It’s Tuesday night, dark and cold, with a sharp chill in the New Hampshire air. On a tree-lined street of modest homes in Manchester, Bernie’s people park their cars (Honda, Toyota, trucks, a Tesla) and stream past the thick glass doors of the Currier Museum of Art (Sol LeWitt, Mark di Suvero, Frank Stella), while down in D.C. the seats in the House of Representatives are filling up up for Donald Trump’s State of the Union address. Ostensibly both groups of spectators are gathered for Trump’s speech, the D.C. crowd a purple mix of haters and lovers while here in the museum it’s nothing but contempt for the president.
With a week to go until the primary, the event tonight is unlike most any of the other campaign stops in that in mood and presentation it underlines the pretense that Bernie Sanders will win the Democratic nomination. Though the Democratic Party has deputized two of its members to give the official response to Trump, which will be televised immediately following on the same national broadcast, Bernie will be here in front of a few hundred of his own supporters, with seven or eight outlets broadcasting his response as an alternative to the party line. Pete will do his in a hotel banquet room, sans crowd, for a four-minute segment on MSNBC. Warren won’t do one, Biden, for his own good sense, won’t give himself the opportunity to flub it. Tulsi Gabbard had been invited to respond by a news outlet in her home state of Hawaii, but she declined.
In the lower level of the museum there’s a charged, nervous energy from both the gathered crowd and the media, sequestered in a dark backroom away from the crowd, while a wall projector streams Trump at an uncomfortable magnification. Right now, Bernie’s surging in every poll, and is clearly poised to take the win later this week. A dozen men and a few women, some traditional media and a few from podcasts and local independent media, obsessively scroll Twitter, raising their eyes only occasionally to take in Trump on the screen.
Trump’s on his best behavior, no mention of the impeachment trial, nothing too offensive. On health care, Trump says “to those watching at home tonight, I want you to know, we will never let socialism destroy American healthcare!” which gets a few quiet boos from a corner of the media room.
A little before 10:00 p.m. Bernie rapidly speeds down the hallway, with a big hunch in his shoulders, his quick pace and white hair leaving a spectral ghost trail in his wake. A moment later Trump comes crashing down on Bernie if not by name than suggestion. “If forcing American taxpayers to provide unlimited free health care to illegal aliens sounds fair to you, then stand with the radical left,” Trump bellows.
Trump ends his address with a nostalgic evocation of an America that has never existed but which animates a romantic reductionism of American history, the kind of roadside patriotism one sees in the plexiglass displays of the pioneer spirit pinned up on rest-stop walls at McDonald’s and Wendy’s. “As the world bears witness tonight, America is a land of heroes. This is the place where greatness is born, where destinies are forged, and where legends come to life. This is the home of Thomas Edison and Teddy Roosevelt, of many great generals,” Trump says. “This is the country where children learn names like Wyatt Earp, Davy Crockett, and Annie Oakley. This is the place where the pilgrims landed at Plymouth and where Texas patriots made their last stand at the Alamo.”
Inside the theater, a restless heady energy courses through the crowd of supporters awaiting the senator from Vermont. The giddiness is a byproduct of front-runner status and the mindset that among all the campaigns is unique to Bernie: that he will inevitably win the nomination, and everyone who backs him is therefore part of the long inevitable narrative march towards victory, in which he wins primaries and accumulates donations and his base grows until he’s built a grassroots movement that hoists him on its shoulders and then deposits him behind a desk in the Oval Office.
The supporters of other campaigns believe their candidate is destined to win, too. But it’s the Bernie folk who more than others take up the joint project of envisioning their campaign as a political revolution, which gives it the hint of something like a brotherhood-sisterhood collective, though they would never describe it as such. A tight bond though not indefinitely tight, like family. Campaigns that bill themselves as a revolution are inherently temporary, the end goal being the eventual acquisition and use of political power.
Some are rather obnoxious about it, frankly, in a kind of preening self-promotional way. Others are quietly confident in their membership in the Long March of Bernie. They keep it low key, and it manifests mainly as a kind of quiet assuredness that Bernie will win and once he does and enacts his revolutionary policies even most of those who are Bernie-skeptical or outright hostile will benefit greatly from Bernie’s social interventions. It’s an assuredness that even Pete’s fervent backers lack, and the kind of confidence that Warren’s and Biden’s camps, in their own ways, pine to instill at their campaign events.
No music, no other speakers ahead of Bernie. There’s a kind of no-frills seriousness when Bernie, in a wrinkled suit but looking himself energized by the roar of the theater, finally takes the stage around 11:30 p.m.
“President Trump has told the American people that the economy today is booming, booming like it has never boomed before,” Bernie says. “For Trump and his billionaire friends, he’s right, the economy really is booming for them.”
Learning from 2016, Bernie then unfurls his position in careful contrast to Trump, but with an evenness of tone, pace, and presentation that was sometimes lacking in his primary campaign against Hillary. Back then at the podium Bernie sometimes risked sounding like a man shouting at pedestrians on a sidewalk crate. Here he’s restrained, and it makes a world of difference. The theatrical flourishes of personality are more endearing, the finger points and all the rest are gestures that garnish rather than admonish.
“The wealthiest people in our country have never, ever had it so good. And we’re now experiencing more income and wealth-income inequality than any time in the last 100 years. In America today the wealthiest three people own more than the bottom half of American society. While at the same time, 500,000 Americans are homeless including 30,000 veterans,” Bernie says.
“In America today, the top 1% earn 49% of all new income, while half our people are living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to pay the rent, to put food on the table, to provide childcare for their kid or even to go to the doctor (doctah),” he says, and the crowd’s spirit rises with Bernie’s grim analysis.
It’s a grimness that’s brought out by most all of the candidates, a sober countering of facts and statistics of those suffering to get a real slice of the stability and assured comforts that Trump has suggested are evidenced by low unemployment and record economic indicators. Bernie sees this comfort will only be realized by medicare for all, a $15 middle wage, eventual 20% ownership of company stock by employees, the nationwide legalization of cannabis.
Instead of tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry, Bernie says, “we’ll enact a tax on Wall Street speculators so that we can make public colleges and universities tuition-free, and cancel all student debt in America.” He says this with a wave of the hand, to suggest a vote for Bernie and the slate is wiped clean. It feels good, it sounds good. Its balm for the soul of some large part of a generation, and the crowd gives him the biggest roar yet.
But as Bernie leaves the stage and the crowd trickles out there’s still an undercurrent of worry among the highly informed and plugged-in supporters. They’ve read the reports coming out of Iowa—after the glow of victory has waned, they’ve seen that the numbers that those who voted for Bernie, accounting for half the total vote in 2016, represented only 39% of Bernie’s Iowa vote this January. How could Bernie’s support in such a key primary state have fallen off? Moreover, the caucus vote totals were far below the 2008 turnout when Obama had galvanized a similar grassroots movement, with a similar play to the disaffected. In Iowa that year, nearly 6 out of every 10 voters were first timers. This year, first-time voters accounted for only 37% of those who came out to support any candidate.
By Wednesday the 10 candidates have put in dozens of appearances all over the state, save for Bloomberg, whose campaign nonetheless has spread a cloud of uncertainty over all the others. After Iowa, Bloomberg amped up his campaign to a staggering 2,100 staffers with operations running events in 30 states. He’s bought more television time than all the other candidates combined. His ads play like a loop in the background of the pizzerias and bars throughout New Hampshire, a constant reminder of his presence as he slowly creeps up the polls in swing states.
In the auditorium of a community college in southern New Hampshire the Elizabeth Warren team bustled with the plucky good cheer that everything will turn out OK. At the door, an excited staffer tells new arrivals that they can check in with a text to the campaign, where they’ll receive a photo back of Warren’s golden retriever that will serve as their ticket. These are inherently social events—the percentage of people obviously here with others something like 85%. It’s Tom Petty (“American Girl”) and Blue Swede (“Hooked on a Feeling”) and not at a volume that would threaten anyone’s level of comfort.
Among the supporters at any of these events there are those already in support of the campaign and those who are shopping around, with some notion that the rallies and town halls are reflections of the candidate’s personality. Even for those who know their gal or guy, the New Hampshire primary season is marked in part by an intimacy that allows an up-close encounter with both the candidate and how they organize their affairs.
Meaning can be summoned by the choice of music, stage arrangement, set decorations (flags and signs), party favors (stickers, pins, Yang gives out hats and shirts, Bloomberg is purportedly catering his events), the environment selected (school, college, Elks club, restaurant, community center), lighting (Buttigieg had stage lights), seating capacity, if the candidate comes on in the center boxing ring style, which encourages intimacy but requires a candidate to pivot around to everyone (Biden is good at this, he moves well, those behind him don’t feel like they’re being ignored; Bernie in his anchored, stationary way, all his movement in his arms, might be the worst), the accompanying literature of campaign news stories printed into neat stacks, color brochures and postcards double-sided, the confinement and arrangement of the press (side-stage pit, in the back roped off, in the back but close to crowd, in back seats, in the back on a riser), the signage—it all stacks up. It’s something, and for the hour or two the residents and political tourists immerse themselves in the candidate’s vibe and aesthetic.
Elizabeth Warren climbs up to a tall stage in a blue sweater cardigan, her big blue WARREN sign up behind her, a few American flags, and there’s a sense of order and care here, as Warren explains jovially that she’ll talk briefly to take as many questions and then selfies as she can before hopping on a plane back for the afternoon impeachment hearing.
“When I’ve got to catch that plane, I will catch that plane. I’m not going to miss that vote,” she says, to cheers.
Warren tells her story, self-deprecating and occasionally funny with a foregrounding of forthrightness about the “twist and turns” of her unusual path to politics. Going to school on a scholarship, “Let’s hear it for the nerds,” she says, before explaining how she dropped out, got married, had kids, went back to school for her degree, taught public school, put herself through law school ($450 a semester), “practiced law for 45 minutes,” then started teaching law school, got divorced, got married, and eventually made her way to the Senate.
“To build an America that works for everyone,” she says, she will combat “the lobbyists and lawyers.”
There’s a sense that Warren, steeped in the legal culture, albeit an academic one, has seen the inner workings of corruption and wants to fight it with the same tools of manipulation used by the bad actors. Her big take away policy is a 2-cent wealth tax on every dollar earned by those with more than $50 million, a tax that will, in her scheme, fund pre-K, child care, raise teacher wages, fund better public schools, serve disabled students, help fund public college, and erase some but not all student debt.
Someone from the crowd wonders what can Warren or anyone in the Democrat party do with Trump’s blatant corruption—he does what he does and gets away with it, aided and abetted by the Senate.
“Their loyalty is to a person sitting in the White House rather than to the Constitution—that’s a crisis for our country,” Warren tells the woman. The only recourse at the moment is to vote him out and install a blue majority, which the crowd acknowledges with only a politely encouraging cheer.
Warren makes her final pitch for equality as a necessary fight with no appetizing alternative, and it strikes a chord. “Me, I’m in this because I fight back. Fighting back is an act of patriotism!” Warren says. “This is not the moment to see big problems and nibble around the edges. This is the moment to do the big things that need to be done. The big structural changes we need.”
There’s a comfort to the events here in that they provide a way to engage with the primary without having to dip one’s head in the torrential waterfall generated by news platforms pumping out bits and pieces of information at an incoherent speed. The ads never stop. The calls ringing house lines and cell phones from every campaign, the knocks on the door, the social media posts, the emails, they come at New Hampshire residents with a ferocious intensity.
On Thursday, I caught up with David Sacks, a South African who’s been in the States for sometime, and is now serving as the President of a Conservative congregation in Nashua, Temple Beth Abraham. Sacks had been making the rounds as much as he could to see each campaign, and when given the opportunity, to query them about their stance on the American role in the Israel-Palestinian peace process.
I’d seen him at a Tulsi Gabbard event, and she’d seemed momentarily surprised to get the question. There are roughly 12,000 Jews in New Hampshire, and it’s rare for the candidates to be prodded for their positions on Israeli policy.
“I got the same essential response from her as from everyone else. They support Israel, we support peace efforts,” he says to me. “It’s the stock answer, basically similar to the Obama-Clinton approach, strive to facilitate, to be a role-player, but not take too many strong overt actions like Trump has done.”
I ask Sacks if he’d yet seen the clip of Bernie’s response that day at a town hall, about the significance of his Jewish identity. It was the most explicit Sanders had been yet about his Jewishness, on how the horrors of the Holocaust and his understanding of its implications defined in many ways his understanding of how the world operates.
“We are one people, and I don’t care if you’re black, you’re white, you’re Latino, Native American, Asian American, you’re gay, you’re straight. That’s not what it’s about,” Bernie said. “What it’s about is that we are human beings. We share common dreams and aspirations.”
Sacks had yet to see it but was eager to watch it once I mentioned it. “My gut feeling with Bernie is—OK, my Jewish identity shapes my moral view of the world but not my support of Israel. So, I want to make sure I’m a citizen of the world and very empathetic to all minorities and persecuted people, and that very well comes from the background of ‘no one helped the Jews when we needed help,’ and that ought to be praised,” he says. “But that doesn’t translate yet as a strength to help Israel,” which has him, as well as many of his congregants, concerned about where Bernie would land as president.
The rallies and town halls serve as something like comedy clubs for the candidates, where they road-test their material for the big national debate stages. On Friday night the candidates held the last Democratic debate before the vote, maneuvering for the big moment that’ll splash the next day on the cable shows and social media feeds, when the experience is distilled into fragments by a collective mind that demands that all must agree on the “narrative” of what took place, which will then, of course, become reality. It was obvious as it happened that Amy Klobuchar’s ending screed would define the night of the New Hampshire debate, before the social media memory-shaping process even kicked into gear.
She told a stirring anecdote about FDR, of when after he died and his body was hoisted onto a train across the States for a rolling memorial service, “here was a guy standing by those tracks along with so many Americans, and he had his hat on his chest and he was sobbing and a reporter said, Sir, did you know the president? And the guy says, no, I didn’t know the president, but he knew me. He knew me.”
“If you have trouble stretching your paycheck to pay for that rent. I know you and I will fight for you. If you have trouble deciding if you’re going to pay for your child care or your long-term care, I know you and I will fight for you. If you have trouble figuring out if you’re going to fill your refrigerator or fill your prescription drug, I know you and I will fight for you,” the senator from Minnesota said, her presentation sharp and evocative.
At her event the next morning at the University of New Hampshire, a capacity crowd filled into the lower room of an anthropology building while Dylan’s “Girl from North Country Fair” segued into Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” It was wood-paneled, carpeted, with a stately chandelier hanging over the media cameras in the back and a mixed-aged crowd, as many boomers as there were students. One boy in a tie-dye shirt read a JSTOR handout of Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like to Be a Bat,” as the crowd murmured softly like it was a Sunday morning in a New England coffee shop.
Klobuchar takes to the stage to a big cheer and falls comfortably into her stump speech, which is a collection of one-liners threaded through stories she told at the debate and on other stages. Her grandfather the ore miner; their savings in a coffee cup in the basement to put her own father through school; he went on to become a newspaper journalist. She takes pointed jabs at Trump and one can quickly imagine that she could probably give Trump a good deal of trouble on the debate stage.
On the huge handouts Trump got from his father to start his business, you “can’t put $413 million into a coffee cup in the basement,” she says to big laughs. Using the trope familiar to all the stumps, Klobuchar asks the crowd to envision the first day of her presidency. Within 100 seconds, she says, she’ll fire Betsy DeVos, before enacting a more moderate, centrist agenda. She won’t cancel student debt but rather wants to increase grants for students and bolster trade schools, for the many thousands of blue-collar and health care jobs left unfilled across the nation.
She does the FDR story again—I know you— and it works still with the crowd, even though everyone here already heard it. She’s been there and knows the struggle. The key part, she tells the crowd, is that Trump lacks empathy, a notion that might resonate for those who remember that Trump, sometime after he trounced the Republican field in the New Hampshire primary, purportedly said, “I won New Hampshire because New Hampshire is a drug-infested den.”
Klobuchar knows about the difficulties here, she says, because she “grew up with a dad who’s struggled with alcoholism his whole life, and I saw treatment change his life. So you wonder why I was the first to lead with a plan for mental health and treatment and doing something serious about the opioid epidemic with investments in states like New Hampshire that need it, it’s because I lived it.”
While Klobuchar’s framing of the American struggle is believably embodied in her own personal experiences, the other candidates largely fall back on anecdotes their campaigns have churned up from voters and volunteers. The raw stream of economic data that has led Trump to proclaim an economic victory in recent months is met with a Democratic counterattack—that despite the dip in unemployment and surging GDP, the working middle class struggles under the weight of medical bills and unaffordable housing.
At his town hall back in the same community college Warren commandeered earlier in the week, Andrew Yang paints what is perhaps the grimmest depiction of an America on the precipice of self-destruction.
For much of his life, Yang has walked the path that leads most often to cushy employment in tech and finance roles—Exeter Academy (’92), and Brown (’96), Columbia Law School (’99), half a year as a lawyer before starting a business that didn’t work, then executive at an elite test prep company before making a few million as the founder of a startup education incubator. It was that role he left to eventually become, oddly, a champion for a universal basic income—the $1,000 a month stipend for all Americans that is now the bedrock of his campaign.
On a low stage in his suit with no tie, Andrew Yang rhetorically asks the largely young and subdued crowd, many decked out in Yang hats and shirts, how did we arrive at a nation under Trump?
“If millions of our fellow Americans decided to take a bet on a narcissist reality TV star—that’s not business as usual,” he says. “So I started looking for an explanation as to why Donald Trump won. We’ve been presented with a whole series of explanations of why Donald Trump won since 2016, every night, until tonight. Go ahead and shout out an explanation you’ve been given as to why he’s the president today.”
The crowd comes alive, shouting out dozens of the various forces that led to Trump’s election. There’s a call-and-response religious revival element to the event as Yang calls them back out over the PA system, a kind of preacher address to his angry and disaffected congregants.
“Racism, Russia, emails, electoral college, Facebook, Hillary Clinton, fear, the Russians, low turnout, Citizens United, corporate money, not a politician, lack of information, sexism, Susan Sarandon, James Comey, the FBI, Hillary,” he says each one with emphatic emphasis.
“But I’m a numbers guy,” he concludes, “and I went looking through the numbers for an explanation and I found one that you will find very familiar. We eliminated over 4 million manufacturing jobs in this country in the last number of years and those jobs were in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa—all the swing states that Trump needed to win in the middle of the country and did,” Yang says, before setting up what he sees as the biggest threats to shared prosperity—the machinations of an increasingly powerful corporate tech set in Silicon Valley.
“Amazon is like a giant spaceship sucking up $20 billion in business every year, closing 30% of our stores and malls. The most common job in the economy is retail clerk—the average clerk is a 39-year-old woman making between $8 and $12 an hour. What’s her next opportunity once her store closes? Walmart. How much did Amazon pay in taxes last year? Zero,” he says holding up a round empty hand.
Yang positions his universal basic income as the only antidote to what he sees as the coming fourth industrial revolution, the “greatest economic and technological transformation in the history of our country,” he says. “When’s the last time you heard a politician say the words ‘fourth industrial revolution’?” he asks. “Just now—and I’m barely a politician,” he answers, with an awareness that he’s the champion of an actual idea. Yang takes a page from the Trump 2016 playbook and asks the crowd to shout out everything that’s as worse as it’s ever been in America. He shouts it right back to the crowd in a bleak wave of validation.
“Suicides, overdoses, guns, temperature, debt, deficient, mental illness, stress, depression, student loan debt, medical bankruptcy, financial insecurity—we all know this,” he says, adding his own evaluation of everything that’s surging to the bottom.
“Starting a business for a young person, getting married, having a child—all the things you associate with a healthy and thriving society are at record lows.
Everyone takes on Trump’s lack of empathy in their own frame. Yang’s is a belief in American’s “intrinsic humanity,” best serviced by a trickle-up economy that allows everyone “to say to their child, your country loves you, your country values you, and your country will invest in you and your future.” It’s a potent if entirely depressing representation of where we’re headed as a nation, even if the capacity for Yang to rise up as the corrective seem to him as farfetched as his polls suggest. But Yang says he’s the best to beat Trump in the general because the opposite of Trump “is an Asian who loves math”—and the laugh is a welcomed relief after the vivid depiction of the approaching apocalypse.
On the way out, two men in flannel shirts and Carhartt boots thank each other for the idea to come to Yang. “It was actually pretty fun,” one says, “We should go see another show tomorrow.”