When I read the invitation, I thought I was going out for pizza. I can’t read the name, or the word, Brookside without immediately recalling Brookside Pizza, one of our many competitors back when I was a delivery boy for Gilford House of Pizza. Those halcyon days are over, and with them, most of my knowledge of the Gilford-Laconia roadways—but with them, not every mental association forged. All of which is to say, in the most prolix style, that I was actually heading for the Brookside Congregational Church in Manchester, whereat would be a rally starring Senator Bernie Sanders.
[You haven’t attended a political rally in years. How long has it been?]
Not as long as that, not even close. I went to the March for Our Lives demonstration in March, and I saw Trump in Manchester, on the other side of Elm Street, on the eve of the election in 2016.
[All right, so you didn’t have too much rust to burn. Still, I remember how prolific your viewership was in 2011—]
That was a different time, as well as a different place: I was living in Laconia, a city so small that it doesn’t even deserve the designation of a city, and so small, in any case, that it was hard not to know about every campaign stop made by the various candidates. And even so, I witnessed only three in Laconia during that time. You make it sound like I was a guest of honor at Herman Cain’s house.
[Regardless, you consumed so much political media at the time that you were physically ill by the end of the game. Do you even remember anything from the first week of November 2012?]
Not much. I barely even remember voting—or casting my ballot, as I ended up picking no one for the presidency. That was exhausting, and maybe that was part of the reason why I couldn’t get on my feet in 2016 and pay legitimate attention to that legendary contest. Someday, a couple of kids are gonna ask me what I was going through during that time, and I’m going to confess that I wasn’t even cognizant of the magnitude of the contest until it was over.
[But something tells me you are feeling differently about 2020?]
Oh, you know it. I think I’m gonna try to make the most of this one. I don’t know if I can dive into the pool as deeply as I did in 2012, but I intend to make the best effort I can. And it may be fitting that the journey of a thousand steps begins with a trip to Queen City to watch the Bern address “an intimate gathering”, if that expression doesn’t make you want to puke, less than two days before what is almost certainly the most ominous election of my young life.
[Wait a minute: you don’t mean to tell me that you actually believe meaningful change will come if the Democrats prevail on Tuesday the 6th?]
No, but the reaction is going to be very intense, regardless of the specific outcome. Isn’t it strange: the Democrats could make enough modest gains to take control of the House, and even that feeble swinging of the wind will be more than enough to inspire panic. Even the most anticlimactic ending to this second volume of a most unpleasant trilogy will fascinate the public for the longest time.
[All right. So, what about Bernie?]
Please don’t call him “Bernie”. I can’t stand this trend of referring to public figures by their first names, as if we know them personally—and intimately, as the case may be. Anyway, I rolled into the parking lot of the Brookside Congregational just a little after one. My sense of time was all out of whack, as I had learned only an hour before that daylight saving time ended the night before. I wanted to get a good parking spot early, then waste time in a bar and hopefully talk to some Sanders fans before the main event. Alas, the nearest watering hole was almost a mile away, and something told me I would set myself up for trouble if I wandered too far away from the epicenter.
[How crowded was it?]
Relatively speaking? The church looked like it could hold four hundred people, and if that’s true, then there were probably three hundred folks in attendance. It was almost impossible to get a strong read on the age demographics: there were a lot of people in their twenties, of course, as well as an awful lot of folks over fifty-five, but hardly anybody in-between. That lack of cohesion is actually pretty refreshing; it demonstrates that Sanders can bring the weirdos together, and yet, contrary to Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s claims, he rather gracefully avoids any besmirching contact with the grubby, bitter freaks that are usually drawn to these kinds of rallies.
[These populist rallies, you mean?]
Probably. I think that’s why so many people who are nearing the end of their lives like Sanders: he represents the realization of an old dream. Conversely, the idealistic young see in him the basic expectation of competency and ideological consistency that they still expect from their politicians.
[Does Trump have the same effect on his supporters?]
Let’s try to keep Trump out of this, ya hear? Someday, I hope to attend another Trump rally, but until that day, I don’t want to talk about things whereof I have only minor knowledge.
[Before we get back to Sanders, I am curious: did you see him only on the night before he won the election?]
Yeah. He was more than an hour late to the rally. Literally: Mike Pence made a speech, and when he left the stage, it remained completely empty until Trump showed up seventy or eighty minutes later.
[Oh my God.]
I know. I was worried about that happening at Bernie’s . . . at Sanders’s rally, but someone must’ve been a bit more diligent with this man’s logistics.
[Well, to be fair, I imagine that this was a bit less involved . . .]
Without question. Trump was in a sports arena packed with more than ten thousand people. This place didn’t even have a metal detector.
[Who sponsored Sanders’s rally?]
An organization known as Rights & Democracy, which isn’t exactly the most creative name I’ve ever heard, but at least it’s straightforward. There appear to be at least two divisions, one in New Hampshire and one in Vermont, which makes sense, considering that Sanders does represent our neighbors to the west. The logo features a group of people shouting in front of a mountain, which would also be a decent icon for global warming awareness.
[Are you going to become an activist yourself?]
No, but if I ever attend another one of their presentations, I’ll have plenty of chances. There were so many sheets of paper being passed around, all of them demanding your contact information for a newsletter, a petition to raise the minimum wage, etc., etc. You couldn’t swing a dead cat in that church without hitting somebody’s printed home address. And the people passing those things out were not only pushy, they were downright aggressive: when I declined to pledge my support for a random candidate in a Manchester election, they looked at me as if I’d waved the Confederate flag.
[Did they think you were a tourist? Did they think you were one of “the enemy”, or something?]
I’m pretty sure they knew I wasn’t there for the same reasons they were. One of the security men, if you can really describe an unarmed fellow with a notepad in those terms, was standing behind me, and almost literally breathing down my neck, for the duration of the show.
[Perhaps you should have made a more concerted effort to fraternize. Did you even talk to anyone in the audience?]
Since I arrived an hour ahead of schedule, I had the chance to snag the third row from the front. It was an obvious mistake: if you want to get a feel for the audience, you never sit so close to the top of the line. That’s first-class, where the aristocrats are found, and even if you are fortunate enough to be among real people, it’s very difficult to watch the humans when almost all of them are sitting behind you. Next time, I’m gonna sit right in the middle, and not make such a bloody spectacle of myself.
[I take it that you didn’t talk to people, then?]
Not really. People always seem to move away from me at political rallies.
[You could have said that without the last three words.]
Cute. Seriously, though: the only conversation to which I was privy involved three men to my left, arguing about whether socialism could thrive in and of itself, or whether it required some element of capitalism. One man, who was obviously sympathetic to the latter, suggested that the United States adopt a form of “compassionate capitalism”. Shortly thereafter, it was agreed by all three of the men and their silent wives that “compassionate socialized capitalism” would be the surest route to economic prosperity for all Americans.
[It doesn’t sound like they were especially enthusiastic about the issue.]
No, they weren’t. They actually seemed to be quite irritated with each other, as if each man was a jerk for refusing to capitulate to the others’ point of view. Political rallies are so tedious nowadays because there’s never any real diversity of perspective: everyone is expected to adhere to the same “party line” in a way that, in my opinion, was not the case at any of the political rallies I attended in 2012. I remember when I told one of the organizers of a Newt Gingrich rally that I was planning to vote for Ron Paul in the primary, to which she replied: “Well, that’s all right.”
[Not exactly an open-armed embrace, but it’s better than the Salem-like paranoia that defines these political gatherings today.]
Without a doubt. Probably the most daring statement of the entire day was the “Tulsi Gabbard for President” shirt that one guy was wearing. That, and the “Impeach 45” get-up made to resemble a Los Angeles Dodgers jersey.
[So, did the Brookside Congregational Church endorse Sanders, or do churches typically allow all politicians in?]
I can’t imagine they are that open, and I don’t think the Brookside was endorsing anything. Almost every interior reference to the church was removed before the first speaker took the stage, some of it by the reverend himself.
[The reverend made a speech?]
He did, but it was very non-partisan. All he did was encourage everybody in attendance to vote, in large part because Americans hardly ever vote in the midterms. However, this same reverend was a member of a local chapter of the NAACP, so it wasn’t hard to figure out which political party he supports.
[If the gentlemen debating socialism contra capitalism didn’t seem excited, did everybody else at least seem energetic?]
I didn’t think so. I have no idea if that audience was at all representative of the left-wing electorate generally, but if so, then the Democratic Party will be in for some very dour news Tuesday night. It was hard to understand why we were there, in large part because Sanders is not on the ballot in New Hampshire, not this week. Presumably, we were there to get excited to vote for the Democrats in his stead, but that message can be difficult to sell.
[What are you talking about? Trump has been telling everyone to vote Republican for months.]
Yeah, but he’s unapologetically partisan. For a guy like Bernie Sanders, who has scammed out of a presidential nomination by his own party, to come out and tell his constituents to vote straight down the Democratic ticket would be the epitome of irony. It would be way too heavy-handed and awkward for a man who lost so much because of that cabalistic affinity to “the group”, hence why he didn’t say to vote for Democrats. He said, “Get out and vote”, and “Vote for people who want to represent all Americans, not just the wealthiest Americans”, and so on and so forth.
[Doesn’t sound very inspiring.]
But then again, were any of these people ever unconvinced? I’ll give Sanders credit for backing up his positions with specific examples of Congressional wrongdoing, but that only makes him the exception to the rule. All of the other mainstream political rallies, even the populists’, are based on empty rhetoric—as emptily rhetorical as that description seems. You don’t go to these rallies because you want to be persuaded to get off the fence; you go because you want to feel tingly. It’s very reminiscent of “the feelies”, Aldous Huxley’s terrifying interpretation of brainless movies.
[And how did they describe this whole process? As “the poor people’s campaign?]
Oh, yeah. Too bad they never mentioned whose campaign it was.
[So, you really talked to no one before the speeches started?]
Well, one young lady to my left did ask about my website. I wrote “Overwritten.org” on an index card and stuffed it in my breast pocket, only because I still don’t own a fedora to which I can affix a card reading “PRESS”. I told her that here we—
—specialize in political existentialism. When she asked what that meant, I asked if she ever read any existential philosophers. She replied that she may have read one in middle school, so I tried to explain to her how, in my mind, the human race is far too flawed to ever attempt a serious political undertaking. She didn’t say anything, she only stared, so I briefly described my visit to the Trump rally in 2016. That was when she became so scared that she turned away from me without saying a word.
[You scared that poor girl half to death, didn’t you?]
Not so badly, evidently, as she did muster up the courage to ask to borrow one of my pens a couple of minutes later.
[No comment. On to the speeches.]
Before we get to the speeches, we should probably take a minute to talk about the musical numbers that all but defined the event. A woman who introduced herself as “a musicologist for the poor people’s campaign” led the audience in signing a song about how we, the audience, are not afraid, and how we are willing to “die for liberation”. It took a few renditions, but before long, this crowd of three hundred people had the whole thing memorized, and it was being “sung” back in a gloomy, ominous tone that would have been more appropriate for the Satanic cult of Rosemary’s Baby than for a supposedly good-natured rally.
[You use the word “cult”. Typically, that term is used to describe President Trump’s rallies.]
And my single firsthand experience of those rallies confirms the claim. However, we tend to forget how common that feeling of group hysteria is in American politics. Nobody ever wants to identify as a populist, but populism is definitely the predominant feeling at political rallies. Everyone wants to feel like he or she belongs, like he or she has been welcomed into some kind of secret club, and that all of us, every single one of us, has the power to change the entire world. It’s all nonsense, of course, but it seems to work for a large number of people who still believe in political solutions, and it has become the default emotional settings in the post-Trump political landscape.
[You were the loudest singer of all, I’m sure?]
I neither sang nor stood. I didn’t mean to look petulant, but whenever I’m swamped among such a mass of people possessed by the herd mentality, I feel really naked. I had a similar experience, the last time I went to Gillette Stadium. All of those people wearing the same-colored jerseys . . . I was really scared that I was gonna hurl.
[Did you feel fear at the Brookside, too?]
Initially, no. It wasn’t until I realized that I knew the song that the people were singing that I started shaking. I had heard that song performed by some euphoric activist some months ago, during one of the strangest political demonstrations I have ever seen. I was walking in downtown Concord on my lunch break when I saw a dozen people being led into the back of a police van while dozens of other people stood on either side of the street, filming the arrests with their cell phones. I’m still not sure what happened, exactly, but whatever it was, it occurred behind the state capitol. As I said, one woman was walking back and forth with a sign, chanting the song wherein this woman now led an awkward rendition while we waited for Bernie . . . Sanders.
[Okay. But, why was it scary?]
Because it raised all sorts of very disturbing questions about how the sausage is made.
[I don’t follow.]
Okay: whatever its message or intent, the demonstration that resulted in all of the arrests earlier this year was, ostensibly, a gathering organized by independent activists, by “grassroots” activists, whatever that term is supposed to mean. However, the alleged organic nature of the demonstration, the demonstration as an organic event, was called into question when I heard the same song being played at a Sanders rally.
[Might it have been a simple coincidence? Maybe it was used at a similar demonstration before it was used at the fiasco in Concord? Maybe it’s simply been making the rounds?]
But who is helping it to make the rounds? Clearly, the Sanders rally was not an independent project assembled in a hurry by “grassroots” activists. Bernie Sanders is a United States Senator with a lot of financial backing, and this rally, while small, had to have relied on some kind of organization.
[You sound paranoid. Do you know that?]
Probably, I do, but all I’m saying is that a lot of these political activities are presented as the work of “boots on the ground” when, in reality, a powerful person is footing the bill. In other words, you think you’re shopping local, but really, you’re supporting a major corporation.
[The major corporation being Bernie Sanders?]
Or the Democratic Party. You see a lot of these campaign advertisements that are “not authorized or paid for by any candidate”, but everybody knows that a major party donor obviously paid for the bloody commercial in the first place. It ain’t rocket science, but the swindle still seems new to far too many.
[All of this may very well be true, but you’re going to have to find better evidence than the use of the same song.]
Should I, then, in the painfully vacuous words of one of the rally’s speakers, “recalibrate our mindset”?
[Do whatever you wish, but if you can’t support your own argument, then it’s probably best if you just keep quiet.]
You could have given the same unsolicited advice to the men and women making speeches: I have no idea who served as electrician for this little event, but there was some kind of clumsy disconnect between the microphone and speakers, resulting in a constant, hideous eruption of sound. Twice a minute, and several times a minute when Sanders spoke, it sounded like someone was kicking in a door.
[Before we get to Sanders, should we touch on any of the opening acts?]
Probably not. None of them said anything memorable—notwithstanding the recalibration bit. Even Mr. Sanders was conspicuously flat, saying nothing that he hasn’t already said, in the exact same language, countless times before. Seriously: the kids fawn over Sanders, not because he promises them a basket of free stuff, but because of his straight-talking, no-holds-barred approach. It’s fake, but it sells; and yet, at the Brookside, he seemed like he had just climbed out of bed. It hardly even registered when he spoke of “right-wing extremism”, and it seemed insincere when he said, while commenting on the issue of voter suppression, “If I can’t win an election on my ideas, I don’t want to win that election.”
[Was it really that bad, or are you just pessimistic about Tuesday?]
No, I’m telling you the truth: he was painting by the numbers, and with only one color. I will admit that I sat up straight when he said that the three wealthiest Americans have more money than the “bottom half” of the population, but then again, the only reason I remember that is because, just a few minutes before we started this, I heard Allan Nairn say the same thing.
[Still, isn’t it interesting that you can look upon Sanders’s statements as tepid?]
How do you mean?
[When Sanders came upon the national stage in 2015, his unambiguous endorsement of socialism, his outspoken preference for “true” socialism, was a political anomaly. Many commentators felt, and apparently with justice, that embracing socialism by its proper name was political suicide, not in the least because President Obama had just spent almost a decade denying any sympathy for the theory of socialism. Now, three years removed from the dawn of Sanders’s unsuccessful effort, it is hard to find a mainstream Democratic candidate, though not so hard to find an elected Democrat, who doesn’t stand with Sanders on any number of issues. Molly Kelly, the Democratic nominee for Governor of New Hampshire, said that it is time to legalize pot.]
And when Sanders said the same thing at the Brookside, he said it to thunderous applause. He had a similar reaction when he said that he supports the right to abortion, referred to therein as “health care decisions for women”, and the crowd rose to its feet, all except yours truly, when he called to reinstate the ban on assault weapons.
[Did he have anything new to say about the education system?]
Actually, yes: he said that many schools in Colorado are having classes only four days a week, due to budget cuts that, as usual, are suffocating our nation’s children.
[That’s pretty depressing.]
It is, but I’ll admit that I was much more interested in his theory that tuition-free college education is the solution to the problem of high school diplomas failing to qualify people for quality work. I want to take the time to respond to that claim in full, but I should do so in a separate essay.
[Agreed. And on that note, it looks as though the polls are finally about to close. Anything else to say before we move along?]
Only that I tried my best not to stare at this middle-aged woman who was brushing away tears as Sanders came to the end of his speech. I have no idea what she was crying about, but I’d sure like to see her reaction when she learns of Tuesday’s results.
[Oh: did you ever get your pen back from that girl you terrorized?]
Yeah, she handed it to me before she left, thanks.