Beautiful Day in Trump Nation
HENDERSON, NEVADA — There were already waves of people strolling up toward the little grassy field where a stage was set up. A wooden podium on the stage carried a sign reading BERNIE in white letters against a Democrat blue background. Reports were saying the “doors” at Morrell Park would open at one, but with the senator from Vermont not making his appearance till two-thirty, I had assumed we could wait till about one-forty to head over and still miss most of the horde. It’s only March, so why should the liberals of Las Vegas be so motivated to see a 77-year-old man begin his second attempt to win the White House, especially with Election Day almost a full 20 months away? And yet, as we pulled up to the rally in my sister’s puttering old Democrat blue Corolla (the one she brought when she moved from Chicago), it was clear that the horde had turned out with gusto.
I probably wouldn’t have heard about the Bernie rally till a day or two before had it not been for my sister telling me about it earlier in the week, and I probably wouldn’t have gone had she not suggested we go and had I not been in search of another story to file. (I guess she had read my write-up on the Kamala Harris town hall in North Las Vegas earlier in the month and wanted to tag along to see if the spectacle at these things was all I said is was.) Like I said, I wasn’t expecting much doing at a Bernie rally so early in our country’s now two-year-long presidential election season. But the weather lady did promise clear skies and seventies, so I should’ve figured there were plenty of bleeding hearts in Southern Nevada hoping for a reason to congregate in a park on a bright Saturday afternoon.
We followed a trickle of cars into a parking lot hugging the park where we passed a stringy old white man grinning like a hobo and holding a neon-colored poster that read CRAZY BERNIE TO MAKE USA VENEZUELA 2.0. We parked in one of the last empty slots, next to a yellowing and patchy baseball field, and followed a white Latino guy wearing a ball cap turned backwards and a Venezuelan flag tied around his neck like a cape. He paraded straight down the length of the parking lot, toward the intersection of Harris Street and Major Avenue where a dozen or so protesters were gathered, a few of them sitting in camping chairs under a tree. They were all white, mostly grey-bearded or grizzled, some with bandanas somewhere on their bodies, one man wearing a sandy-colored cowboy hat. They carried signs —Trump USA, Trump Nation— and shouted slogans and waved the U.S. and Gadsden flags at honking cars.
The dude with the Venezuelan flag walked right up to the protesters and started shaking hands. A fat grey couple sat in camping chairs facing the parking lot, their backs to their comrades, and watched me taking notes from the edge of the grass. The curious part of me wanted to get a closer look at the protesters on the corner, or maybe just ask the couple for their thoughts on Bernie, but I decided I was too dark and too well-dressed to approach this group of Trump supporters, especially while holding a notepad and a pen. Maybe there wasn’t a single racist in the bunch —not all Trump supporters are racist— but most racists are Trump supporters, and most Trump supporters don’t like journalists, so I figured it was safe to assume that a group of Trumpist protesters at a Bernie rally wouldn’t take kindly to a young dark-skinned man in a spiffy blazer, skinny jeans and fresh sneakers coming around and asking questions like this was his country, too.
Plus, and I’m not bragging or nothing, but I’m not too bad on the eyes; and though there may not have been any racists in that group of protesters, if there were —and let’s face it, at least half of them probably were— then nothing would’ve irritated the racists more than the sight of this handsome, intelligent and well-spoken young dark-skinned man asking questions. A smart good-looking dark-skinned man is something a white racist, especially a white racist man, cannot tolerate in the least, because smart good-looking dark-skinned men are a threat to the lies on which the hatred for dark-skinned men is founded, as well as a threat to the white racist man’s sense of superiority. Racist white men have never met a smart, pretty dark-skinned man they didn’t want to make disappear; it’s even worse if the dark-skinned man looks like he has some money, because most people don’t have any money, so the racist white man believes that, if anybody is going to have money around here, it should be a white man.
Of course, plenty of other types of people are nearly as hated by white racist men, and lucky for me, those other types were also at the rally. Within the first minute of our arrival I saw a big bald-headed middle-aged white woman carrying an infant, a brawny bearded Latino wearing a Colorado t-shirt, another bearded Latino wearing a shirt that read ABOLISH ICE in bright white letters, and more men who looked like women than I had seen in my life. A stylish European-looking person with quaffed hair and an elegant turtleneck sweater stood holding a clipboard next to a table where some vendor was selling pink Bernie buttons featuring the senator’s cartoonish silhouette. I spent a few seconds trying to figure out if the person was a woman, a very metrosexual man, or a transexual (whether man or woman was beyond me)—till I heard the deep voice.
We were going to just walk through the main entrance (a gap in the yellow police tape and crowd fencing between two collapsible tables), but a pair of young female event organizers stopped us and told us that if we couldn’t show them some confirmation email from the Bernie campaign, we would have to go to the back of the line where other organizers with iPads would “check you in”—meaning, take our information so the campaign could annoy us with more and more mass texts and emails. So we went to the back of the long, growing, snaking line and dutifully surrendered our phone numbers and email addresses, since that kind of information isn’t as personal as it used to be anyway. In return, the volunteers gave us a little orange sticker and told us to attach it somewhere visible on us.
Two or three people about my age or younger were hanging around off to the side, saying “Socialism?… Socialism?” and shoving flyers at us in line. I turned toward the park to avoid being asked, just in time to hear the DJ start playing “Disco Inferno” by The Trammps. (Get it? “Burn, baby, burn!” Hilarious.)
“Feel the Bern” was everywhere I looked—people love a good pun, especially political. Vendors sold water, soda, and all types of shirts and buttons. There was a button that read Cats Against Trump and a shirt with Princess Leia on it along with the words WE ARE THE RESISTANCE. One white lady was selling buttons that had the President’s face on it and PENDEJO underneath. “You know what that means, right?” She was grinning at a man admiring her wares from a safe distance. The man looked like a woman dressed for vacation in Hawaii. He smiled nervously and nodded. “Not exactly,” he said. “But I get the gist of it.”
After emptying our pockets for the young people working security at the entrance, we were high-fived by an Indian girl and then a black woman who stood just inside and were thanking everybody for being there. I could describe the layout of the event and where the crowd was gathered, but if you have ever been to some side stage at a music festival at one or two in the afternoon, then you more or less know what it was like. Later my sister put the people in attendance at a few thousand, though as she said, “I’m not good at that stuff, like guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar or whatever.” (My own method is pretty straightforward: There were about 500 kids in my high-school class, so I just compare whatever crowd I’m in to the one on Graduation Day. That said, I think there were about 2,000 people there to see Bernie; his people would put the number at 2,200, while the local news would say there were “at least 1,000 people” there. Either way, it surprised me.)
We found a relatively clear spot at the back of the crowd, on the right-hand side, against the steel barricades meant to steer people like cattle. We were about thirty heads from the stage with the podium and the microphone waiting; beyond that, to the left of the audience, the Henderson Parks and Recreation building; and beyond that, all the way across the Las Vegas Valley, the looming peaks of Mt. Charleston, still white with snow.
Once a brown kid in a shiny purple tuxedo jacket named Nick something had sung an accented rendition of the national anthem, a local English teacher came on to talk about “a future that’s more than standardized tests,” “more than the gig economy,” and “more than GoFundMe pages for health care.” She name-dropped some of the communities “outside of the Vegas Strip,” like Summerlin and Green Valley. Maybe she expected there were a lot of out-of-towners in the crowd, though I don’t know what kind of person goes to Vegas and then makes the drive to the outskirts of town, out to the old part of Henderson, halfway to the Hoover Dam, just to attend a Bernie rally, mid-Saturday.
“Welcome to our great city,” she told the crowd anyway. “And feel the Bern!”
A chant of “Ber-nie! Ber-nie!” rose up till someone announced the next speaker, Amy Vilela, at which point the chanting switched to “A-my! A-my!” Ms. Vilela is known as the self-styled “Medicare activist” whose 22-year-old daughter, Shalynne, died in 2015 of deep vein thrombosis after some heartless hospital sent her back out into the street because she didn’t have health insurance—or as Vilela puts it, she “lost [her] daughter to our barbaric healthcare system!”
She ran for the Democratic nomination last June in Nevada’s 4th district but lost to a party-backed former congressman, Steven Horsford, the first black person to serve as majority leader in the state legislature, and the first black person Nevadans ever sent to Congress.
Now Vilela was giving another speech in Nevada, only this time supporting the campaign of “a democratic socialist from Vermont who thought he could be president,” with the aim of “spreading the revolution in the Silver State.” She stumbled through much of her speech, which skipped from one progressive slogan to another. The word “justice” popped up throughout like chocolate chips in a cookie –“racial justice!” “social justice!” “healthcare justice!”— all of it screamed into the mic for added effect, but mostly to drown out the protesters on bullhorns just beyond the fence yelling “Bernie’s a socialist pig!” and something about Cuba.
“Bernie helped me get my life in order,” Vilela told the crowd of “sisters and brothers.” “I am a healthcare warrior!”
Next up was Nina Turner, the former Ohio state senator and now president of the pro-Bernie group Our Revolution, as well as a co-chair of Bernie’s 2020 campaign. (Two of the other three co-chairs are the California congressman Ro Khanna and the San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.) She stormed onto the stage amidst chants of “Ni-na! Ni-na!” and launched into a booming sermon on Bernie’s “lived experience” as not only a politician but an activist, and “what this revolution is all about!”
“Can a sista go in her purse?” she asked the crowd as they laughed and cheered. “Go in yo’ purse, girl!” screamed a black lady behind us. “Get the hot sauce!”
Ms. Turner was clearly an expert speech-giver, her words translated for the deaf by a big bearded guy wearing a Golden Knights cap. As she spoke of “our moral obligation to take care of Mother Earth” and how she was going to “show ‘em the receipts!” a stubby brown tomboy with a backpack, hairy forearms and a professional camera slung round her neck stalked the crowd, looking for stuff to shoot; these types of girls are at every leftist event I have ever been to, and the day I don’t spot at least one at a protest or march is the day I’ll know liberalism is dead and gone.
Bernie From the Block
“I’m talking about a senator who’s lived in his car before!” said Ms. Turner, bringing up Bernie’s activism as a student at the University of Chicago in the sixties. Most people, even Bernie bros, don’t know much about Bernie before he became a U.S. senator in 2007. You never hear them talk about his time as mayor of Burlington during the eighties, or any of his organizing work before that. The truth is Bernie is one of the last old-school New York Jewish socialists, or at least he used to be. “When I went to the University of Chicago,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1991, “I began to understand the futility of liberalism.”
More from that 1991 piece:
On campus, he joined the Young People’s Socialist League, he became active in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), he was an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and he organized and led a sit-in protest in 1962 against university-owned, racially segregated campus housing. He has admitted to being a middling student at U. of C., reading Marx and Freud on his own while investing lightly in preparing for classes and taking tests. He took an overnight bus to D.C.—his first time there—to participate in the 1963 March on Washington, and witnessed, via loudspeakers on the Mall, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
After graduating in 1964 with a B.A. in political science, he spent six months on a kibbutz in Israel. His going to Israel had nothing to do with religion, much less Zionism. He identifies, he says, “culturally” as a Jew. The political philosophy he honed in Hyde Park held fast. He learned, he later said, “that you could have a community in which the people themselves actually owned the community.”
Now, for some reason or another, Bernie has come back around to liberalism. The problem with Bernie these days is largely the same problem with the American political system generally: both have become too watered down, thanks to a bipolar system that sees two parties—a party for cityfolk and a party for countryfolk, both for Wall Street—battling over as much of the center as each can afford to bend for. Bernie could have made a good socialist but he wanted power and influence, so he stuck close to the Democratic Party while publicly maintaining his independence. He says he isn’t a Democrat —except when he’s running for president— but he usually votes like one.
Socialists have been arguing over which path to take toward socialism since the very beginning, when a twenty-something Marx wrote a book-long essay in French blasting the “Poverty of [Proudhon’s] Philosophy.” Back then, the beef was mainly over whether socialism should be libertarian, as Proudhon had it, or authoritarian, as Marx proposed. (Old Proudhon was the first to declare himself an “anarchiste.”) Red Rosa famously spat at the gradual, reformist approach adopted by social democracy, which, like Bernie, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Dems that pretend at socialism, believes we can replace the capitalist system while playing by the rules of the capitalist system. Keep dreaming, said Rosa; “only the hammer blow of revolution” can kill the beast with two bank accounts (one just offshore).
Back on stage, Ms. Turner was calling Bernie “a long-distance runner for justice” (Bernie was captain of the track team at Madison High in Brooklyn, where the Notorious R.B.G. had graduated years before). “Brothers and sisters in Henderson, in order for him to be the next president of the United States of America,” she said, pointing at people in the audience, “he needs you, he needs you, he needs you, he needs you, he needs you, he needs you—he needs all of us. Because [in] this rainbow mosaic of humanity… we rise or fall together!”
Standing right in front of us, a thick brown girl with a ponytail and a swollen derrière was clapping alongside her tall, lanky, strawberry-blond boyfriend, who had an even longer ponytail and all the other features of what passes for a hippie these days. “She’s really got the crowd going!” I heard her tell her man as she wrapped both arms around his waist.
Then Ms. Turner had everybody raise both hands like in one of those megachurches —almost everyone did, except my nonconformist ass— and I saw people close their eyes and even bow their heads. “With these hands,” she said, one hand lifted toward the sun, “we will have Medicare for all! With these hands, we will have college for all! With these hands, we will have a country that allows the greatest number of people the opportunity to live a good life! With these hands, we will unite and push the political revolution in ways that bring transcendence to this country! And with these hands, we will elect Senator Bernie Sanders as the next president of the United States of America!”
“A Little Black Eye’s Not Gonna Stop Me!”
Cue Lennon’s “Power to the People,” another round of “Ber-nie! Ber-nie!” and then, the man of the hour, looking like an old newspaperman in a blue blazer and a gray Golden Knights ball cap with the peak all bent, sporting a big bandage above his left eye. The word was that, the day before, there had been a fracas in South Carolina involving Bernie and a shower door, for which he got seven stitches. A spokeswoman was quick to assure everybody that Bernie hadn’t actually fallen in the shower, or anywhere, perhaps trying to quiet the murmurs about Bernie’s old age and his fitness to be president; after all, Hillary fainted at a 9/11 ceremony during her 2016 campaign, and that was pretty much the beginning of the end of Hillary’s last great stab at the White House.
F.Y.I., if Bernie manages to pull this off, he will be, at 79, the oldest president ever. Bernie was born a few months before Pearl Harbor, the same year my grandma was born—and I’m a grown-ass man, only a few months away from being legally eligible for the Oval Office myself! But then again, Bernie is from Brooklyn—and even though I’m from Chicago, I and every American should know what it means to be from Brooklyn, especially the old Brooklyn, back when the Dodgers still played in Flatbush, and LaGuardia wasn’t an airport but the mayor.
“It’s O.K.,” Bernie said once he got to the podium and took off his blazer, pointing to the bandage. “A little black eye’s not gonna stop me!” Then he settled into his usual lecture about the suffering inflicted by capitalism and how America needed to be more like Europe and Canada.
“This campaign is not only about defeating Donald Trump, the most dangerous president in the modern history of America” —cheers from the crowd— “but with your help, this campaign is about transforming our country, and creating an economy and a government that work for all of us, not just the One Percent.” More cheering. “And today I want to be as clear as I can be in welcoming you to a campaign where the underlying principles are not going to be greed, kleptocracy, hatred, and lies.” More cheering. “The underlying principles of our campaign –and our government— will not be racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, or religious bigotry.” More cheering, especially from a brawny guy with a gray beard wearing a red plaid shirt and a black beret.
“Brothers and sisters”—Bernie repeated that a lot—“the principles of our government will be based on justice.” Yeah! from the crowd. “Economic justice.” Yeah! “Social justice.” Yeah! “Racial justice.” Yeah! “And environmental justice.” Cheering all around. “And let me be as clear as I can be in telling you what I mean justice to mean: It means that we will no longer allow three families in this country to own more wealth than the bottom half of the American people.” The crowd roared, and a guy behind us yelled out, “Bring ‘em down! Eat the rich!” (he repeated that a lot).
Bernie talked about “veterans sleeping on the streets,” gave his usual stats on the growing wealth and income gaps, the figures on healthcare coverage and costs, people “working two or three jobs” and “living paycheck to paycheck,” about democracy meaning “one person, one vote,” and about overturning Citizens United —the bearded deaf interpreter now replaced by a big Hawaiian woman— all of it gobbled up by the middle-aged women with piercings and colored hair, the fit millennials in tight clothes, the parents who brought their kids to play in the grass, the childless who brought their little dogs to sniff around, the kid holding up his hand-drawing of Captain America in marker, the retired punk moms and ex-grunge dads who came in their Kias and Volkswagens, the cholos with a conscience, and even the self-absorbed blondes just there to be seen and work on their tans.
Somewhere around here is when some douchebag came down Harris Street on a motorcycle, revving the engine, and the mostly peace-loving crowd got a little nervous. It was also about this point that people stopped waving their Bernie signs and started using them to block out the sun. They were there to “Feel the Bern,” but couldn’t stand the heat. So whether it was the sun, or the hecklers who had begun shouting inaudible nonsense from outside the rally (I spotted an old pot-bellied man wearing a red MAGA hat watching through binoculars from under a tree), people began peeling off from the crowd in twos and threes.
“And today we say to the pharmaceutical industry—”
“Fuck you!” shouted a man in the audience, to which Bernie nodded and replied, “It’s one way of phrasing it.”
When Bernie asked if anyone knew how much Amazon pays in taxes, a bunch of zeroes shot up into the air. A young brown woman didn’t yell so much as plead, “Pay your fair share!” When he promised to make sure “the wealthy and corporations will start paying their fair share in taxes,” another girl yelled out “Thank you!” and the crowd broke into yet another of the countless rounds of “Ber-nie! Ber-nie!”
“Thank you, but let me say something,” said Bernie. “Like everybody else I have my share of ego, and I appreciate the ‘Bernie,’ but lemme say this, on a very serious note. This really isn’t about Bernie, and I’ll tell you why. It is about all of us. And I’ll tell you why. I will tell you why frankly. And not too many politicians or public officials will tell you, and it’s a sad truth, but it is a truth. And here’s the truth: The truth is that no president, no matter how honest or well-intentioned he or she may be, cannot do it alone. Because the powers that be, on Wall Street, or powers that be in Washington, have so much money and so much power —and I’m talking about Wall Street, and the insurance companies and the drug companies— these people are so powerful, that the only way we bring about change, the only way we effectively take them on, is when tens of millions of people stand up together!”
“Takin’ It to the Streets”
“Brothers and sisters, we are going to defeat Donald Trump—”
Ecstasy washed over the crowd, cut with “He’s crazy!” “Trump’s a racist!” and “He’s a piece of shit!”
“—not because I am a billionaire or because we have a super PAC funding this election. We’re gonna win this election because we will put together the strongest grassroots coalition in the history of American politics.”
So Bernie knows his audience. At the end, that crowd—or what was left of it—was really fired up. His speech was even capped, appropriately enough, with “Takin’ It to the Streets” by The Doobie Brothers, and “to the streets” is where most people started legging it. My sister and I approached the stage, where Bernie was shaking hands with the idolaters lined up against the crowd-control barrier. When he passed me he looked beat, and I felt bad for the old man.
On the way out, some dude sounded upset that Bernie hadn’t taken any questions from the audience. An older, scrappy black vendor called out “Bernie t-shirts! Pepsi! Hot dogs!” then turned and winked at a white woman standing nearby, “That’s called ‘bait-and-switch!’” A stocky man-boy was wearing baby blue socks with Groening-esque Bernie faces on them, pulled halfway up his thick gamer’s calves. A young black guy with a handlebar mustache made his way along the sidewalk with his fair-skinned buddies, gabbing as if they had just come from a day at the zoo. “We got to see Bernie, we got to see Trump supporters…’’
And that’s what the rally was for a lot of the people there—a picnic, family fun in the sun, a concert in the park, Ravinia with politics. A lot of four-eyes with clear frames, adult men with soft hands and colorful sneakers, tons of cringing and thank-yous, people who don’t know how to walk in public (or at least get out of the way quick enough). I always feel the same way at liberal events—they may profess to want the same things I want out of government, but they are just not my kind of people. And what annoys me even more is that, with the way I dress, down to the sick Ray-Ban Blaze Wayfarers I picked up at the Sunglass Hut in Hollywood, I fit in more at a Bernie rally in Henderson than at some ISO conference back in Chicago.
As my sister drove us the hell out of there, we got to discussing our impressions of the rally. We both agreed it was encouraging to see so many people—and a diverse collection of people, too, so fired up and so early—but we wondered about their commitment. Did the people cheering, or the group of friends holding up the letters B-E-R-N-I-E, truly understand Bernie’s platform and believe in it? What were they willing to do to see it implemented, and what obstacles would they brave? Because there will always be plenty of obstacles.
Somehow or another we got onto the subject of priorities and proportional responses to ugliness, whether in reference to the Trump protesters outside the rally or the liberals inside. We were talking about how Tinder now gives users the option of selecting from a list of 37 genders, and I said how I don’t think there are but two genders, though I understand how male and female, man and woman, can be very elastic terms. Still, a man can have his dick and balls chopped off and have whatever’s left folded into a vagina-like organ, but that doesn’t make him a woman; just as a woman chopping off her mammaries and swelling her clitoris through the use of testosterone doesn’t make her any more a man—though both should have the same right to a happy life as anyone else.
I always thought it a little ass-backwards the way members of the LGBT community go around saying there’s really no such thing as gender, that gender is “fluid,” yet when a man wants to be a woman or a woman wants to be a man, he or she usually sticks to the textbook definitions of man and woman, with the transexual man popping on a bulky wrist-watch and the typical collared shirt, while the transexual woman smears on some lipstick and slips into a pair of pumps. The way I see it, you are born either a man or a woman, biologically speaking—but whether you’re born a man or a woman, how you live your life and behave in society is entirely your choice. I stand by a person’s right to choose to be exactly who they are, and I don’t see what a person living his or her life has anything to do with the rest of us.
Anyway, my sister and I were talking about that, about people taking things too far, when she told me the story of how Howie Mandel became a germaphobe. Apparently he unwittingly picked up an old man’s turd at his father’s wake and his mom ran his hand under scalding hot water in the bathroom.
“His mom freaked out,” I said, staring at the desert mountains baking in the sun as the Corolla groaned up Boulder Highway. “She should’ve just washed his hands with soap and water like normal.”
“I dunno,” my sister said. “I mean, it was an old man’s shit. Who knows what kind of germs it had.”
I laughed and shook my head. “Naw, people are basically the same. We all have the same shit.”