easy (and fun) to tell the attendees and protesters apart: the Clinton people are dressed like they’re going to a business meeting, the Bernie people somewhere on the college student / burning man continuum.

Outside of the hotel and Wells Fargo Center, Hillary fans are as elusive as Trump fans, but I do find one on the street corner, holding a poster board with Clinton merchandise for sale. I’m curious to hear my first full-hearted Hillary defense of the week:

“We’ve been following Hillary ever since… for about year. We have a project called Opinions for Thought. It’s exciting, her being a woman. More than that, her experience, more so than Trump. That’s what I like about Hillary.” I squint at him suspiciously, and prod him about Sanders.

“I like Bernie!”, he says. “Either one would have been fine with me. I love Bernie more than I do Hillary, to be honest.” He continues: “In a sense, politics is all ‘poli-tricks.’ You never know what’s happening behind closed doors. Honestly, it’s kind of the lesser of two evils. I know I’m not with Trump, so I’m gonna go with this.”

Something doesn’t feel right. Even the poster displaying his merchandise seems somehow off — highly official looking pins and badges on a board that looks incongruously hand-crafted, attached with yellow yarn and needles. This supposedly independent group, the “Opinions for Thought Project”… could it be? Am I first-hand witness to one of the Clinton Super-PACs designed to feign populist support, a la Correct The Record? A quick internet search for “Opinions for Thought” yields no relevant results.

I stop myself mid-thought, suddenly worried that the Bernie crowd I’ve been spending time with is rubbing off on me.

I take a picture with him and leave.

Do the Most Good

Today, Will manages to get me a pass into the convention. The pass lists the DNC chair as Debbie Wassermann Shultz, who’d resigned from the position less than two days prior. Turns out, it’s not only good for DNC admission, but also for a free subway ride to the area (Will and I agree not to take an Uber), and for access into an exclusive, pre-DNC Florida delegate event at the Hard Rock Cafe, which includes a buffet of various fried foods and free beer and wine.

I only mention this last bit by way of a disclaimer: the thoughts and feelings expressed in the following four paragraphs may or may not be influenced by the fact that I went into the DNC on at least three drinks. That said:

So, this is the first political convention I’ve actually been to, and obviously I wasn’t expecting a rock concert but… seriously? Are they always this boring? This stale? Dare I say, low-energy? This doesn’t translate on TV, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that in the convention center, it’s hard to find somebody who looks like they remotely care about what’s going on on the stage. Few people are even listening. At any given time, roughly one third are on their phones (this eventually includes Will and I). At least two people in our section were on their laptops. People are constantly coming and going from their seats. Most are talking to their neighbors, creating a steady din, which makes it require some focus to even hear what the speakers are saying. Most of their jokes get nothing. There are occasional spikes in engagement — Lena Dunham’s one liners, Howard Dean’s scream reprisal — but for the most part, the lack of enthusiasm is unwavering. The obligatory “I’m With Her” and “Stronger Together” and (suspiciously) “Do the Most Good” posters are passed out during the highest-profile speakers, and dutifully held up and waved on cue for the cameras.

On the concourse, things are crowded and stressful: The clockwise walkers and the counter-clockwise walkers try to avoid bumping into each other, and both try to avoid the people waiting on line for their six-dollar water. The ground floor is packed with media booths where people sit at their computers and talk on their headsets.

The only time the crowd goes quiet is when Bill Clinton gets on stage. And yes, he gave a solid speech. And yes, it went over fairly well with the crowd. And in fairness, Will tells me that the audience had been more engaged the previous night. Fine. But I can’t help but imagine what this would have looked like had Bernie Sanders won the nomination. I felt more energy from individual protesters the day before than from entire sections in this convention hall. A stadium full of those people would have been an explosion. It’d have been insane. Their screams would break your eardrums. The televised broadcasts would leave their political opponents terrified.

Say what you want about the Bernie crowd, but they know how to show the fuck up.

Better Than They Have To Be

When we’d first arrived at the stadium, Will got chicken wings. While I waited for him, I noticed the name tag of the man standing next to me — Andy Sandler, Kansas Delegate. He tells me he’s a Bernie supporter, and that Kansas already had their roll call — they voted roughly 2 to 1 for Sanders. I tell him about how adamant the Bernie or Bust crowd has been, and ask if he considers himself of that same mindset:

“No, I’m a Democrat, and always have been a Democrat, but I do understand them. The thing is, some of them have never been Democrats, they’re just looking for an excuse, and Bernie was that excuse.”

Sanders is about to announce his concession to Clinton, so Sandler starts eating faster so he can go back inside. I ask him how the wings are.

“They’re better than they have to be,” he says, not missing a beat. This makes me laugh.

“Yep,” he says, “there’s a ringing endorsement for you.”

Day 3

Far More Progressive, By a Long Shot

The main locale of today’s daytime protest is the plaza in front of the Municipal Services Building across the street from City Hall. An amphitheater-like stage is set up, and things generally look more organized and official. I’m starting to notice the same people; more than a few are hard to miss, like one guy with a nightmarish blowup of Bernie Sanders’s head and two hands, or the “Suicide Before Clinton” crew dressed in early aughts Hot-Topic-esque regalia. The heat is absurd — protesters alternate between cheering by the stage and recuperating off to the side in the building’s shade — but the energy is as high as it’s been. The MC, a tall black man with a booming voice, keeps the crowd pumped. In between speakers, loud music blasts and the crowd goes nuts, dancing for all the cameras, which today include some mainstream news outlets.

I start chatting with somebody — young, white, male, dressed in mostly black, covered in pins and wearing big sunglasses, somebody who many would (unfairly) write off as a Bernie-Bro. As he’s explaining to me the threat that Democrats represent to democracy, we’re interrupted by some noise coming from behind us; Members of the anarchist group, who are not scheduled to speak, are trying to get on stage, not quite violently, but assertively. After some short deliberation, the MC decides to give them some time with the microphone.

They rail against the democratic process that their fellow leftists are buying into, singling out Sanders for endorsing Hillary: “You’ve been fighting for Bernie this whole time — and look what he’s done to you!” The mood in the crowd is, at worst, a bit uneasy; it’s mostly silence — no boos, but some grumblings of disapproval. When they finish, they politely hand the MC his microphone back. He’s ecstatic. He praises the speakers, and reminds the crowd of how Bernie once handled the Black Lives Matter protesters who’d rushed his stage. He encourages the different factions to keep finding common ground and move forward. The crowd assents, the music comes on, and all seems right again.

Witnessing this mild infighting makes me realize how little I’ve actually heard these protestors even so much as mention the most important man of this election cycle, save for when I bring him up explicitly. Unsurprisingly, very few BOBs speak of Trump as a candidate they would ever be willing to support; his ethno-nationalistic rhetoric is itself enough to bar them from ever even considering it. I suspect that the rumors of swaths of Bernie supporters planning on crossing party lines to vote for him are greatly exaggerated[1]. But they obviously don’t see him as a grave enough threat to support his chief opponent. They’re progressives, and yet they are willing to vote in a way that, by strict cause and effect analysis, raises Trump’s chances of winning. How can this be?

This is the main question that center-left liberals have about the Bernie or Bust movement. When pressed on being less than anti-Donald at all costs, the BOBs tend to fall into one of three schools of thought:

1) The “He’s a Nightmare, But So What?” View

This was the argument presented by Brett, back by the gate at the Wells Fargo Center — the restless, radical, pro-drastic change, arguably playing-with-fire view that concedes that Trump is indeed a right-wing nightmare, but sees that as a valuable opportunity for revolutionary, Bernie-cratic backlash.

2) The “He’s Close Enough to Hillary” View

The second popular point of view is that by most meaningful metrics, he isn’t significantly different from Clinton. It’s the view that most closely resembles the anti-Hillary attacks leveled by Trump himself and his supporters.

This one is trickier. Issue by issue, it breaks down as follows:

Domestic Policy:

Hillary’s only undeniably liberal qualities are her stances on social issues, but even here, she’s been largely opportunistic, usually waiting until a position is no longer politically inexpedient before championing it.

Yes, it’d be tough to claim that Trump is socially liberal, but it is true that he puts far less emphasis on the Christian Right’s hot topics than any of his fellow party members, and on a few issues, (like, say, transgender bathrooms) has even spottily come out on the other side — a surprising jolt in the progressive direction for the Republican party.

Foreign Policy:

Despite her recent rhetoric, Hillary’s record on foreign policy — pro intervention in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, pro Patriot Act, pro surveillance, alarmist on Russia — puts her, at best, right of center, and at worst, in war-hawk territory.

Yes, Trump may support surveillance, torture, and far worse (literally without limits, if we’re to believe his words), but, Howard Stern interviews notwithstanding, he’s been adamantly isolationist when it comes to foreign intervention, and during the primaries, actually made pronouncements that were as anti-Bush and anti-Iraq-War as any Presidential candidate ever has in a televised debate, in any party, ever.

Big Business/ Big Money/ Being Anti-Establishment:

(Note: If you don’t see the world’s population as being cleanly split between an oppressed populace and a manipulative, sinister, rent-seeking elite, then try to just pretend for a minute that you do:)

Hillary is establishment. Her progressive talking points about financial industry regulation are clearly undermined by her voting record and off the record comments, which suggest views closer to those of the donor class providing much of her support. Her recent promises to get money out of politics are clearly undermined by the fact that she has brought a lot of money into politics.

Yes, Trump is a living embodiment of the worst of American cooperate practices, and prior to this campaign, his involvement in the business world, the entertainment industry, and even politics itself (albeit indirectly) makes him as “establishment” as anybody.

BUT, some of the change he’s promising/threatening to bring about — namely, altering and/or uprooting our trade deals and cracking down on illegal immigration — would actually significantly disrupt the current multinational state-cooperate complex. And just the sheer fact of his political success so far — all in spite of his unconventional campaign financing, and in spite of the efforts of the political establishment of both major parties and of virtually every major media outlet in the country — has to be the biggest blow to the confidence of the nation’s rent-seeking elite delivered by any single human being since, I don’t know, Julian Assange.

Racism/Sexism:

Trump: Mexicans, Muslims, women.

Clinton: Ex-Goldwater girl, super-predators, accusations of silencing Bill’s victims.

You get the idea.

Other relevant things I heard: “Hillary is opportunistic, corrupt, lying, narcissistic, and petty. Trump is obviously all of those things, but at least he has the decency to act that way!” And: “The only thing worse than an overtly racist Republican is a covertly racist Democrat.” Her heart’s almost certainly to the right of her rhetoric; his heart’s almost certainly to the left of his. Hillary’s existence seems to confirm everything that makes Americans cynical about politics; Trump’s seems to confirm everything that makes Americans cynical about America.

So in the end, the argument goes, it’s basically a wash.

3) The “He May Actually Be a Tad Bit Better” View

I encounter this third perspective for the first time from the (if you insist) Bernie-Bro. It’s worth a block quote:

“Trump is a businessman. All it takes is the right mentality for us to convince him that these progressive values are an opportunist’s values. At the end of the day, he’ll do what makes his brand better, makes his business better, and makes him more money. If we can show him that the people have a real say, and that his image, his brand, will go down the shitter if he, say, chooses horrible Supreme Court Justices, he’ll turn. He’d be far more progressive than Hillary, by a long shot.”

You’re probably thinking that Putting “Trump” and “progressive” in the same sentence sounds insane, and I don’t disagree. There is, however, something embedded in this view that’s actually hard to argue with. If you let yourself consider that Trump’s campaign has been driven by nothing but opportunism and a desire to win — literally nothing else — a lot of it starts to make sense: After being a life-long Democrat, he wins over the Republican base by going full-on Nationalist. Then to placate his base (whose party he just single-handedly decimated), he tries to swing conservative. Once he realizes he needs to somehow win over a majority of the country’s voters, he tries going moderate.

Think of the insults he throws out — his blatant lack of shame in picking up the biggest weapon he can find and firing it at whomever his enemy of the day is — no matter how petty, or how literally false, or even how much it undermines his own message.

I’m unconvinced that these tactics would result in a progressive candidacy; in fact, like most, I can’t even begin to imagine what his four years in office would look like. But whatever he’d do, why wouldn’t it continue to be equally opportunistic? Does anyone, for example really believe that Trump has strong, deeply-felt, thought-out convictions about illegal immigration? Or that he picked Mike Pence as his running mate for any reason other than to try to win neocon support?

Even his critics can’t seem to decide what he really represents — is he a centrist, cynically coopting toxic rhetoric and positions to appeal to the worst qualities of his potential supporters, or is he indeed the megalomaniacal demagogue he often sounds like, constantly trying (and failing) to soften himself enough to garner the support he needs to seize power? Here’s the third option: Trump is apolitical. He views his political career exactly the way he brags about viewing everything he does: as a means to win, simply to prove that he capable of winning, to, as William Gaddis said, “make other people take him as seriously as he takes himself.” This possibility is hard to fathom for most thinking, breathing humans, but, all things considered, on the increasingly pressing question of what actually goes on between Donald Trump’s ears, it may just be the theory that best fits the evidence.

Repenting From Your Sin

…Thinking about which, again, makes me want to talk to more actual Trump supporters, of which there are now at least a few contenders in sight.

Towards the back of the crowd is a line of Presbyterian Pro-Life picketers. I talk to one of them, an older man holding a Bible. He’s quick to distance himself from the others in the group, some of whom are holding signs with blown-up photos of aborted fetuses. He says he happens to have met them earlier in the day, and he acknowledges that their signs are are a bit much: “You hold a sign like that, you’re gonna get some flack.” His voice and demeanor are disarmingly gentle. After he gives me a quick Jesus spiel, I ask him who his candidate of choice is.

“I’m getting talked out of Trump. I was a Trump supporter, but not very strongly, but now I don’t know what I’m gonna do. Just the positions he supports are pretty much like Hillary does… and he’s not a very attractive candidate. He’s just kind of a buffoon. The guy can’t keep his mouth shut. You just can’t say everything you think!”

Before I leave, I ask if he’s at all affiliated with the people behind him.

“No, totally different group.”

The “people behind him” have large posters that say things like “ASK ME WHY YOU DESERVE HELL” and “MUHAMMAD IS A LIAR, FALSE PROPHET, CHILD RAPIST PEDOPHILE”. They’ve been hard to miss over the past few days, following all of the action, and constantly trailed by a group of cops. Some of their interactions with other protesters are the closest I’ve yet seen to violence breaking out.

I notice, somewhat to my surprise, that one of them is wearing a backwards red cap. He’s tall, and though he’s wearing sunglasses, I can somehow still tell that the whole time we speak, he’s looking far off over my left shoulder, as though ruminating wistfully and deeply about something that isn’t me.

I ask if they’re affiliated with the Westboro Baptist Church, and he answers, firmly, no. When I ask about his hat, he turns it around.

“Trump is the best candidate, because unlike Hillary, he didn’t stab his party in the back. He’s a conservative, and he believes in the wall. I live in Arizona, by the border, and I know how bad these illegal immigrants get. And they’re not just Mexicans — they’re Muslims, they’re Chinese, it’s bad.”

I ask how he responds to people like Ted Cruz who accuse Trump of being un-conservative in his positions and un-Christian in his demeanor.

“Ted Cruz is basically a sore loser. He wanted to win, and now he’s acting like the baby he is.”

I ask what his group showed here up to say.

“We’re bringing the message of Jesus Christ and repenting from your sin.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank you.”

I Heart Trump

That afternoon, I’m back at the Wells Fargo Center gate, and I seem to have beaten the crowd. I get some free Mexican food being served buffet style at a booth under a “Beans for Bernie” banner (“What do we think of this primary process? It stinks!”)

I see a familiar looking man holding an “I Heart Trump” sign. He’s acting oddly perky, trying to goad any response he can (“Trump for President guys, c’mon! I know you love him!”) I realize who he is — Ami Horowitz, a right-wing provocateur who’s contributed to Fox news with his “Ami on the Street” segment (in his most popular video, he waves an ISIS flag on the Berkeley campus.) When I talk to him, he’s clearly uninterested in defending his candidate of choice. (“Ah, I just think, he’s running as a Republican, I’m a Republican, that’s basically it. I’d have been here with an ‘I Heart Kasich’ sign if he’d won.”)

Here’s a representative sampling of the things I heard the BOBs say to him as they passed:

“I hate Trump but I love free speech.”

“I don’t care who wins, good stuff though.”

“I don’t love Trump, but I love you .”

“Trump doesn’t give a shit about his workers!”

“Can I grab you a water? You look thirsty!”

“I don’t wanna vote in general; when my one vote counts as one vote, maybe, man.”

“You wanna stand on this mound? Might be a better spot.”

“I love the pink heart!”

“Fuck you.”[2]

They Stole it From Us

An amphitheater is set up outside in FDR park, where a crowd waits for the premiere screening of journalist’s Greg Palast’s “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy,” a documentary investigating allegations of voter fraud in the Democratic primaries. The crowd is exhausted. The tone is one of desperation, exasperation, and pent up rage. A sign by the stage reads “At What Point Do We Claim Self-Defense?” Speakers give short talks, some of them Sanders delegates. They’re clearly making an effort to stay positive and curb their disappointment in Bernie’s defeat. They talk about moving forward, maintaining the movement’s momentum, supporting Bernie-crats who’ll be running for local seats. Some don’t bother trying to hide their anger. One man, a Venezuelan, talks about the “communist” accusation Sanders supporters are used to hearing: “My mother has seen real communism, and last night, in the DNC, that’s what real communism looks like.” He throws his DNC pass into the crowd. Another woman gives a short, impassioned speech: “We’ve been working on this so hard, for so long, and we almost did it, and then they stole it from us!” Her voice cracks when she says this — she seems on the verge of tears, but unlike most emotional outpourings at political rallies, it comes across completely genuine.

I walk away when the movie starts; I need a moment to think. Wandering down the street, I meet a group of BOBs with impressive signs that literally involve electronic circuits and moving parts; our conversation gets regularly interrupted by passers-by wanting pictures.

I tell them that although I had a DNC pass for the day, I chose not go back in, given the depressing manufactured enthusiasm I’d witnessed the day prior (which is true, by the way), which they say is “so heartening to hear.” Listening to them, I realize I had been underestimating two main sources of Bernie-cratic anger. The first is the belief that during the primaries, team Clinton went beyond using questionable tactics and in fact literally rigged the elections via voter fraud; I only now grasp that among BOBs, this is widely accepted as established fact.

More importantly, I start to get, on a gut level, just how much these people have been investing in this. One of them talks about being a life-long Green Party member, brought over to the Democrats for the first time by Obama. Another is a registered independent, and typically goes for more non-partisan involvement. They’re explaining the sheer amount of time and energy they’ve committed, and I’m exhausted just listening. And I’m finding that suddenly, a few things are starting to make more sense:

Some have pointed out that the shocking and unprecedented nature of the Trump movement has overshadowed the Sanders movement, which is only slightly less shocking and unprecedented. I think they’re right; had Trump not run this year, Sanders is all we’d be talking out. This group — call them the “uncompromising progressives”— are probably the most politically engaged group in this country. Built into their worldview is the idea that citizens should constantly be playing an active role in the political process, and not just during a national election cycle. For the average citizen like myself, this election feels like a state of emergency, but they’ve felt this urgency their whole lives.

For at least the past few decades, the sort of candidate that people like this could actually get behind has been, at best, relegated to the Green Party, where he is brushed aside or laughed at in the public sphere, and winds up with at most a few percentage points of the popular vote.

Then suddenly, for the first time, they actually make progress — real, concrete gains. It seems impossible, and it’s only been possible because of the confluence of loosely ideologically related, but fundamentally distinct populist movements — Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Greens, the more apolitical hippie types (whom some here refer to as “the love crowd”) — all of these groups found cohesion and common cause under Bernie Sanders, a politician who speaks less like a Democrat than he does like one of them, who understands their fights and their frustrations, and who, miraculously, was winning delegates and getting the support they’ve long claimed people like him deserve.[3]

Whether you find this movement exciting or troubling depends on your personal political leanings. Put that aside for a moment, and try to imagine that you’re one of them; that for your whole life, you’ve been politically volunteering, and not just with money, but with actual time and effort — making phone calls, organizing protests, passing out flyers, writing to local congressmen, contributing free content to alternative media outlets like Democracy Now and Citizen Radio. And then, the very same year that your cause finally finds some real purchase, a group that stands against your most important core beliefs cuts the legs right out from under you. But worse, they not only don’t apologize, and not only keep claiming to be your allies, but they now demand that you get in line and support them, and they ridicule and mock those who refuse to do so.

You probably wouldn’t get in line. You’d probably tell them to go fuck themselves. I suspect that I would too.

Some caveats: I’m not a journalist[4], nor am I a statistician. I don’t have access to any polling data that you yourself can’t google this moment. Obviously, the people that show up to a Bernie or Bust protest outside of the DNC are a self-selecting sample.

All that said, a few things have become undeniably clear to me:

1) This group is far more numerous, energetic, and unified that most people seem to realize and what the relative amount of media coverage they’ve garnered would suggest.

2) When these people say they aren’t going to vote for Hillary Clinton, the vast majority of them really, truly mean it, which means that…

3) If there are enough of them, then in what may prove to be the most ironic twist in the history of American politics, the success of this lefty, hippie, peace-loving, anti-corporate, anti-fascist, anti-racist, grassroots movement may prove to be the deciding factor in the election of Donald J. Trump to President of the United States.

Open the Gates

It’s dark. The protesters are reenergized now, starting their second wind. Some have been resting on the grass watching the movie, others re-hydrating and getting cheese-steaks at the only food joint within eyeshot. The crowd leaves the FDR park as a unit, chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, the DNC has got to go.” Another crowd is coming from the opposite direction, and they converge at the main gate. There must a hundred police officers, some inside the gate, others lining the street. Several helicopters are flying overhead. The protesters chant “Hell no DNC, we won’t vote for Hillary” and “Election fraud” and “Cowards, come face us” and “Who do you work for? Who do you serve?” They pass around a coffin with the letters “DNC” and an upside down donkey painted on its side in red, white, and blue, eventually tossing it over the fence.

Something else is happening: I see some of the anarchists wrapping bandanas around their faces. One of them tries to start a chant of “Open the Gates!” but other protesters shout him down, urging non-violence. Another is on his knees putting on a gas mask. Others are in a tight huddle, whispering to each other.

I bump into Brett. He’s noticed the same things I have.

“If we want to help diffuse the situation, we can talk to them,” he suggests. “We just ask them questions. We don’t tell them what to do or what to believe or anything, we just listen.”

Brett approaches a bandanaed man and tries starting a friendly conversation. The first thing he does is ask if we’re “interviewing” him. “No! Look, my phone is locked, nothing on, just talking,” Brett says. He looks at me. “Yeah same!” I say, and take my phone out, stoping the audio recording with my thumb as I pull it out of my pocket, and show him the blank screen.

Brett then talks to a young woman, the girlfriend of one of the anarchists. She looks miserable. “I don’t know, I’m not doing anything. I’m just watching somebody I love do what he does.” I notice one of them put on a Guy Fawkes mask and I follow him as a sneaks through the crowd towards the gate, investigates it, and runs back into his group.

“Something is about to happen,” I tell Brett.

And then it does. The anarchists — two dozen, at most — one in front reading out a list of grievances into his megaphone — charge the gate. One of them swiftly snaps the lock with thick wire cutters. Water balloons are thrown into the air — some towards cops on the street. “Fucking anarchists!” somebody yells. The gates swing open, the anarchists charge in. The police form a semi-circle; a few of the anarchists get tackled and cuffed on the ground. After a short pushing match, the gates are closed again. The anarchists who are still among the crowd — which is now loud, frantic, and full of sharp elbows — continue to throw things in the air, including what appears to be gasoline.

The BOBs are instantly set on turning the situation around: some group together and sit down on a hill facing the police, holding up peace signs. Others, motioning to those with cameras, chant “protect our peaceful protest.” Others help the cops form a human barrier in front of the gate to prevent any further breaches. Still others with bongos and guitars improvise a “we are the peaceful” chant.

The remaining anarchists gather in a circle and proceed to attempt to burn an American flag. They get surrounded by people, some to watch, but most facing the opposite direction, chanting “Bernie supporters, turn your backs!”

The flag burners are angry, but struggling to actually get anything alight. Somebody yells, “How many anarchists does it take to burn a flag?” about which they don’t seem amused. When they eventually do get it lit, some try to douse it with water — pushing and yelling ensues. One man tries to stamp out the burning flag on the ground, and flames catch his dress.

Sometime during all of this, I notice that my phone is dying; I spend about 30 seconds caring before I realize I should be more concerned with not being trampled or set on fire.

As things appear to be cooling down, one of the anarchists, holding a megaphone, is intent on not letting things do so. He tells the crowd that he heard the cops “planning on making moves.” He shouts “You’re protecting the Oligarchy!” to the love-crowd on the grass. Two BOBs start pleading with him.

“We’re just defending the people here. We don’t want anyone getting hurt. Violence gets you nowhere.”

“You cannot commit an act of violence against an inanimate object!” he says in response, though still talking into his megaphone.

“We’re trying to bring focus back to what we’re here to protest — election fraud. They’re just dividing us right now.”

Despite his efforts, things do continue to abate. Performance artist and presidential candidate Vermin Supreme, wearing his signature boot/hat, makes an appearance, commending the police officers via his own megaphone for their handling of the situation, and gets applause from the crowd. The BOBs gather themselves and go back to the park to regroup, leaving the anarchists alone in a small circle, huddling around the ashes, chanting about “Oligarchy” and “Intifada.”

At the end of the street, I see Brett and a friend of his, Aaron, a young black man from Detroit, speaking amicably with two policemen. They’re describing what had just unfolded at the gate; Brett starts showing them some of his pictures and videos. I get involved and show them some of mine. They ask if we’d be willing to come down to the station, just as witnesses, to describe to what happened.

Burn It To The Ground

So we go. None of us had been in a police car before; we take selfies in the back seat. The driver tells us that they arrested seven people, and that they had trucks with tear gas and riot gear waiting down the street, which they obviously didn’t wind up using. At the station, they take us into their office where we’re each paired with a deputy; I describe what had transpired, pausing between sentences while he two-finger types notes. I send him a few photos and videos from my phone. As he takes me back into the lobby, I tell him that I was impressed with how well the Philadelphia PD handled the situation, and that many of the protesters — even some of the more radical ones — seemed to feel the same. He smiles. “Yeah, our boys have been behaving themselves. You take care.”

Brett took the longest, so Aaron and I have some time outside in the lobby to talk. He’s been actively supporting Sanders for over a year. He’s smart. He talks money in politics, bitcoin, the silk road, the NSA, the potential for a progressive/libertarian alliance. He mentions his frustration with the media, and I start wondering about coverage of what we’d just witnessed.

“Don’t count on it,” he tells me. “The mainstream media barely writes anything about us, even when thousands of people show up. They just talk about nonsense.” He takes out his phone and does a search for “DNC.” “Jesus Christ,” he says. “Look.”

He points the screen towards me — the first hit is an article headlined “What Should We Call Bill if Hillary is Elected?”

“Can you believe this shit? This is the kind of stuff they waste their time on. It’s amazing!” He shakes his head. “I gotta say, sometimes, I really do understand those ‘burn it to the ground’ guys.”

He chuckles, puts his phone away, then closes his eyes and does a full body shudder, as though trying to shake the momentary spike in fanaticism off of his skin, like a dog drying off its fur.

_______________________________

NOTES:

[1] Know that this is only my gut instinct and that there’s really no reason you should believe me.

[2] I encourage you not to look up the one-minute of video footage he created out of these encounters; suffice it to say that no amount of cynicism could have prepared me for this degree of selective editing.

[3] Notice another Trump parallel in how he’s also been able to unite and give mainstream voice to groups who have previously felt left out of mainstream political discourse — paleo-conservatives, alt-righters, white nationalists, evangelical Christians, and even, somehow, some prominent libertarians. The difference is that while the disagreements between the different Sanders camps are more on emphasis (OWS tend to view struggle view the prism of class, BLM through the prism of race, etc), the aforementioned Trump-backing groups have world-views that are, in fundamental ways, completely incompatible. How they can find unity under someone like Trump makes little sense to me. Then again, the most irrational position of all may be holding on to the expectation that political alignments should make rational sense.

[4] I probably should’ve mentioned this earlier.