On the third night of the 2016 Republican National Convention, Texas senator Ted Cruz delivered a speech in which he prevaricated like a pro. “Vote your conscience,” he hedged, avoiding an explicit endorsement of Donald Trump. I stood on the convention floor and watched as delegates and other Republicans booed, and chanted “TRUMP!” over and over, so much so that it was difficult to hear Cruz above all the dissent.
I thought about that night on the first day of the Democratic National Convention here in Philadelphia, as I spoke to supporters of senator Bernie Sanders in the convention centre, before and after he spoke to a ballroom full of his delegates at a rally ahead of the convention early Monday afternoon. There were boos here, too, but for the opposite offence: Sanders’ repeated endorsement of Hillary Clinton brought forth a seething rage from the Bernie bros (and sisters, and assorted family members). And their jeers and heckles communicated their contempt, if not for Sanders himself, then certainly for the DNC, Debbie Wasserman Schultz – who recently stepped down as chair of the DNC amidst an email scandal – and a system many called “rigged”. Most of all, though, their noisy fury was aimed at Hillary Clinton.
So. A schism: a passionate swathe within the party (percentages vary), giving voice to their dissatisfaction. And a weird inverse casting of Bernie Sanders as an inadvertent, sort-of Ted Cruz of the left. Who would’ve thought?
Outside the ballroom, I observed a white-haired delegate from Ohio talking about her issues with the DNC. On the convention lanyard around her neck, she had pinned a button of Bernie’s face. I overheard her ask if it was OK for someone to “cheat and lie” and still occupy a seat in the White House.
“We cannot have unity in America,” she said with a quiet fire, “unity in the party, if we cannot trust them.”
I spotted a woman with Ghana braids sitting outside the ballroom. She, too, was wearing a Bernie button. She was a Sanders supporter, and would vote for Bernie Sanders. But he’s not going to be on the ballot, I said gently. So who would she vote for? She sighed at me, like I was an irritating fly. “It’s too soon to think of that,” she replied. I changed tack. So why Bernie? “Because of what he’s done for us.” She’s from Chicago, where Sanders attended university, and where, as a student activist, he took part in the first civil rights sit-in in the city’s history, against the school’s segregationist housing policy. “For people who look like me,” she said quietly. I repeated my question: Who will she vote for now? “Just…not Hillary.” She looked at me, almost defiant. She knew she would be splitting the vote. She knew. But on her face was a struggle more articulate than she was vocalising. She is not for Hillary. But she is black, in 2016, on a day where Trump is five points ahead in the polls, on a day when parts of America are for the very first time beginning to think about the very real possibility of a life under President Trump.
In the Reading Terminal Market food court, I sat with a colleague surrounded by people in Bernie apparel. A few were wearing green tri-cornered felt hats (“because of the Robin Hood tax!” one young man told me when I asked), as well as buttons. A “Bern-ie!” chant broke out spontaneously and lasted a few seconds. Moments later, a man, caught up in it all, yelled “Never Hillary!” That chant never took off. Too cumbersome, I suppose.
Later on in the day, as I joined marchers outside City Hall on Broad Street, I saw several more people who shared the sentiment. “HELL NO, DNC, WE WON’T VOTE FOR HILLARY,” the protesters chanted, while signs read things like “STOP THE CLINTON CRIME SPREE” and “BERNIE OR BUST” and “DEMS DON’T REPRESENT US! #DEMEXIT GO GREEN” and this unequivocal one: “NEVER CLINTON + NEVER TRUMP = BREAK UP THE U.S.” The Bernie signs and stickers were in abundance, and there was even a large disembodied Bernie head, his animated visage floating steadily along with the tide of walkers. They were a rhythmic bunch: lots of drums, lots of dancing, hugs and good cheer all round. It could’ve been a carnival. And I followed it as such, dance-walk-shuffling along with them.
One memorable sign asked a question I have been thinking a lot about this week. Written with little care for upper- or lowercase conventions, it read: “Queen of corruption gets another free pass, just because of super asshole (?)” A postscript clarified who this super asshole was (“Trump, btw”) just below. I am an unsophisticated rube, craven and terrified of revolution, so the answer seemed clear to me. Would I vote tactically to secure a future in which Trump was not the president? Well, yes.
I’ve never voted in an American election before, but my whole electoral life in Britain – as a child of Empire, as part of the UK’s multiculturalism project, as a woman etc – has been a series of compromises big and small. No, it’s not ideal. And I understand that there comes a time when you feel you have to take a stand and push the needle in one direction or the other. But marching with those people (of different races and ages), I did not feel energised by the prospect of splitting the vote in protest. Instead, I was worried and thinking about life under would-be President Trump.
In the Wells Fargo Center on Monday night, I stood near the North Carolina delegation and watched Eva Longoria introduce New Jersey senator Cory Booker to rapturous applause. “Let us declare,” he said, “that in America, love always trumps hate.” Then he dabbed his forehead with a crisp white handkerchief, a familiar gesture to those of us who have attended church in hot climates. While he was speaking, some people began chanting “Black lives matter”, resisting the shushing of the crowd to get it out a few more times. Good for them, I thought. Protest is messy.
I spotted the same group of people chanting when senator Elizabeth Warren was speaking. (They had stayed silent during Michelle Obama’s speech, perhaps reading the room and knowing they would get a frostier-than-normal reception if they attempted it.) “We trusted you!” they said at senator Warren, jabbing their fingers in the direction of the stage. “We trusted you!” It’s the admonishment you give a loved one. The unspoken subtext was: How could you?
When Bernie Sanders arrived, there was a two-minute applause and chant break. Before his appearance, volunteers had been scrambling to pass out targeted placards: “Stronger Together”; “A future to believe in”; and plain old “Bernie”. He gave a full-bodied endorsement of Hillary Clinton, and the boos were subdued, if not completely absent. You can’t completely lower raised danders with a couple of speeches or a text, I suppose. In the memorable words of Iowa delegate Chris Laursen: “Bernie basically fed us a bunch of Mountain Dew and now he wants us to go to bed. It’s not going to happen.” It’s a great quote, not least for its allusion that some delegates might well be fractious children unwilling to accept an arbitrarily set curfew. Bernie Sanders’ movement did what he wanted it to do: It took hold and became bigger than even he might have imagined.
Nobody’s going to bed. Even if it winds up costing the Democrats this election.