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Storyline Fever

Two states into the democratic primary, socialism is the frontrunner

At his father’s big pre-primary rally in New Hampshire, Donald Trump Jr. made something clear: the 2020 election is now, and was always going to be, about radical leftism. “Every single one of the Democratic candidates has embraced a radical socialist agenda,” he told a crowd in Manchester that was much larger than any that a Democrat brought in that week. It was Trump Jr.’s opening note, just after he had crossed the arena floor in such a crush of adoring fans that I was almost knocked over by the mob as I worked to snap a picture of him. This was just before the crowd interrupted him with an exhortation to run for President in 2024, chanting “forty-six! forty-six! forty-six!” as if to remind the world that this will not be the last election cycle for Trumpism, whatever happens in November. The supposed radical socialism of all the Democratic candidates was an opening note of his father’s speech, too, when an ebullient Trump finally took the stage. He didn’t bother to differentiate between them, at least not until toward the end of his speech, when he reprised a tongue-in-cheek sympathy for Bernie Sanders’s battle with the Democratic powers-that-be that has become a recurrent Trumpworld motif in recent months. Because for the Trump team, no less than for radical leftists, this election is all about asking how enamored of capitalism Americans really are. And after Sanders won on Tuesday, as he heads into the Nevada caucuses with the prospect of opening the race for the nomination with three straight first-place finishes, even the most dogged centrists are going to have to face up to that fact.

I had spent the day before the Trump rally canvassing for Sanders outside of Conway, a mostly rural area full of kitschy tourist traps and backwoods cranky Yankees, where I have spent at least a part of most summers since I was a kid. My friend Andy, a red-bearded fifty-eight-year-old carpenter who never finished college, spent his twenties working in Guatemala during the civil war and now runs a left-wing retreat center south of town, had been showing up at the local field office at seven every morning and staying out till after dark, literally running in his snow boots from house to house. And there is no point in pretending: a political reporter friend of mine had told me, “Get up there, Bernie’s gonna romp,” but it was hard to sense a mood other than apprehension at the Conway field office, where Jeff, the young campaign staffer who had moved down from Alaska and seemed to have politics that were far more radical than working on a presidential campaign would allow him to articulate, gave me a five-minute canvassing lesson and a spread of doors to start hitting. I like to think that I know the area and its people pretty well, and to be honest, I had assumed that the region’s outlawish mindset and profusion of hippie types would make it fun and easy to traipse down a driveway wearing Sanders paraphernalia to gin up a chat.

This turned out to be an idiotically sanguine expectation, and everyone I spoke to seemed clear about what the Sanders campaign now represented—not a delighted fuck-you vote for a truth-teller, not a part of a huge upswell of new primary voters, but a deliberate, informed vote for a specific set of policies and a reimagining of the market’s central role in all of our lives. And it represented a vote for someone whom the Trump campaign now seemed to be gleefully hoping they might get a chance to go up against. This was the real, less-than-rosy world, which is something that Sanders fans don’t always seem to want to face. I found that I was glad to be canvassing with Andy’s daughter, a college sophomore who’d gone to the local public high school and who knew many of the people we were visiting. People were deathly sick of the whole thing. We were scowled at and waved away, ignored even when a TV and blazing fire made it obvious someone was home, and occasionally told by someone that they hadn’t made up their mind but that the only criteria anyone in the house was choosing on was electability, with the implication that they’d be choosing anyone but Sanders. But of the people we spoke to who had decided on a candidate, the ratio was in favor of Sanders—and at those doors I sometimes wanted to hustle off for the simple reason that there was nothing to talk about: they had picked him because he was a radical, and at that point, there was little danger of anyone else luring them away. 

The electability discussion was the staple of the mainstream reporters. You could have been forgiven, if you were following coverage even from somewhere like NPR—marginally less deranged by horse-race minutiae than the cable news channels and the data wonks at the Times or FiveThirtyEight—for thinking that electability was all any voters wanted to talk about, despite the fact that supposedly electable Joe Biden had evaporated and exit polls showed that health care and climate change were the top issues people voted on. On Monday in Exeter, a wealthy and slightly soul-killing town north of Boston, Amy Klobuchar profited from the monstrously termed “Klobmentum” she had gained in the last debate by overfilling the picturesque town hall and extolling the idea that being from a heartland state like Minnesota makes her electable. I got there too late to get in the front door, and so stood peering from outside with a milling crowd that was almost entirely made up of gray-haired white women, while an almost equal number of reporters busily pulled aside anyone foolish enough to make eye contact. “I didn’t make up my mind before the last debate,” a man carrying a baby told an NBC Decision reporter next to me as we were all jostled by a thronging crowd bedecked in pearls and Patagonia. “So this man made up his mind after the debate,” the correspondent said as she turned to the camera, sensing a perfect clip to capture the sudden post-debate swing toward Klobuchar. “Tell us who won you over.”

“Well I still haven’t made up my mind,” he said. “I just hadn’t made it up before the debate either.” The reporter gave him a furious look.

It was easy to tell at that point that support for Elizabeth Warren was collapsing, and it was easy to tell why. I chatted outside the hall with a group of three women who had been planning to vote for Warren before, who all told me that their first priority was voting for whatever woman had the best chance of getting the nomination, and so had switched over to Klobuchar after Warren’s eclipse in Iowa. They had supported Warren in spite of, rather than because of, her big policy proposals. While I was in New Hampshire I talked to easily a dozen Sanders voters who had at one point or another seen Warren basically as she seemed to want to be seen: as someone who could appeal to the pearl-wearing women of Exeter while simultaneously offering a radical reorganization of American life. The problem was that this appeal could not escape the confounding trap of liberal politics—the idea that it’s possible to empower the dispossessed without actively making enemies of the comfortable people who benefit from inequality and injustice. And by then, just a day before the primary, it was hard to find anyone who still believed in this kind of middle path.

By this point I had turned into as much of a news chaser as the rest of the reporters who had descended on the state, and I bailed on my promise to Jeff that I’d go back to canvas in Conway so that I could dash from the Klobuchar event over to Manchester for the Trump rally and then up Route 16 all the way through the White Mountains to Dixville Notch, a dot on the map that’s famous for holding a midnight first-in-the-nation primary vote, at a hotel high at the top of a snowbound mountain pass. The scene was enough to turn anyone off of electoral politics: five voters, all appearing upper-middle-class and mostly involved with running the hotel, earnestly dressed up for the occasion in bowties and sweater-vests, surrounded by dozens of reporters doing labored live feeds and snatching at anyone who looked even vaguely like a New Hampshire resident, in a frantic search for material, racing each other to file meaningless dispatches about who as of that early moment was leading. As it happened, Michael Bloomberg won in both the Republican and Democratic votes—winning one-to-nothing as a write-in for the Republican primary and getting written in by two Democratic voters, against one each for Sanders and Pete Buttigieg. “What would you say,” I watched a TV reporter ask one of the Bloomberg voters, “about the impression many people have that Michael Bloomberg doesn’t like, um, people?” The man smiled. Not long before, he said, Bloomberg had dialed him up personally, and he had sure seemed nice then.

On Tuesday, primary day, I drove back down to Manchester for the Sanders election-night event, held in a grim, bright, and small gymnasium on the Southern New Hampshire University campus. Everyone in and around the campaign had been referring to it as the “victory party”— but again, it would only be honest to say that it had nothing whatsoever of the feel of a party, or of an event where anyone was confident that the night would end in victory. Andy was stuck in line outside while I tried to keep him updated and Buttigieg’s vote count clung doggedly close to Sanders’s, as the total precincts reporting climbed above 70 percent and the cable news networks continued to resist declaring a winner. The Chapo Trap House crew slumped glumly in a row of folding chairs against a wall, and the milling crowd of reporters—again, seeming to match if not to exceed the number of normal humans who had managed to make it in—badgered anyone who stood still long enough for quotes or one-on-ones to fill airtime.

For the Trump team, no less than for radical leftists, this election is all about asking how enamored of capitalism Americans really are.

And then, of course, Sanders won, and the confrontation that has been building in American politics for the last four years became suddenly more clearly defined than ever. Warren’s support had disintegrated, something that no one I managed to speak to in the gym took any particular pleasure in, but that laid bare the fact that from now on the Democratic primary campaign is going to be fought between a camp of unabashed leftists—brought together by a sense that what we’re looking at right now may be a president who wants to break the grip of capitalism as the ideological force governing life on this planet—and a swathe of basically interchangeable others nipping at his heels, who, added together in New Hampshire, represented vastly larger portion of the electorate.

But on this night, none of those others managed to inspire enough support to win. Andy succeeded in getting himself smuggled in a side door just before Sanders gave his victory speech, and when I found them Jeff had broken down into exhausted tears. Soon Andy was doing an interview with British Channel 4, sounding polished and on-point as he held court in his Carhartts and tattered old flannel vest. Not for the first time in this campaign I was reminded of how Trump’s election had elevated legions of unlikely people to positions of major importance in our politics and media. And I was lost for a minute in the delicious thought that after having spent my whole lifetime in the belief that being left-wing meant being stuck outside, that it meant being a perpetual loser, that if Sanders won, the same effect could end up elevating people like Andy—and that all those years of being a loser and being stuck outside would need to be revised if this campaign ended up storming the White House.

It is difficult at this stage to imagine how any of these other candidates could attract the kind of loyalty and dedication that Sanders does, and if Trump’s election taught us anything, it is that there truly isn’t a ceiling of support for a candidate that can inspire real fervor and devotion. It was only four years ago at this time that pollsters were lecturing people that Trump’s “ceiling of support” would max out at 35 percent or so support among Republican voters, and the situation then was everyone-against-Trump in much the way as a divided Democratic field is now arrayed against a hard core of Sanders support. Less than a year later, Trump was giving an inaugural address. Trump, for his part, has taken a minute to say a kind word for Sanders at both of his rallies that I’ve been to in the last month. He has decided that he’s going to call anyone the Democrats might nominate a radical socialist, and his campaign seems to have made up its mind that a radical socialist candidate will find less purchase running an unconventional national campaign than he himself did in 2016. “I think they’re trying to take it away from Bernie again,” he said in Manchester. “They’re doing it to you again, Bernie!” Does this suggest Trump wants Sanders in the general? He may well get him.