A television ad for Tom Steyer airs on the morning of his January rally. Steyer has spent more than $20 million on campaign promotions.
“Come on, you can do it.” The feeble exhortation died on my lips like the last toasty gusts flowing from my car’s heating system. I had killed the engine less than a minute before, blanking the lights and restoring the odometer to a meaningless gray, as if to conceal from myself the memory of how far I’d gone on this arduous quest. I never expected any of this, you know . . . I’m not talking about this specific moment, sitting in my car on an unknown street as the temperatures fall to the single digits. I’m talking about this in its totality, this and the culmination of it all, this as in: my mission to pursue the Democrats and ask, “Do you support Julian Assange?” This, my misadventure, which began as an isolated incident in the middle of Gibson’s Bookstore, a single encounter with Andrew Yang, brought about without a thought as to whether there would be a “next time” with a different candidate . . . this became my guidance, my vocation, my compulsion, perhaps my obsession. For seven months, it was my raison d’être, taking me to every corner of New Hampshire and bringing me into the very midst of the most irredeemable of the Good Germans.
And now, on a frigid January night, it was coming to a close. Gibson’s Bookstore was less than a mile away—within walking distance, even in this freeze—but I couldn’t have felt further removed from the June afternoon on which I met Yang. How much has changed for me since then? In those days, I didn’t have a Twitter account: I was still using Facebook in a hopeless effort to bring people to my website, and looking at a ten-visitor day as a smashing success. I hadn’t met a single one of these presidential candidates—including Tulsi Gabbard. As a matter of fact, I hadn’t met a number of people, people who I won’t name within these pages. I almost alluded to some of them, but that is the benefit of the backspace tab. Now is not the time for sentimentality; that time is coming, but not on this night, not while there is still so much work to be done.
Of course, this particular bit of business could have been wrapped up several months ago. It wasn’t supposed to be my last assignment—that was supposed to be Bernie Sanders, back in September, for Christ’s sake—but on the campaign trail, you can’t predict what’s going your way and what’s going sideways. For yours truly, Tom Steyer was the one who got away. I was less than three feet away from him at the New Hampshire Democratic Party Convention, and his assistants wanted to let me talk to him, but, just as I was getting ready with my camera, he had to hurry off to his suite to prepare to give a speech on the floor of the arena. If it reads like I’m taking a swing at him, cool it: I’m not faulting the guy for adhering to a schedule. I probably did fault him at the time, when I was still something of an amateur at this, but I like to think I’ve learned a lot about it since, and at this point, with everything coming to an end . . . well, I suppose I don’t want to bear grudges.
Not that there isn’t a lot of bad blood. Oh, there’s bad blood, all right. Plenty of it, enough to soak this page and many pages more. Some of it I’m not permitted to discuss, not until Assange is safe at home, but I remember . . . I remember everything that happened to me as I tracked these people down across a thousand miles. How could I forget lurching drunkenly towards Amy Klobuchar, a caustic sneer scorched upon her face as she dismissed my question with pampered indifference? It couldn’t slip my mind any easier than Yang’s childish suggestion that Assange could receive a fair trial in the United States. And then there was that sound of hateful applause delivered by the white bourgeois feminists when Pete Buttigieg fled from my question. His terrified evasion of elemental moral responsibility, and the giddy adulation his cowardice inspired, speaks innumerable volumes about the American people’s psychic malformation.
Massive overcrowding at Steyer’s house party. Notice my necessary use of a wide-angle lens.
Dispiriting though these phenomena be, my voluntary witnessing of them does not a martyr make me. Julian Assange is the only martyr, while I am fortunate to have the freedom to walk amongst these senators of Rome, these pharaohs of Egypt, and compel them to speak the crucified’s name. As I typed that last sentence, the electronic editor stopped me to note that crucified’s isn’t a word, that the crucified cannot be a possessor. This makes sense to me: persecution, after all, is the denial of basic human dignity, the negation of the human essence, so of course the victim of this ruthless, brutal strikethrough would be forbidden everything, would be forbade to have. We who are “free”, relatively speaking; we who have yet to have our liberty revoked, we cannot image such an injury to our soul. We still breathe the pure air, as it were, and my lungs are as strong as anybody else’s. Therefore, I can’t complain when I must walk into the noxious smog of the fascists, collecting in stormy, smothering fumes at political rallies: I must suffer the putrescence only for a moment, but Assange might never breathe freely again.
Sometimes, the fresh air of freedom is warm and inviting, or cool and relaxing. Most often, though, it is cold and taxing, which is precisely why so many people avoid it, preferring, in their weakness, timidity’s bitter stillness. Personally, I can’t tolerate too much of that artificiality without becoming lightheaded, and I felt such a headache forming as I sat in my car, dreading every moment of Tom Steyer’s rally. I knew I could postpone it for as long as I wished, my latest dive into the stagnation of American politics, but my cowardice was just as suffocating, and the massive collection of cars sandwiched on either side of the street suggested I might not have space to breathe, much less any space to stand, if I didn’t hurry on. Almost in a panic, I left my car and jogged through the frigid night to the scene of the crime.
A familiar scene it was, though it was hardly welcoming for that: I had visited this house twice in the last month, attending rallies for Michael Bennet and Deval Patrick. I’d been dreading my return since I learned of the event: at this point, there was no way the homeowners could fail to recognize me, and if they were to spot me, then they might warn Steyer of my intent. Not that I fear a prepared opponent, but once advised, he wouldn’t take my question under any circumstances. When I started doing this, forcing the candidates to comment on Assange, I thought their reluctance followed their fear of revealing their own affinity to Trump, but now, I wonder if they were troubled more by the question’s arresting effect on the crowd. Every time I’ve asked a candidate the Assange question, I could feel the audience’s energy dissipate completely. It isn’t necessarily that the audience hates Assange—sometimes, no one seems to know who he is—so much as the solemnity and gravity of the subject. When introduced, it forces everyone to stop and think for a moment, if only to see how the beloved candidate receives this unexpected pitch. Asking this question is like shutting off the lights: it brings the mindless enthusiasm of the assembly to a screeching halt.
Oh, and for the record: a similar chill follows when the question is asked at Tulsi Gabbard’s rallies. It is much milder than that which I have witnessed in different settings, yes, but never, not even at her most successful campaign event, has the audience afforded Assange its unanimous, wholesale support. Even if there is no one in the crowd who dislikes him, there are always a few people who come to the subject with confusion and unease. Invariably, there is someone who wishes to know why the question is worth asking, even. “Why is his suffering so important to you?”
Perhaps we should ask why Steyer’s success was so important to the hundred people who crowded the halls and living room of this couple’s house. You could read the distress on the homeowners’ faces as they looked upon the overwhelming throng. Do fire codes apply to a quasi-private setting such as this? We could have found out very easily, for a stampede was certain, had something gone awry. Nothing did, but we still felt like beasts in a zoo, herded into a miserable, overcrowded pen with little to do but sweat and grunt before the show. This, we are reminded every election, is our privilege as residents of the Granite State, but as the primary reaches its disastrous conclusion, I’m tempted to ask if it is our burden, our sacrifice performed for the rest of the country. Forgive me if I’ve turned melodramatic, but why else is there this unmistakable catharsis as the candidates depart for the next place of battle?
We do this, we are told, because it is our civic obligation. I’m still not exactly sure what that means, but I think we’re supposed to believe that we keep ourselves informed by listening to these wealthy people, these impeccably dressed men and women who want us to trust them with the keys to the country. For a while, it wasn’t such a bad deal: we let them interrupt our television shows with a hundred campaign ads, and in exchange, we were cleared of all moral culpability for our nation’s wayward and destructive course. Oh, but times have changed, and now every private citizen bears some measure of blame for the mess we’re in. I’m not even talking about the white supremacists or the feminists or those churlish corporate executives who have the temerity to ask you to press 1 for English . . . I’m talking about a blogger named Dack Rouleau, a pallid-faced sleaze who lazed around for the better part of a decade while Assange toiled in incarceration. Rouleau, the smug little prick, didn’t get his skin in the game until Assange was snatched up by British police, and now, when it might be too late to save the man’s life, he stalks the presidential candidates and asks, “What have you done for Julian lately?”
If I’m a speculator in the politics of virtue, then at least I’m not a lonely scoundrel. Steyer has been dabbling in this cruel enterprise for several years running, though his extensive expertise—I nearly wrote expensive experience—has yet to be acknowledged by the corporate press. We have learned, even from mainstream sources, that Steyer’s malicious misadventures on Wall Street paint a very different portrait from that of the benevolent philanthropist which he composes today, but we will never hear a corporate commentator speak of his persistent habit of lobbying for, and donating to, the Democratic Party. This man could write a spellbinding book on the financial corrosion of D.C., but why would he do that when he can conceal his own sinister history and emerge as the champion of the common man? His populist approach is awfully reminiscent of that of a different billionaire who ran with the promise of restoring the American middle class, but this unsettling commonality has been politely ignored, too.
Having already covered in a separate essay Steyer’s unseemly investments, we have little cause to reexamine them here. The people who attend his rallies, however, and the people who listen to him with undeniable awe, might benefit from some serious research into his past. If they did, then they might feel slightly embarrassed for wearing t-shirts reading “Stamp Money Out of Politics”. Steyer is not the only candidate with such a ridiculous message, but there is an exceptionally bitter irony to his message, and a preternaturally reckless negligence to the media’s failure to challenge him. His dumbfounding hypocrisy in condemning the rich for tilting the political and economic field is, or ought to be, a subject of inexhaustible interest to any journalist, especially one with progressive sympathies. And yet, seven months after he launched his campaign, the subject remains, not simply untouched, but untouchable.
On the other hand, his fiscal policy, or any candidate’s approach to economic reform, was of much less interest to me than his stance on the persecution of Julian Assange. Why, then, did I wait such a long time to ask him my question, the only one that was important to me? Was his crudity really so slipshod and sloppy that I felt it fruitless to give him the time of day? Three months ago, I asked the hosts of Action 4 Assange if there was a benefit to asking Steyer, who aggressively promoted Russigate at the New Hampshire convention, if he supports the journalist who, for three long years, has been slandered as Putin’s dopey accomplice. I could have asked the same question about Pete Buttigieg, whose contempt for Chelsea Manning is documented, but instead, I asked him, and the results, while unsurprising, were indelibly shocking.
Accordingly, I had to give Steyer his due, and while he would be the last Democratic candidate to stare into my camera, there was no sense of great, transcendent achievement when I made my way into the poor couple’s home and stole a decent spot among the writhing mass. I felt nothing but a nettlesome impatience, an unbecoming irritation as I waited for Steyer’s speech to end—before it began. He offered perfunctory platitudes, insisting that he, better than his many rivals, understood the suffering of the poor, the colored, and the female. As evidence of his commiseration, he pointed to his multicolored belt, the many hues of which honor a school for African girls. Ordinarily, I am loath to recommend dishonestly cosmopolitan authors, but I will make an exception and encourage Steyer to read Foreign Gods, Inc. to help him understand why exotic accessories do not make one woke.
Tom Steyer speaks. Notice his belt and its conspicuous design.
Perhaps a stronger proof of Steyer’s multicultural education is his lamentation for those Hispanic children imprisoned on the Mexican border. Steyer correctly describes our government’s practice of forcibly separating families suspected of illegal immigration as a crime against humanity, which I have been saying for quite some time. And while this obscene custom doesn’t mark the American Empire’s moral nadir, it may illustrate all too sharply the historical naivete of the Democrat base. A shockingly sizeable percentage of American adults believe that the grotesque “family separation policy” began under Trump, but, in fact, it was enforced by the Obama Administration, as Rania Khalek already explained in a video released early last year. By reducing the problem to Trump’s inexplicable sadism, we ignore the Democrats’ proven acceptance of such heartless measures, and we neglect to question—not only the legitimacy of their opposition to this barbaric action, but also the sincerity of our own anachronistic outrage.
I don’t know what, if anything, President Steyer would do to squash this grotesquerie, but I never doubted his enthusiastic willingness to say he despised it. The question of Julian Assange is very different, for his detention cannot be condemned unless we first explain why it, too, is inspired by medieval overreach. Doing so, of course, jeopardizes the rally’s unquestioningly optimistic tone, and risks repelling the heavily programmed and reactionary members of the audience. Ergo, only a principled politician, one who is willing to risk his own popular support in defense of his values, would offer the correct answer to my question. I have to wonder, then, if my question didn’t really pertain to Assange so much as to the candidates’ personal convictions. Perhaps I was really asking them: “What is the strength of your moral commitment?”
You could answer that question with a sardonic joke, for Steyer admitted, or claimed, that he didn’t know enough about the case against Assange to take a solid stance. He did criticize the government for spying on the American people, and he offered to look into Assange’s case in greater detail if I gave him relevant material. I released my footage of Steyer answering my question about a month before I published this essay, and several people applauded him for his willingness to look into the issue. I understand their perspective, even though, as I argued when Cory Booker admitted his own ignorance on this subject, a presidential candidate really ought to know about a high-profile federal case that has endured for the greater part of a decade. This is not an obscurity, contrary to its minor profile in the corporate press, and to be uninformed at this stage of the game is disappointing and disconcerting, to put it as mildly as I possibly can.
Of course, we might have cause to be more pointed. An individual on Twitter, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, informed me after watching my video that Steyer has, or did have, a close professional bond with John Podesta, the disgraced chairman of Hillary Clinton’s second ill-fated presidential campaign. In April of 2015, Steyer and Podesta chummily exchanged recipes for pasta pauce, but a few months later, Podesta privately scolded Steyer, who was publicly refusing to offer financial support to politicians who lacked a concrete plan to combat climate change. Undoubtedly, Steyer has other troubling ties, but they have never been investigated by a major publication. This would be a worthwhile project for an ambitious researcher, especially if Steyer performs strongly in the early primaries.
As I left the rally, hopeful that I would attend not another, I thought about the one serious risk I’d taken, and the one risk to which I might have unintentionally exposed Assange. In attending these rallies and producing these videos and writing these essays, my goal was to educate well-meaning progressives on the Democratic candidates’ apathy towards this tragic case of political persecution. I didn’t want benevolent voters to fall in line behind psychopathic phonies who were all too willing to take advantage of them. I thought that my work would expose these politicians and inspire the American people to demand better—not just of their candidates, but also for Assange. The benefit, or effect, of this was obvious, I think. The risk was that one of these candidates would tell me what I want to hear, thereby convincing Assange’s American supporters to support the campaign, only to betray that stance and, upon taking office, do nothing in Assange’s defense. That was always a real possibility, and while it never seemed to come to frightening fruition, Steyer might have been the closest call of all.
I couldn’t think of anything but this risk as I returned to my car, grateful to be finished with such a massive project, but feeling none of that catharsis that we, as American sentimentalists, come to expect at the end of the road. I would write a fittingly melodramatic tribute to the existential import and meaning of this quest, but as I’ve already told you, now is not the time. Something tells me I still have more work to do. Something tells me I’m not finished asking the candidates about Julian Assange.