The second day of Tulsi Gabbard’s odyssey into the deep of the Granite State began in Haverhill, a surprisingly sprawling village situated maybe a hundred miles south of the Canadian border. I’ve been to Canada, but I’ve never been to Haverhill, and I knew, even before I finished up at the diner and hit I-93, that anything could happen out there, up there in the abundant green. We bid farewell to Laconia, the miniature city where the first day of Gabbard’s journey ended, and began a sixty-mile-trek past the last of New Hampshire’s recognizable cities. Once you’re out of Meredith, and once you’re on the opposite side of the state from North Conway, well, then you’re almost stepping into a different world. If you want to develop a partial idea of what it means to be lost among the endless forests and mountains of New Hampshire, then you can watch the opening credits sequence of The Shining—I know that film takes place in Colorado, but the isolation, the frighteningly lovely feeling of being swallowed up by indifferent nature . . . man, it’s breathtaking.
However, all of that immersion in infinite verdure came to a crashing halt when my GPS compelled me to abandon the interstate and journey along the highway that almost seems to dance through villages like Rumney, Wentworth, and Benton. These are the really tiny pieces of Grafton County, and I do mean tiny: fewer than four hundred people live in Benton, and none of their populations cap out above 1,500. I have no idea how the Gabbard campaign staked out its journey, but I would have paid an awful lot of money to see how Tulsi Gabbard enjoyed her drive up north.
Haverhill dwarfs all of those hamlets, sustaining a population of 4,700. It just doesn’t feel like it, not with all of the farmland spreading out to the ends of the town. You probably think I’m “talking stink” about these places—to borrow a Hawaiian expression that Gabbard shared with us later in the day—but only if you’re not a New Englander. I grew up here, and I know the enduring charm of a place like this, a charm that will never exist in any city, even the most luxurious of them all. If I’m speaking flippantly, it’s because my GPS lost its signal for twenty minutes at a time, and I seriously believed that I would up in Vermont before I found the First Congregational Church.
But find it I did, and boy, you talk about an intimate gathering: there were chairs for thirty people, with no real room to stand. Once again, I’m not complaining; on the contrary, I thought the venue had a classical appeal, as if I’d been transported to the nineteenth century and was coming directly from the farm to listen to a humanist who was taking to the stump. The only anachronism was the appearance of a van that belonged to some affiliate of NBC News.
Speaking of the corporate media conglomerates, Gabbard’s showrunner—a young woman named Shawnee, whom I encountered at all three of the previous day’s parades—mentioned that Gabbard had an interview with CNN earlier in the morning. I was astonished to find out that she was getting any attention at all from that broadcaster, especially when, as she informed us yesterday, she still needed close to 40,000 “new donors” to qualify for the third televised debate. The corporate media, in particular the so-called “liberal media”, appears to be dead set on suffocating her candidacy as soon as possible, so why would they risk giving her life by inviting her onto the airwaves to speak? Maybe they have to give her a little bit of time, lest their methods of shadow blocking become just a little too obvious to take.
“Hmm. I’m an undecided voter in Haverhill, New Hampshire. I think I’ll pop into the church and listen to what that lady Tulsi Gabbard has to say. I am, after all, an undecided voter in Haverhill, New Hampshire, and I need a little propping before I can finally become a decided voter—also in Haverhill, New Hampshire. Such is the fate of an undecided voter in Haverhill, New Hampshire.”
I recognized almost all of the volunteers—one of whom mistook me for a volunteer—but I couldn’t tell if I had met any of the attendees at the previous day’s parades. I had just met so many people in the last twenty-four hours . . . and in that realization, I immediately understood why politicians seldom seem to remember the people they meet. They enter such a whirlwind of faces and places that it truly is hard to remember them all, especially in different settings. I’ll have to speak up the next time I hear someone complain, “They looked at me like I was a ghost!” Not that it’s healthy for people to expect that kind of . . . camaraderie . . . from someone they don’t know, but . . . eh, we’re getting off-topic.
With it being “Independence Day weekend”, a term that needs to be abolished from our national lexicon at once, Gabbard’s speech was centered on the unflattering contrast between the optimistic vision expressed by the Founding Fathers and the despair that defines American life today. She’s talking about our failure to realize the American Dream, and she argues that that failure pervades our dysfunctional political system. By way of a “for instance”, she describes something I’ve never heard about before: the Community Development Block Grant, issued by the federal government once a year for the purpose of rebuilding local infrastructure, etc. This grant comes out to $3 billion a year, which is then divided, perhaps not even equally, among the fifty states, so by the time the people of Haverhill get their piece of the pie, it amounts to . . . what? Crumbs? If that?
By contrast, Gabbard observes, our government is spending $4 billion every month to maintain our pointless military projects in Afghanistan. She goes on to point out that the sequestration measures, which I don’t think I’ve heard anybody talk about in the last five years, actually don’t apply to the Department of Defense, despite mendacious government claims to the contrary. However, I was much more interested in her revelation that Haliburton hires a lot of people from countries like the Philippines and Nepal to work seventy-two-hour-weeks in Afghanistan for $125 weekly.
None of this is acceptable, and all of it is deeply embarrassing, but the only reason it’s shocking is because you never hear any of the other candidates talk about these things. I remember feeling just a little bit of hope when Bernie Sanders complained about “the excessive military budget” during his midterms rally in Manchester, but do you ever hear him go down the line and point out where there is excess in the military budget? Do you ever hear him state that he would reduce our military spending, possibly to cover the costs of some of his proposed social programs? I’m sympathetic to Bernie Sanders’s supporters, but at some point, we have to understand that he is lacking in all of the decisive factors in which Gabbard is excelling.
I had a conversation about the Gabbard-Sanders schism at the Granite Grind, a café on Main Street in Lancaster, where Gabbard would hold her second of three presentations on the day. Somehow, I had been led to believe that Lancaster is only twenty minutes away from Haverhill, so you might be able to imagine my heartbroken surprise when the GPS informed me that I still had fifty miles to go, and less than ninety minutes to do it. Compounding the problem was that there was no time to get a beer, so I settled for a blueberry soda and a Rueben—and that meal, prepared by the staff of the Granite Grind, was the best I’ve had since I returned from Bangkok.
As I was eating my sandwich, a man named Fletch sat next to me. I was sitting at the countertop, which would provide a perfect view of Gabbard when she made her speech—which was imperative for Fletch, as he was a photographer with the Democratic Party. When I explained I write for my own website, he nodded and said, “Yes, I think I’ve heard of overwritten.org.” He could tell that I was astonished, so he quickly added: “Don’t ask me where I’ve heard of it, though. I think it was just something someone passed along the grapevine of politics, and so on.”
We talked about the claim, repeated everywhere in the media, that Sanders is too old to be elected president. “I’ll be honest with you, man,” I told him as I took another sip of my soda. “Nobody my age is complaining about Sanders being too old. It’s only the older people who are saying that.”
“Oh, you don’t have to tell me about that,” he said. “I’m eighty years old.” Again, I was astonished: I thought this guy was sixty-five, or something. “And I don’t think Bernie is too old to run. I don’t think Biden should run, but that’s not because he’s old; it’s because he’s Hillary in disguise, and he was sent in there to stop the Democratic Party from veering to the left.”
“You don’t have a problem with the veer, I take it?”
“No, not at all. I’m excited to see where the party is going, and I don’t want someone like Biden holding them back.”
“Are you a Bernie man, then?”
“I like Bernie,” he said, nodding at me, “but I like Tulsi, too. The two of them running together would be great.”
Trying not to talk with a mouthful of corned beef, I told Fletch: “Listen, I don’t think I’ve disagreed with anything Bernie’s said. It’s not what he says that I have a problem with, it’s the things he doesn’t say. Take foreign policy, for instance: for months, the Trump Administration has been supporting a coup in Venezuela—a coup for which Joe Biden has expressed his support, I might add—and Bernie hasn’t said a single word about it. Gabbard, on the other hand, is the only person running who actually calls out Trump on this issue—hell, she’s the only one who acknowledges that there even is an issue! So, unless Bernie gets serious about this sort of thing, I don’t think I can vote for him in good conscience.”
Fletch sighed and said, “Yeah, unfortunately, I think Bernie’s become a little too wrapped up in the party machinery over the last few years. But, you don’t think he’s going to be a factor in the primaries?”
“No, I didn’t say that. On the contrary, I think he generates a lot of excitement, especially among the college crowd, people my age, etc. When people in their twenties and early thirties hear Bernie speak, they eat it up. However, he is working with a handicap that isn’t really getting a whole lot of notice: he can’t seem to branch beyond his current fan base.”
“But that fan base is pretty crazy for him.”
“It is, but how he is going to expand his appeal? How is he going to be a four-quadrant performer, as they say in Hollywood? If he can’t make it happen, then he’s going to be working within his own pond—sizeable though that pond appears to be.”
“Yeah, that’s a good point. But he generates that energy. Where else do you find that with the other candidates—other than Gabbard?”
It’s funny that Fletch mentioned that, “the energy” that defines Tulsi Gabbard’s rallies. It’s funny, because her rallies don’t have the ridiculous sense of spectacle that defined the rally I attended for Elizabeth Warren. You don’t get that same sense of the bombastic and the epic, which probably is due to the smaller scale of Gabbard’s events—she lacks in corporate sponsorship, you see—but at the same time, Gabbard presents a very different message from Warren. Gabbard talks about how the American people have been laid to waste by a cannibalistic economic system, the cruelest and most catastrophic manifestation of which is our foreign policy. Warren talks a lot about economic injustice, but she presents it as something that exists in a vacuum, as something that exists apart from foreign policy—the latter being something that she never addresses.
Gabbard did address this problem in Lancaster. She explained that, although she is often criticized for spending “too much time” on foreign policy—implying what, exactly? That foreign policy is insignificant, that there is some other subject that is worthier of our time and attention? A brighter person than I will have to explain that one to me—it is impossible to understand literally any other issue without first understanding how “the problem” that that issue indicates is exacerbated by our foreign policy. I believe Marianne Williamson mentioned this during the second debate, as well, but only Gabbard is speaking articulately and coherently about this phenomenon, one which is all but invisible to the majority of voters.
There were a number of veterans and families of veterans at the Lancaster rally. Interestingly, their conversations with Gabbard weren’t defined by the usual saccharine exchange of “Thank you for your service” without any context. No, a number of these people actually challenged Gabbard on her military philosophy, asking her how enlisted soldiers can possibly sustain their morale if they are being told that they are working in the service of “wasteful regime-change wars”.
I doubt you will find a clip of this moment, but Gabbard actually looked at the woman who asked this question and said, “They need to understand.” It was hard to believe: I was standing in the presence of a politician who was telling us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear. That was yesterday, and I still haven’t really come to terms with it.
That, then, is the energy that Gabbard brings to this election: education by way of painful honesty. Her message is dark, but it isn’t bleak: she tells us all sorts of extremely depressing and infuriating things, like the little-known truth about Haliburton’s international contracting of what is effectively slave labor, but she also says that we could put a stop to this sadistic carnival if we demanded it. I realize now that this is precisely why she is unacceptable to the corporate media: she exposes real horror, not the fictitious horror in which President Trump specializes.
Perhaps the greatest illustration of this point was made when she talked about the impossibility of seeking protection during a nuclear catastrophe: “We’re told to seek immediate shelter, but there’s nowhere to go.”
Littleton is a town of moderate size, located maybe twenty miles southwest of Lancaster. I actually drove through it on my way to the Granite Grind, and I had to return to it for the last of Gabbard’s rallies. Littleton looks like one of those classic American “vacation towns” that probably first came into vogue in the 1950s or 1960s. You walk through downtown, with the two-screen movie theater and its old-fashioned marquee, and you feel like you’re traveling backwards in time—though not to the nineteenth century, as was the case in Haverhill. No, this is more of the recent past, a place where the parking meters can be filled up for a good chunk of time for less than a dollar. There’s supposed to be a pretty cute candy store somewhere in town, but I didn’t have time for chocolate: I needed a beer, maybe a Rum-and-Coke, before I wrapped up this long day of traveling.
Oh, and I still had eighty-five miles between me and Concord. Aye-E-aye-A.
Fortunately, I did find a decent place to relax: Smith Brothers Tavern, which appears to comprise part of the basement of Thayers Inn, a building that looks to be close to two centuries old. I would have loved to have checked it out, maybe even spent the night, but I didn’t have too much time to burn, and I had to be back in Concord for the morning, so I decided to just sit at the bar and have a Guinness before Gabbard made her speech.
While I was at the bar, I met an older couple on vacation from Philadelphia. This was their first time coming up to New England, which raised the question: why the hell were they in Littleton? The misses explained that she read a book about New Hampshire’s “amazing waterfalls”, the most amazing of which are supposedly in Littleton. As a lifelong New Hampshirite, this was the first I’d ever heard about our “waterfalls”, but maybe she was referring to the gorgeous at the bottom of the mountains, or something. I don’t know, but she and her husband were funny as hell. I was talking to them for almost forty minutes before I realized that her husband was taking a sketch of me. You can see it below. The woman cheering me on is meant to be Tulsi Gabbard, whom neither of the Philadelphians had heard of before I explained why I was so far away from home, drinking a Guinness at five o’clock on a Friday. The artist showed me another drawing of his: after meeting a young woman who was going to law school, he drew her as a judge, bringing down the gavel as she cheerfully shouted, “Fry his ass!”
Gabbard’s final rally for the day took place at the Littleton Opera House. Close to ninety people showed up, which was probably more than double what we saw in Lancaster. She had a batch of newly dispiriting gems for us, too, including the delightful disclosure that the taxpayers are billed $700 daily for every one of the children rounded up at the Mexican border and locked up in private prisons for kids. “Somehow,” she said, “we have money for this, but we don’t have enough money for clean air and water.” That’s actually the same message that was made, to successfully sickening effect, in Fahrenheit 11/9. Unfortunately, this kind of serious analysis, which isn’t all that terribly complicated, somehow can’t be echoed by the millionaires on CNN. They’re too busy drumming up fake support for another investigation into the Russian brouhaha, you see—so maybe this stuff really is too highbrow for the American people, after all.
The good news is that several of Gabbard’s volunteers talked to me about how disappointed they were to hear other candidates, including Andrew Yang, pile on the anti-Russian conspiracy theory. Obviously, there is an opportunity to connect with clear-minded people; you just can’t expect to find them at a rally for Elizabeth Warren.
On my drive home, I found myself standing at the base of so many of New Hampshire’s largest mountains. It’s intimidating, standing among so many of nature’s most beautiful monsters. There was some comfort in knowing that those gigantic boulders will be here long after the human race has annihilated itself, whether by nuclear disaster or by some other preventable menace. “Seek immediate shelter?” asks the mountain. “I think I’ll stay here. You do whatever you have to, little weaklings. Here I remain! Here I sustain!”
Then again, maybe that thought wasn’t quite so comforting, especially as Moonlight Sonata came through my speakers, the mountains sliding away before me, and the highway opening up on yet another seemingly interminable journey back to a city where mountains such as these could never be—and where a place like Lancaster sounds like a different country.