My father voted for Bernie Sanders in the spring and says he’ll vote for Donald Trump in November. This places him in a magical category of voters who some believe will determine the election, but because he lives in Massachusetts his vote is unlikely to put Trump in the White House. He thinks of Hillary Clinton as a corporate shill, a politician ‘who’s never had a job in her life’, part of a dynasty that shouldn’t exist in America. He’s suspicious of the Clinton Global Initiative, but he doesn’t go in for right-wing Benghazi talk or say she ought to go to jail. He’s a retired truck driver and has been cool on the national Democrats since the Carter administration passed the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, which decreased the prices of consumer goods as well as the income of truck drivers. I’ve put many arguments against Trump to him, and suggested he vote for the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, or not vote at all. He has nothing much to say about Trump except that he’s not a politician, and isn’t convinced by the case for voting for a lesser evil. ‘The suffering’, Noam Chomsky and John Halle wrote in June, that Trump’s ‘extremist policies and attitudes will impose on marginalised and already oppressed populations has a high probability of being significantly greater than that which will result from a Clinton presidency’. My father would prefer, this time around, to reject the career politician.
Sanders and most of his supporters who came to Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention were willing to accept the lesser evil argument. Some of them wouldn’t be quiet about it. This was irritating for the Clintonian centre, which wanted to get around to pointing out Trump’s boorishness, nominating the first female major-party presidential candidate, and congratulating itself for doing so. The other irritation came from the release by WikiLeaks of emails which showed that the Democratic National Committee was to some degree in collusion with the Clinton campaign, advising it, for example, to highlight Sanders’s Jewishness or his atheism in advance of the Kentucky primary. The emails, purportedly obtained by hackers working for Russia, though Russia denied it and Julian Assange preferred not to be clear about sources, also exposed the petty and unseemly details of who gets to sit near the president at fundraisers and how much it costs. None of this was surprising. It was one of the premises of the Sanders campaign. The absurd part was the liberal commentariat’s rush to speculate that Trump was working for Putin: he’s so monstrous he must be a foreign agent. It’s a paranoid idea not unlike Trump’s schtick that traces the roots of all violence to Mexico.
At its most rabid, the Republican National Convention resembled a witch burning. The Democrats in Philadelphia, when they took aim at Trump, did so in the form of a sanctimonious anti-bullying public service announcement. This didn’t work for his Republican rivals during the primaries, but then they were talking to Republicans, who may see bullying as a fact of life, feel a bit bullied themselves, and indeed nominated the candidate who sold himself as a national bully. The Democrats ask: do you want your children looking up to a president who’s a bully? Children were ever part of the equation in Philadelphia. Trump, meanwhile, was on a speaking tour of the Midwest saying he wanted to hit a number of the DNC speakers so hard their heads would spin, particularly one ‘very little guy’, presumably Michael Bloomberg, who’d implied that Trump was insane and incompetent and could brag of becoming richer than Trump without the help of his father. To my ear the most effective attack on Trump was Joe Biden’s line that it was perverse to hand over the US government and economy to someone who’d popularised the catchphrase ‘you’re fired,’ because taking pleasure in stripping someone of a job is sadistic. And so it is, but all reports indicate that America has become a sadistic country.
Against daily reports of carnage and the fear Trump’s been peddling for the last year, the Democrats offered a message of redemption. Since the performance was made for television, it required a model more suited to the medium than that of the old conventions, and the model was the Oscars. Chunks of the programme had celebrity hosts, and speeches tended to adopt the formula of personal triumph over adversity, followed by expressions of gratitude, especially to Hillary Clinton, with further gratitude in advance to Clinton for saving us from Trump. Trump’s model in Cleveland had been a reality show, with shambolic has-been celebrities, personal testimonials that the real guy underneath the hair isn’t as bad as he seems (and he’s a lot better than that lying bitch with her emails), and the petty drama of Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement, which granted Trump a patina of victimhood. Hillary’s witnesses were triumphant victims here to prove that ‘America is already great,’ ‘love trumps hate’ and ‘we’re stronger together.’ These were the convention’s three slogans. The first is risky in a country with evident self-esteem issues. The second puts the opponent’s name at its centre. The last doesn’t appeal to individualists who think they’re stronger when they own guns.
Before the convention could shift into Hillary hagiography, there had to be a reconciliation with the Sanders contingent, and his diehards had to be scolded like children for not falling in line. ‘To the Bernie or Bust people, you’re being ridiculous,’ the comedian Sarah Silverman, a chipper Sanders advocate throughout the primaries, said on Monday night. Earlier in the day Sanders had been booed at a rally of his own supporters for telling them to vote for Clinton. In a line that Sanders supporters took to be addressed to them, Michelle Obama also got in on the act: ‘We cannot afford to be tired or frustrated or cynical. No, hear me. Between now and November, we need to do what we did eight years ago and four years ago.’ Left-leaning lack of enthusiasm for centrist Democrats was recast as cynicism.
To me it seemed more like a surplus of idealism. Speakers at a Sanders rally around the corner from the convention centre lamented that ‘Bernie sacrificed his credibility’ by endorsing Hillary to save the country from Trump. Sanders had inspired him, but now he was content to be uninspired. At meetings in advance of the convention, one activist told me, Sanders supporters had been sold a new rhetoric meant to solidify their alliance with the Clinton campaign. A Clinton administration would ‘rewrite the rules of the American economy’. Apparently Clinton has been calling to ‘rewrite the rules’ for many months, but the slogan hasn’t transformed her campaign into a movement for economic justice. In other words, the young and the left will have to trade in their revolution for the prospect of some mildly ameliorative technocratic reforms.
Some of them were crying (though it should be said that the cameras kept finding the same two young women) as Sanders spoke to the hall and watered down his talking points both in substance (free public universities for all became a substantial reduction in student debt; universal public healthcare became a public option, a promise Obama made and never delivered) and rhetorically: each policy item was now prefaced by the phrase ‘Hillary Clinton understands’. Perhaps Clinton does understand, but she will have plenty of excuses (chiefly an obstructive Republican Congress) for not doing anything about it unless Sanders’s supporters continue to hold her feet to the fire. If she’s elected, this will mean a challenger to her left in the 2020 primaries. Sanders has failed to leave behind an obvious heir, though on stage he was outstripped by Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota, who managed at least to speak to Sanders supporters as if they were adults: ‘Not voting is not a protest. It is a surrender.’
To attend the convention was to surrender yourself to a litany of mantras about the life of Hillary. Her mother was abandoned by her parents as a teenager and never knew a loving family until one hired her to work as a maid at the age of 14. She never let Hillary run away from bullies. On graduating from Yale Law School Hillary didn’t go to work for a corporate law firm but joined the Children’s Defense Fund to fight discrimination against disabled children, the abuse of child prisoners and lingering segregation in Alabama schools. Six million poor children got health insurance when Hillary was first lady. She persuaded George W. Bush to give New York $20 billion after 9/11 and took care of the first responders’ respiratory problems. Her tenure as secretary of state was reduced to an overnight trip to Israel from South-East Asia to wrangle a ceasefire after the ‘Pillar of Defence’ assault on Gaza (the process took days) and her efforts to impose tougher sanctions on Iran that led to its nuclear neutralisation without a shot fired. Her orchestration of the intervention in Libya wasn’t mentioned. There was Isis to fight and Israel to defend. There were Nato allies not to sacrifice to Putin (as Trump would do). China was the place where Trump had his ties manufactured. As usual, a few veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were trotted out to show that Democrats are tough too.
The vice-presidential nominee, Senator Tim Kaine, appeared to recite his own biography, the appeal of which rests on a stint of missionary work in Honduras (he’s a Christian and doesn’t personally approve of abortion but stops short of legislating against it) and years of litigating against civil rights violations. He’s an unobtrusive running mate who seems to have been picked because he’s a white man (blacks and Latinos are in no danger of going to Trump, women’s votes are already in hand) from a swing state (Virginia) governed by a Democrat who would replace Kaine in the Senate with another Democrat. He also speaks fluent Spanish.
Obama passed through and talked about how much he’d aged since his first appearance as a convention speaker in 2004, then recast that speech in anti-Trump terms. He pulled the neat trick of subtly comparing Trump to Hitler, Stalin and bin Laden in one sentence: ‘America has changed over the years. But these values my grandparents taught me – they haven’t gone anywhere … That’s why anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end.’ Without Clinton as secretary of state Obama’s foreign policy has been less disastrous. He remains an innovator in drone warfare.
Preceding Obama on Wednesday night was former CIA director and defense secretary Leon Panetta, whose role mostly seemed to be to affirm that Clinton had been in favour of killing bin Laden and made sure the president knew it. A ‘No More Wars’ chant from stage right interrupted him. He was rattled until a counter-chant of ‘U-S-A! U-S-A!’ came to his rescue. Later that night I crashed a party for Democrats from a certain state, aware that a disruption by Sanders supporters was planned for when the governor appeared. But the governor never appeared, and at 1.30 in the morning the disruptors gave up. Perhaps the governor never spoke because the organisers were onto their infiltration. In any case, they were tired and there was only so much they could do. I repaired to the bar at the Ritz, where the crush of lobbyists and donors in blue suits was making it impossible even for Fox News hosts to get a drink.
Anyone expecting a memorable speech from Clinton was disappointed on Thursday night. Her first salvo was a quotation of the most famous line Franklin Roosevelt ever spoke, and from there she moved into a maze of circumlocutions. Her one joke was that Trump makes promises but likes to keep his plans secret, and she loves to talk about her plans. But on this night she was vague. She did please those to her left by mentioning the ‘one per cent’ and ‘systemic racism’ suffered by blacks and Latinos, but mostly the speech seemed designed to allow her room to manoeuvre. In line with the rest of the convention, it had an air of self-congratulation. Clinton’s scolding of Trump didn’t go beyond anything his Republican opponents had already tried in the primaries. Bill Clinton was right, speaking on Tuesday night, that the choice was between something ‘real’ and something ‘made up’. The trouble is that voters may prefer Trump’s fictions to the real Hillary Clinton.