Photos by Joeff Davis
The hall was mostly empty by the time Ben Carson wrapped up his speech Tuesday night, linking Hillary Clinton to Satan. Carson’s closing was rudely upstaged by the third Code Pink protester to be shouted down by angry delegates and hauled off by security. This one, dressed in a pink ball gown, unleashed a “No Racism, No Hate” banner in the balcony.
“Ha! It’s always a redhead,” declared a Georgia delegate standing near me and looking on approvingly as other delegates pounced on the protester and covered her with an American flag.
Delegates closest to the podium seemed to find the protest spectacle more compelling than the final speeches of the night.
Can you blame them? The actress/avocado farmer Kimberlin Brown, who followed Carson, was no more inspiring than Kerry Woolard, the general manager of Trump’s Virginia winery, who also got a prime speaking slot.
Chris Christie got a rise out of the crowd with his Queen of Hearts routine, leading the floor to chant “Guilty!” and “Lock her up!” as he stood flanked by photos of a grimacing Hillary Clinton.
Hating Hillary was the one message that united the Republicans’ badly fractured base.
As Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed explained at a right-to-life luncheon, it was Phyllis Schlafly who changed the Republican Party from one “controlled by opinion elites in the North and the East to a grassroots, conservative party where the support came from the South and the West.”
Schlafly helped make Barry Goldwater of Arizona the Republican nominee in 1964, shifting the party’s political center of gravity. The Republicans have managed to hold together their coalition of angry culture warriors and yacht club members pretty well ever since. But this year, it all may finally be cracking up.
In 2016, Schlafly, founder of the anti-feminist Eagle Forum, threw her support behind Trump—whose brand of populism gives many Christian conservatives heartburn.
Schlafly estranged herself from her fellow board members, including her own daughter, by backing Trump. Many other “family values” Republicans are obviously dying inside over the Trump candidacy.
Reed and Schlafly both cited Trump’s support for repealing the “Johnson amendment”—so churches and their affiliates can engage in politics without jeopardizing their nonprofit tax status—as the reason the Christian right should support him.
“And he’s pro-life,” Reed said of Trump, adding that the thrice-married billionaire is “for traditional marriage.”
“I live by the Ronald Reagan motto that an 80 percent friend is not a 20 percent enemy,” Reed said. “And Donald Trump is not an 80 percent friend. He’s about a 95 percent friend.”
Not everyone buys it.
When Ted Cruz took the stage and told the delegates and people watching at home to go to the polls and “vote your conscience,” out on the floor there were boos and screams. Trump delegates stood up and turned their backs on the podium.
An outraged Cruz supporter, Tennessee delegate Julie West, stomped out in disgust. “Because of the conduct of the party leadership, I’m not sure I can call myself a Republican anymore,” she said.
But former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson blamed Cruz, calling his speech “a sad display of selfishness” and saying Cruz would be considered “the goat of this convention.”
“The party is not going to support him, ever,” Thompson added.
At a breakfast meeting with the Texas delegation on the last day of the convention, Cruz doubled down, repeatedly refusing to say he would vote for Trump. The room was divided between Cruz diehards and Trump supporters.
“I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father,” Cruz said. “I’m not gonna come crawling back like a servile puppy dog.”
“If we don’t defend freedom and the Constitution and if we don’t make the case to the American people that we have a candidate . . . who can be trusted . . . we will lose, and we will deserve to lose,” Cruz declared.
It sounded like a prediction.
In his convention speech, Donald Trump reiterated the week’s themes: fear, anger, and white racial grievance. It was a grim end to a grim spectacle.
“Safety will be restored,” Trump announced. Conjuring Nixon, he declared himself “the law-and-order candidate.”
Crime and homicide are way up, Trump claimed, falsely. (In fact, the crime rate, and violent crime in particular, has been falling for decades.) Tying together Black Lives Matter, murdered police, immigrants, terrorists, and the “humiliation” of U.S. soldiers abroad, Trump painted a frightening picture of a nation in decline and under siege by dangerous, dark-skinned people inside and outside our borders.
The crowd responded to Trump with lusty chants of “Lock her up!” and “Build that wall!”
“I am your voice,” Trump told blue-collar workers of the industrial Midwest. Bernie Sanders supporters will vote for him, he predicted, because he is the champion of Sanders’s most important issue: unfair trade deals that take away American manufacturing jobs.
A deeply divided party, the Republicans in Cleveland came together, in the end, around fear and hate. National Football League legend Fran Tarkenton, one of a parade of icons of white masculinity to take the stage, summed it up in his cry to America: “What the hell is going on out there?”
What is going on is that women and people of color are now a dominant force in American society. Trump’s promise to the Archie Bunker vote (including the Sanders voters he claims will come over to him) is a promise to restore white, male dominance.
The Democratic convention, in a direct rebuttal to the Republicans, was the story of social justice achieved through inspiring grassroots movements—for civil rights, women’s rights, gay liberation, and justice for immigrants.
The convention in Philadelphia was historic for two reasons. There was the tear-jerker “arc of history” kind of historic, outlined by Michelle Obama, Meryl Streep, and the music video montages of feminists, civil rights marchers, and great women through time. I was not immune to such assaults on my sentiments, especially as I watched my own fifteen-year-old daughter take it all in.
Then there was the history being made by the large contingent of Bernie Sanders delegates, many of them movement people who got involved in electoral politics for the first time in 2016. They infused the party, and the convention, with new energy and a moral compass that could point it in a more progressive direction.
The “No TPP” signs all over the convention hall, the more progressive party platform, the recognition of inequality and student debt as critical issues of the day—all of these were serious, substantive accomplishments of the Sanders campaign.
As the convention began, Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was pushed out. Leaked emails revealed her staff making derogatory comments about Sanders and apparently coordinating with the Clinton campaign to try to defeat him in the primaries. Sanders supporters didn’t need much more proof that, as Sanders so often said on the campaign trail, “the system is rigged.”
Clinton supporters, Washington, D.C., reporters, and party insiders who came to Philadelphia to witness what they had long seen as a foregone conclusion—Clinton’s nomination—were impatient to get on with it.
Why would the Sanders delegates protest and boo and mess up the display of party unity at the convention?, they asked. Did they really want to hurt Clinton’s chances to defeat Trump in the fall?
“They would like to see party unity,” Karen Bernal, a Sanders delegate from Sacramento, California, said. “But for the Bernie delegates, we utterly reject the system we’re operating in now.
“Senator Sanders owes his success to the protest movement outside the party system,” Bernal added. “Black Lives Matter, Occupy . . . these are all movements that are resistance-based.”
So no one should be surprised that the people who worked hard for Sanders and saw him as the standard-bearer for progressive causes weren’t keen to fall in line—particularly when they felt abused and disrespected by the very party establishment their candidate had been running against.
The choice of Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, Clinton’s corporate-friendly running mate, in particular, did not sit well with the Sanders delegates.
“Kaine, like her, was a supporter of the TPP until 10 a.m. yesterday,” observed Jeff Cohen of RootsAction, who helped create the Bernie Delegates Network. “So she’s chosen someone from the corporate wing of the party.”
By the last night of the convention, the corporate wing of the party was clearly in charge. In place of the explosive vitality of Alicia Keys earlier in the week, we got the canned performance of Katy Perry. Floor whips ordered delegates to get to their feet and “go crazy” when Perry sang.
“When do we dance?” asked a dazed Wisconsin delegate wearing a cheese-
head hat. “Now!” a yellow-vested whip shouted. A few minutes later, the DNC tweeted “Katy Perry brings down the house.”
Finally, Hillary Clinton took the stage and basked in her moment-in-history, to the wild cheers of the women delegates around me. She delivered a substantive and notably progressive speech in her familiar uptight, wooden style.
Clinton drew boos and protest chants from the Sanders delegates even as she acknowledged their tremendous organizing efforts, adapted some of their key policies, and borrowed their language: “Our economy isn’t working the way it should because our democracy isn’t working the way it should. . . . Wall Street, corporations, and the super rich are going to start paying their fair share.”
Another politician would have led with a joke and a touch of wry humility, warming up the crowd by acknowledging the strains between the Bernie people and the Democratic Party stalwarts, and letting some of the tension out of the air. That’s not Clinton’s style.
She acknowledged as much herself, saying she has spent her life in public service but is more comfortable with the “service” part than the “public” part.
But it goes deeper than that. The purest expression of Clinton’s philosophy came when she described how she was reminded of her own mother, who was cruelly abandoned by her parents, when she met a little girl in Arkansas sitting on her porch in a wheelchair, desperately yearning to go to school. Clinton set about fighting for the rights of disabled children to get the same access to public education as their non-disabled peers.
“Simply caring is not enough,” Clinton stated, in what could be her credo. “To drive real change you have to understand both hearts and laws.
“It’s a big idea, isn’t it?” she continued. “All children with disabilities deserve to go to school . . . . How do you make it happen?” The answer: getting heavily involved in policy details.
This is Clinton’s core belief: Life is tough. You want to make things better? Don’t complain. Get in the fray, fight, engage, compromise, persevere.
The Bernie delegates, bless them, were not quite ready for Hillary or the pragmatic, compromising realpolitik she represents. And you can hardly blame them for feeling whipsawed by their experience at the convention.
On Thursday night, no sooner had the great Reverend William Barber finished his sermon, calling on everyone present to join together to revive the heart of America, than General John Allen marched in to pronounce, “America is the greatest nation on earth” and to endorse U.S. military ventures around the globe. “We will oppose and resist tyranny and we will defeat evil,” he declared.
Giant American flags waved and a sea of “USA” placards washed over the hall. Here and there, Bernie delegates began chanting “No more wars!” and were quickly drowned out by primed Hillary delegates chanting “USA! USA!” A California whip standing next to me yelled, “Signs up!” and began leading a loud “USA!” chant as anti-war protesters struggled to be heard.
Throughout the night, the tension was palpable. Multiple protests broke out and security officers and whips all over the floor kept a wary eye out for signs of trouble.
“This whole thing is fake!” said Gabriel MacArthur, a twenty-four-year-old Bernie delegate from Colorado, gesturing to the Hillary signs in front of him. Colorado’s forty-one Bernie delegates were strategically concealed behind twenty-five sign-wielding delegates for Hillary. “It’s a giant, fake infomercial,” MacArthur mused. “I’m really kind of creeped out by this.”
“They’re blocking our ‘Ban Fracking’ signs,” he added.
“Yesterday they took our ‘No Oligarchy’ signs. Does that mean they’re for oligarchy?”
Whether or not activists like MacArthur can overcome their distaste and savor their achievements, however, the Sanders campaign has actually showed remarkable progressive political strength. To win, Hillary Clinton needs the Sanders voters. And she knows it.
“Bernie Sanders and I will work together to make college tuition free,” Clinton said in her address. “We will also liberate millions of people who already have student debt.”
The interesting question is not whether Bernie Sanders’s supporters will hold their noses and vote for Hillary Clinton. The more interesting question is whether they will stick it out and stay involved in electoral politics.
“We all know that Donald Trump is a racist demagogue,” says Peter Rickman, a Sanders delegate from Wisconsin and co-chair of the state’s Working Families Party.
As Rickman sees it, “we cannot be fighting an existential, defensive battle in a proto-fascist Trump regime. We can make progress in a Hillary Clinton administration.”
Turning out people to vote for Clinton on November 8 is just a bare beginning, says Rickman. The Working Families Party is focused on running progressive candidates and winning local races, including in Milwaukee, where it has helped elect a slate of union activists and community organizers at the city and county level.
If enough Bernie people are willing to work with the suits and the hacks and the phonies they detest, long enough and hard enough to take over the Democratic Party and force it to fulfill its progressive ideals, they could transform American politics.
When they do, their movement for democracy and economic justice and to save the planet and end U.S. military aggression abroad will be edited together with the heroes of other great social movements of history into a slick video montage at a future Democratic national convention.
Ruth Conniff is editor-in-chief of The Progressive.