Bad Moon Rising
Here we are in the desert of moderate liberalism. The storm has hit, and nobody was prepared.
Banquo: It will be rain tonight.
First murderer: Let it come down!
-William Shakespeare, Macbeth.
It’s high noon on the first day of the Democratic National Convention and the block is, in every sense of the word, hot. It’s almost a hundred degrees in the shade. It’s the kind of weather where dogs run mad and bite their owners, and otherwise-sensible liberals do the same.
The fix, you see, was in from the start.
On the eve of the event, paranoid outlaw crypto-justice trolls Wikileaks released thousands of hacked emails that told the world what most of us already suspected: that parts of the Democratic National Committee were scheming against Bernie Sanders from the get-go. The air gap between suspicion and confirmation slammed shut around any hope for a peaceful convention, as thousands of protesters did their damnedest to make their displeasure felt outside the Democrats’ ring of steel.
It was, in short, a really bad day for the party machine to pick Unity as a theme for their giant corporate shindig.
Several thousand people have shown up for this march, and there’s almost no press. Bear in mind that at the equivalent stage of the Republican convention last week, the protests consisted of one man with two guns. A man with two guns who was unable to make his already-incoherent point about second amendment rights because he was surrounded by dozens of reporters, descending like carrion crows on anything that stank of controversy.
The left does not generally hand out merit badges for good effort but we really ought to start, specifically with the few thousand brave souls who turned out to make their feelings known to the DNC today. The action stoners have turned out with a fifty-one foot replica spliff and some signs saying Yes Weed Can to demand the decriminalization of marijuana, and I am even more impressed, because I’m sober and I can hardly see straight in this crawling heat haze at the end of the fever-dream of democracy.
Anyone who is mashed and still marching right now is the kind of hero America needs. Although perhaps they’ve heard the rumour that there’s free pizza at the convention center.
The pizza rumour turns out to be a lie as brazen as any you’ll hear from the podium, and in the same spirit-there is indeed pizza, but you have to wait in line for an hour to pay a bajillion dollars for it and it’s lukewarm when you get there, which is a cunning metaphor for the state of socialism today. Not that the protesters have any chance to find that out, since nobody without a complicated set of press credentials is getting within screaming distance of the stinking portapotties outside the Wells Fargo centre. The only way to get there, unless you’re on a specially chartered bus, is via Uber, which has paid for an absolute monopoly of the event zone.
The union-crushing eponym of the precarious gig economy has total control of the Democratic perimeter. They’ve provided a free lounge with air-conditioning and strange little bags of grey sweets stickers with the Uber brand. I dread to think what happens if you eat one. Perhaps you suddenly cease to require job security or a pension. Sign up for the app if you want to get away, which will happen by way of a car whose angry, exhausted driver who has spent all day being yelled at by delegates. This does not inspire confidence in organization skills of the Party of the People.
Even with all the right passes, it takes an hour to get from the first perimeter to the broiling media tent city inside the ring of steel. There’s almost a mile of dead zone and several sets of scanners between the street and the convention floor, and everything stinks of sizzling Tarmac and compromise. You can hear the protesters outside if you try, but their individual voices have vanished to a wordless burble on the edge of thought. I can’t be sure that I’m not imagining it. By teatime, many of the concessions have run out of snacks leaving the American left with no choice but cannibalism.
What is on the table in the absence of actual sustenance appears to be a direct choice between power and principle. Liberals have long been told to pick one and pipe down. Bernie’s’ “political revolution” came as a genuine shock to those in the party who had been expecting an echo chamber and now find the acoustics in the convention hall harder to work with.
As far as the party machine goes, Clinton is the ideal candidate. She is an iron-jawed, slick-fisted cagefighter gorged on the corpse of the young radical she once was. This is not an impediment to her presidency: It is her qualification for the presidency. She’s a very skilled player of a very unpopular game, a master manipulator in a nation sick of being lied to.
It’s not that Hillary plays the game too well—it’s that she plays it too obviously. If you want the people to swallow a thick pill of liberal complicity then you need to wash it down with a little magic, at least. Hillary isn’t a rockstar like Obama, or a slick charmer like Bill. Her public might have been prepared to tolerate that in a self-styled progressive, but not in a woman.
There. I said it. A set of testicles is rarely a divisive quality in a candidate. Men get a pass on hawkishness and corporate complicity. That’s not a good thing: Every candidate should be held up to the sort of scrutiny Hillary Clinton has faced, but it just so happens that only women are.
In a game where aesthetics give you the edge, Hillary doesn’t look like a hero, not even with the solid pro-choice credentials and the new spacestation-admiral post-pantsuit outfits she’s adopted as a uniform. She is tainted by the stories that have been told about, and for, and even occasionally by her for thirty long years. The party machine loves her, but the membership is deeply goddamn divided. The exact same thing is happening in the British Labour party, and elsewhere across the world as the centre-left faces up to decades of milquetoast equivocation that have caused it, as essayist Sam Kriss puts it, to replace politics with management.
What Sanders and his followers want are real politics, a programme for measurable change- a living wage, debt-free college, an end to private prisons. What Hillary’s people want is a Democrat in charge. Any Democrat. But the mood of the American people is populist, and the Democrats have decided that populism is not to be tolerated. There’s a chasm between the party and the people they claim to stand for, and it’s the kind of chasm that monsters emerge from.
Clinton is inarguably competent. Unfortunately, the American people don’t want competence. They want to be saved.
Inside the hall, speaker after barnstorming speaker takes the stage to make the absolutely unarguable point that Hillary Clinton, whatever her faults, is a better presidential prospect than Donald Trump. In a signal that organizers are aware of divisive their candidate is, every half-time advert played on the big screen is about how scary Trump is, rather than how great Hillary is. As someone who recently watched their country fall apart over the failure of lesser-evilism as political strategy, it’s chilling to watch.
Particularly since there’s more at stake here than the presidency itself. The saccharine pageantry and drawn-out hype of the endless American presidential race is designed, to paraphrase the late, great Douglas Adams, not just to decide who wields power, but to distract attention away from it. Whoever is crowned King of the Free World at the end of this will have far less actual power to push through change than, for example, the new British Prime Minister, who was anointed two weeks ago after a campaign that lasted not more than 90 minutes. I come at this both as a foreigner and as a person who believes that democracy neither begins not ends at the ballot box, a person who believes that any vote cast by an ordinary member of the public in a General Election is a vote for the least worst option. My lack of faith in the party system protects me from heartache of the sort sloshing madly around the convention floor in Philadelphia tonight.
The heartache, however, hangs in the air too thick to dismiss, and it’d be great if those calling for instant unity could show some respect and give the people five minutes to grieve.
Outside the bear pit, the ground is hot enough that if you were to drop all your hopes for a fair deal for workers on the asphalt they would fry in seconds. A huge promo poster declares that 8 out of 10 “politically affiliated” millennials are Facbook users. I realise I am no longer politically affiliated. I did have opinions, once, long ago, in happier days somewhere three or four security gates back, before I came to this post-political hellconvention on the surface of the sun.
Those opinions are all gone now, and I am prepared to offer my vote and also my firstborn child to anyone giving out bottles of water.
At the Rally For Bernie, I was given a glass of seltzer by a very nice lady in a floppy hat, who told me that she didn’t believe a word the press wrote about Hilary Clinton. I explained that I was from the press. She took pity on me anyway.
Inside Media Tent City, by contrast, there are a great many free pens and stickers and several thousand complimentary copies of the New York Times, but nothing to eat or drink. At least in Cleveland there was coffee. Welcome to the desert of liberalism. That’ll be $4.50 for water.
Back in the hall, the Bernie or Bust contingent will not shut up. It’s hard to hear the actual scale of the dissent on the floor from the video feeds, which may not be accidental. Take it from me, though, that every speaker is having a very hard time. Bernie’s people yell over Elijah Cummings as he tries to talk about abortion rights. They yell over Cory Booker. They holler over a young black military widow who is on stage to talk about how Trump University scammed her out of her life savings, and she looked as if she were about to burst into tears. They even boo Michelle Obama. Michelle Obama! A woman who has eaten progressive goodwill for breakfast every day for eight years!
The comedian Sarah Silverman, who was and remains a proud Sanders fan, tells the Bernie Or Bust bros screaming at her from the stands that they are “being ridiculous.” Then she tries to start a chant of “unity, unity!” Al Franken, standing next to her, chants “Hillary, Hillary.”
Fuck that guy. He’s not helping. The only way this could get more embarrassing is if they wheeled out Paul Simon to sing Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Which is exactly what happens next.
Now, before I say what I’m about to say, I want you to understand that I have been a fan of Paul Simon and his work since my father first played me the Greatest Hits when I was six years old.
So you need to know that I’m not being flip when I tell you that Paul Simon subjects his second-finest song to slow and savage torture up there on that stage. His voice breaks on the word “bridge”. It’s too painful to watch.
Outside, an epic summer storm is breaking over the Democratic Demilitarized Zone like the world’s laziest metaphor. The wind howls like thirteen million heartbroken progressives, and the media tent creaks and buckles as hacks from every nation scramble for their devices and start to evacuate.
I spend an hour sheltering ineffectively outside the Wells Fargo building with Susie Cagle. Next to us, an independent internet journalist wearing a giant crystal pendant and no shirt starts explaining how he’s hoping for a Trump presidency to usher in the coming collapse of civilization. Inside, party svengalis plead with the delegates to be reasonable, to consider the greater good, to vote for the lesser evil. The problem is that ordinary decent people around the world have had thirty years of lesser-evilism, and they’re sick of it. Hilary is not talking their language. Trump, lying through his lacquered teeth about bringing back union jobs, just might be.
Here we are in the desert of moderate liberalism. The storm has hit, and nobody was prepared. I make a dash across the street to pay more than the minimum wage for a cup of lukewarm coffee, which spills down my front in the howling gale, and I stand for a second in the hurricane, drenched and starving and disheartened, ready to welcome the Old Ones in their terrible glory.
I try to imagine what the protesters, quarantined a mile away behind a mile of staged checkpoints, scaling fences to be arrested one by one, must feel about this. Then I remember that they’re a bunch of hippy idiots with big stupid notions about fairness and democracy who don’t realise that they’re not allowed to have feelings about any of it. They should know by now that they owe their votes, their conscience, and all their personal data to the Democratic party and its donors. Anything less is purity politics and not to be stood for.
Dissent will not be tolerated. Protest will not be permitted. You will shut the hell up and get on the Clinton bus as it rolls towards a future slightly less terrifying than Trump nation and you will goddamn smile about it.
The Democratic Party, like the British Labour Party, has decided in advance what is politically possible- but they may have made a terrible mistake. In the face of the collapse of the centre-left consensus, the right is terrifying in its grudging unity, and the left is terrifying in its disarray. Consider that after some initial brouhaha, the Republicans cheered on cue as their party was taken over by a giant evil baby. This is because the right runs on fear and is generally good at being told what to do. Meanwhile, Democrats who didn’t get the candidate they wanted were all but throwing punches on the convention floor. When you actually care about the world not sliding into fascism, compromise doesn’t hurt any less. It hurts more.
There’s a bad moon rising, the best lack all conviction and the worst have a million branded baseball caps and greasy little fingers grasping for the nuclear button. Good luck to us all.