Navigate to News section

Burn It Down Bernie and Good Old Joe Meet at the O.K. Corral in Detroit

On the campaign trail in Michigan

Armin Rosen
March 11, 2020
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters and guests during a rally in Calder Plaza on March 8, 2020, in Grand Rapids, MichiganPhoto: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters and guests during a rally in Calder Plaza on March 8, 2020, in Grand Rapids, MichiganPhoto: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The final big photo op of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign to be held when the Vermont senator still stood a reasonable chance of capturing the Democratic presidential nomination took place on a college campus, beneath a pair of tall pine trees and the grandiose neoclassical block-lettering of the word LIBRARY. Sheets of soft clouds hung over Ann Arbor, which the late afternoon sun had illuminated to an eye-straining white. The candidate faced yet another massive crowd, an outpouring of a size that none of his competitors could come close to matching, except for Donald Trump, of course. Thousands upon thousands of people, most of them in their early or mid-20s, showed up on the last Sunday afternoon of spring break to see a candidate two days away from a likely defeat. It was a crowd full of kaffiyehs, rose icons, and a couple of antifa patches. One of the more common T-shirts, sold near the extraordinarily long line waiting to get into the Diag in the center of the University of Michigan campus, was a visual riff on trendy, Supreme-branded apparel, dominated by a photo of cops dragging away a college-age Sanders during a civil rights protest in 1963.

Bernie has one shot at repeating his 2016 upset in Michigan: He needs young people to show up in mind-boggling, almost impossible numbers. The rally offered the reddest of red meat to the only demographic that can deliver him victory: “We see how the university invests its money in fossil fuels and won’t commit to carbon neutrality,” thundered Laila Hayani, a leader in the university’s graduate students union. “All the ladies and gender nonconforming femmes out there, we’re here for you!” said 31-year-old phenom Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, acknowledging International Women’s Day.

Like so much of American politics in 2020, the rally was essentially a tribal gathering. The tribe is young people, many of whom are demoralized at having to face a fundamentally unfair society in which they believe the government is either indifferent to their problems—student debt, health-care costs, a general lack of opportunity—or happily complicit in them. The youth, as reflected in the both the audience and the speakers, are a stew of anxiety and contradiction. They are pragmatic: Elijah, a young African American man and a community college student in Lansing who is transferring to the University of Michigan next semester, said he supported Sanders because his sister has epilepsy, and he wanted his parents to be able to retire without having to worry about her losing health insurance. The youth are maybe also alarmingly indifferent. “My only friends who are really Bernie supporters live here in Ann Arbor,” said Isobel, a student at Michigan State. “I asked 10 people to come today. None wanted to.” But then they are also thinking in boldly teleological terms, at least the ones who bothered to show. History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme, Ocasio-Cortez reminded the vast crowd. “We can end that stanza. We can elect Bernie Sanders president of the United States.”

Sanders needed no notes for his 17-minute speech, or at least none that I could see. Wearing a professorial-looking chestnut blazer, he would softly pivot across the vast horizon of heads, sure to face everyone at least once every 30 seconds. When talking about how “we’re taking on” Wall Street, the prescription drug companies, the military-industrial complex, et al., he tapped his right index finger downward exactly one time per “we’re taking on,” although on the final words of any given thought-unit it would suddenly resemble a bird, frantically pecking. When he talked about ideas or people coming “from the bottom on up,” he scooped the air skywards; when he spoke of putting education “way at the top of the list” of priorities, his arm soared high above his head. At times he looked like he was dribbling an invisible basketball.

There is nothing in Sanders’ being that remains unanimated when he speaks before a large and motivated crowd. His truest self appears on the stump; it is there that he reveals himself most fully. It is a persona that allows for no negotiation, hedging, or softening. He doesn’t care about the price he might pay for empowering a wide variety of deranged or hateful campaign surrogates from the margins of grifter-dom. His entire body acts out an imminent vision of something better, his very limbs are an endearingly comical enactment of what’s coming. Except, it’s not coming.

“The major impediment is the limits of our own imagination,” Sanders said. “We are capable of making sweeping change if we have the courage to do it.” This insight into individual political psychology is correct, as the Sanders wipeout on Super Tuesday showed. On March 3, Joe Biden scored blowouts in states where he had no campaign infrastructure, and in states he never even visited. It turns out that politics doesn’t happen over the course of giant rallies or on college campuses or in Democratic Socialists of America meetings, but rather inside people’s minds, in a realm of imagination difficult to either quantify or qualify or even penetrate. It’s encouraging to think that inner perception can reshape political reality, but it is also kind of disturbing, because it suggests that there is only a vague relationship between the visually obvious trappings of democratic participation and the hidden inner discourse of the psyche, the societywide aggregation of which determines, among other things, responsibility for the world’s largest economy and nuclear arsenal. We can’t really know what goes on inside our neighbors’ imaginations until the votes are counted. Although what we do know is that in Michigan, and in the country at large, Democratic voters seem to be imagining something very different than what Sanders and his children’s crusade are offering them.


Michigan is a defining contested territory in modern American politics, and there is undeniable cosmic justice to the state’s centrality. It is the battleground America earned for itself; a place where the divisions in the nation’s life, and the points of dislocation and divergence that punctuate the last century of American history, are grotesquely obvious. The message of Joe Biden’s impending victory in the Michigan primary is likely to be the same as that of the 2016 election, in which Donald Trump won a beyond-shocking 10,000-vote victory over Hillary Clinton in the state: America is not Ann Arbor. It’s a lot more like Detroit, 45 minutes down the road.

To understand why Detroit explains so much about the outcome of the Democratic presidential contest and the condition of the country in general, it helps to look at the metro area’s Jews, of which there are around 75,000. More specifically, it helps to stand on the steps of the former Temple Beth El, a spectacular neoclassical structure built in the 1920s, vacated in the 1970s, and now home to an interfaith community center. It is three blocks down Woodward Avenue from the former site of the Algiers Motel, where the Detroit Police, Michigan State Police, and Michigan National Guard killed three unarmed black teenagers during the city’s 1967 racial unrest. There is no historical marker or memorial commemorating the site of this atrocity, which is now a small park.

Nearly the entire white population, and the entirety of the city’s Jewish community, decamped from Detroit to the suburbs after the events of 1967. The result is a prosperous and largely white outer strata surrounding an apocalyptically decaying African American urban core, which shrank as the decades dragged on, as the auto industry shrank, and as the city lapsed into dysfunction. The wealthy suburbs tend to treat the city with utter contempt—the surrounding counties still refuse to create a regional public transit system. Today, between the late 1980s monorail, the glassy Forbidden City of the Renaissance Towers, the brand new and eerily island-like arena complex, the casinos and freeways and cruise ship-like condo blocks and empty riverfront plazas, the city’s downtown—however handsome a monument to 20th-century American prosperity, and however much it has rebounded since the city’s late-2000s crash—remains a patchwork of discredited urban planning theories. Meanwhile, the area a mile from downtown is a post-human wilderness; a depopulated urban grid with stretches of stubbornly surviving storefronts and houses rising out of empty land that is largely returning back to its natural state.

“When you go into the suburbs, that divide is very painful,” said DeeDee Coleman, reverend at the Russell Street Missionary Baptist Church. “The grocery stores are in the suburbs; in Detroit you gotta go find one.” She described driving out of the Detroit city limits: “Past 8 Mile [Road] the first thing you see are trees, beautiful trees, and people sitting under them, having a wonderful day. In Detroit you’ve got dirt roads. Sometimes you’ve got dirt. In some places there’s no grass.”

The red-brick towers of Coleman’s church loom over a freeway in north Detroit. Behind it is the world headquarters for American Axle, along with its factory. It is now almost impossible to envision the neighborhood that used to be there 60 years ago, before the highway. The church is literally all that remains here. “This is the last building standing,” Coleman told me. “There’s no community around us. But the church is packed every Sunday.”

Coleman is the co-chair of Detroit’s Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity. Asher Lopatin, an Orthodox rabbi and head of Detroit’s Jewish Community Relations Council, had recommended I get in touch with her. Jews, newly nostalgic for the places in Detroit they had once lived—neighborhoods of which there remains a strong living memory; places like the astonishing stretch of gorgeous old houses on Chicago Avenue, near the old Beth El—have become a bridge between the suburbs and the city. There were “days of racial healing,” in which Jewish day school students would visit public schools in downtown Detroit, and a “Freedom Seder” where students from a Detroit high school focused on African American studies came out to the suburbs. There will soon be a Motown Seder at the Motown Museum, which received a $2 million donation from the Davidson Foundation, the city’s leading Jewish philanthropy. “Hopefully these years of redlining will be reversed,” Lopatin said of the state of racial segregation in the Detroit area, encouraging words to hear from an Orthodox rabbi, or really anyone. The JCRC also advocates for criminal justice reform issues in tandem with black communal leaders like Coleman.

One of the major institutions of the Detroit-area Jewish community is its Holocaust Memorial Center—an austere, intentionally abrasive structure interrupting a landscape of strip malls in Farmington Hills. The museum is another bridge to the wider world: Visitors have included, for instance, a school group from the Ojibwe tribal reservation. “It was the first time some of them had left the Upper Peninsula,” said Ruth Bergman, the center’s director of education. The Holocaust, she said, “was a story they could relate to.”

In one exhibit, an issue of the Dearborn Independent and Social Justice face a picture of Hitler heiling in the middle of a vast parade. The former was Henry Ford’s personal anti-Semitic soapbox, the latter the organ for Father Charles Coughlin, perhaps the most influential fascist sympathizer in 1930s America. The wartime defeat of fascism became possible because of Detroit’s industrial capacity, and the use of the city’s automotive production infrastructure for making tanks and aircraft—although the mass arrival of black and white migrants from the South presaged racial violence in 1943, at the height of the war effort. Uniquely American ugliness and uniquely American potential have always converged here.

Like others I met in Detroit, Coleman noted that the city has a high rate of water shutoffs, one of the highest of any major urban area in the country. She said that families sometimes do not report or try to correct the shutoffs, because the state’s child protective services can take children away from homes that do not have running water. Some families simply buy gallons of water for the week. “That’s something I know,” Coleman said. “Nobody told me that.”

* * *

The people who know the area’s problems as facts of life are going to vote overwhelmingly for Joe Biden. The former vice president’s Monday night rally was in the gym at Renaissance High School, a public school in Detroit. This was a less cool crowd than Sanders had drawn the day before: There were fewer lip rings; no fake Supreme hoodies, and no real ones either. It was a much smaller crowd, a much older crowd, and a much blacker crowd. The high school’s marching band and dance team stood on a concourse above the basketball court, dressed in maroon uniforms. Renaissance, which is considered one of Detroit’s top public high schools, is 99.4% black.

“Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae),” Silentó’s viral hit from 2015, played over the sound system as the crowd milled about—there were exhortations to do the “stanky leg,” which were sadly absent from the Bernie rally. One of the speakers was a sharply dressed Michael Bivins, of ’80s new jack legends New Edition and Bell Biv DeVoe, whose combined record sales total about 24 million—astronomically higher than that of Against Me!, the collegiate punk band whose Laura Jane Grace played at the Sanders rally the day before.

The most interesting statement of the night came from California Sen. Kamala Harris, a former presidential contender and Biden endorser: “I believe in Joe … He understands who people are … We need a president of the United States who feels, who understands.” Three hours earlier, the Rev. Coleman told me: “Biden has heart. He has a passionate spirit, a compassionate spirit where you can feel it, touch it.” Voters—and especially black voters—looked at Joe Biden and saw a human being they knew and trusted, and who they believed knew them.

When the former vice president gives a speech these days, he tends to smush words into one another, as if he is talking downhill. Entire sentences slur to their swift conclusion in the space of a single breath. At Renaissance he spoke from notes, sometimes looking down as he lifted both hands upwards. He would almost whisper for minutes at a time, and then wake himself up by barking, “folks!” There was many a loud ejaculative “look!” and “ladies and gentlemen!” For nearly six minutes, protesters from the Sunrise Movement, which has endorsed Sanders, interrupted Biden’s speech—perhaps not realizing how much the image of a single befuddled man facing the madness, pivoting his weight between his feet while casting a look of bemusement towards these extremists from the tribe of the young—plays into the reasons he’s winning right now. Even the odder moments worked to Biden’s favor, surely a sign of talent in any politician. “Folks, you are the greatest source of fresh water in the world,” he said, seeming to congratulate the crowd on their proximity to the Great Lakes. “Yes, we are!” exclaimed an older white man standing next to me.

His message was nonteleological, his promises simple, and imaginable: I will return things to normal, and I will improve your life. “If you want a candidate who will bring the party together, not tear it apart, join us … Presidents don’t just have to know how to fight. They have to know how to heal,” he said.

“Thank you, Joe!” the crowd called back as the 20-minute speech crescendoed to its end. “I refuse to accept the notion that we are in a perpetual state of war with the other party.” Cries of “decency, Joe!” The 77-year-old former vice president added: “I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else,” in reference to the raft of younger endorsers on hand, including Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, all of whom are more compelling politicians than Joe Biden ever was.

But that doesn’t matter. For voters in Michigan, and in the rest of the country, this election isn’t about the urgent necessity to effect fundamental shifts in anything. All along, it has been an accommodation to intuition, even if that intuition is itself rather counterintuitive and might turn out to be wrong: That an old man who seems to know he is outshined by nearly everyone around him, who avoids appeals to capital-H History, and is a knowing bulwark against the youthful energies of a young party, is the person with the best chance at fixing what’s so obviously broken.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.