I knew the circus had come to town on Sunday, when the planes flying overhead trailed streaming banners reading, “Defend Unborn Children” and “Hillary For Prison.” Most convention goers were from out of town, and would only ever know Philadelphia as a hot, greasy mess of hotels, buses, endless convention center corridors, and speeches in ballrooms. For all they knew, this was normal—City Hall was always strung out with soapbox speakers telling red-flag-waving protesters that “Bernie betrayed the revolution,” and the Panera across the street was always filled with scrums of cops tucking into pastrami sandwiches. To Philly residents, though, the scene was lurid, carnivalesque, made only more disorienting by the steam-bath heat-dome that seemed to leave everyone staggering and dazed.
The emails had set everyone off. The much excoriated Debbie Wasserman Schultz was revealed to be the partial Party arbiter everyone already knew her to be. But to my mind it was the Democratic Party’s seedy angling for donors that came off most shamefully in the emails, with an extraordinary number of weirdos and crooks scheming to buy influence. “Finance asked us to vet as potential POTUS host/donor,” Chadwick Rivard, Senior Research Supervisor for the Compliance department of the DNC, wrote to his colleague Bobby Schmuck (!) and company regarding George Lindemann Jr., son of the billionaire George Lindemann Senior. George Jr., according to the research, “was a highly ranked rider, Olympic hopeful, and heir to an $800 million fortune.” But in 1990, “he hired Tommy ‘The Sandman’ Burns to electrocute his horse, Charisma, in order to collect on a $250,000 insurance policy.” He was subsequently convicted of wire fraud, yet somehow still made it past the first round of vetting.
Like many other reporters, I couldn’t get past security to see Sanders address his delegates in the early afternoon. My delegate friends inside reported a litany of surrogates speaking harshly of the Clintonoid wing of the Party, and when Sanders got up to offer his support he was met with fierce boos—a sign of things to come. Barred from seeing Sanders, I crossed the enormous length of the Convention Center, past the booths for Emily’s List and Democrats For Life and Johnson & Johnson’s shag-rug display for Save the Children, which was replete with white leather tulip chairs and a game of corn-hole where you could toss beanbags into holes that said “Invest in Children.” I slipped into the Labor Council meeting, where AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was betraying his Pennsylvania coal country origins with his long Os (a Party convention is one of few places you can hear the entire panoply of American accents), informing the crowd of union members that, come November, they’d go up to “Donny” and say, “you’re fired.” The joke received dutiful applause and a chuckle or two. A representative of the Roosevelt Institute introduced herself as an academic social scientist, then proved it through a series of tortured circumlocutions. She called for building a “better, more improved economy,” and explained that, regarding economic inequality, “we cannot understate the importance of using a racial lens to look at all of this.”
My god, a union friend texted me from the audience. Being around these people really makes me scared that Trump will beat Hillary. We’re just so fucked. Trump is offering people a fight, we’re offering the chance to ‘rewrite the rules.’ Let’s get out in the street and start editing!! Maybe we can use Google docs . . .
The gauntlet reporters were forced to run between the subway and the arena was gussied up as a kind of cage, and several hundred Bernie supporters rattled the fence as delegates walked through, telling them not to surrender, to take it to the floor. I’d volunteered heavily for Sanders, and timidly raised my fist as I walked past—a gesture I quickly regretted, as it made the crowd roar. The whole scene felt a little unhinged, exacerbated by the heat, as if the thousands of people Bernie had brought into politics were now hysterical with grief, having found themselves robbed of their purpose. They were determined to have Bernie or nothing at all.
Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, mayor of Baltimore, who was last seen in the news calling the National Guard to invade her city in the wake of the Freddie Gray riots, opened the Convention a little after 4 PM with an awkward smack of the gavel, only to be replaced in her duties by Marcia Fudge, the third DNC chair in eight hours (Donna Brazile had been selected for a hot second). A congresswoman from Ohio, Fudge seemed exhausted and upset only a few minutes into her tenure, as Bernie supporters began cheering their candidate over her remarks; some delegates contributed dissonant boos to the harmony of cheers when she or any other speaker mentioned the need to elect Hillary Clinton. For one long stretch of time, Fudge scanned the crowd with visible alarm. How is it in there? my brother-in-law texted. Twitter is reporting this like it’s the end of days. The reports were, of course, exaggerated: the intensity was remarkable early on in the day, but as one speaker after another trumpeted the theme of unity and sounded the “stronger together” slogan, and more Clinton supporters and Democratic Party faithfuls filled the arena, the volume of the Sanders contingent diminished.
Still, there was a problem. Not the hackneyed distinction between “democracy” versus “unity” or “disrespect,” as the Sanders and Clinton supporters respectively averred, but rather the disorganization of protest among the delegates. The booing and chanting was undirected, merely vocal resistance (to what end? our candidate had lost). But it could have been much more: the mere threat of disorder on the Convention floor had been enough to dislodge Schultz from her position; what other constructive work could it have done? There had been some vocal opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership, chanted during the introduction of the Democratic platform, but it didn’t come directly from the Sanders campaign. A delegate from Massachusetts, voting for Sanders, explained to me that it had been organized by trade unionist delegates.
Without organized opposition from the Sanders people, the Convention settled in to the meliorist, inclusive, Academy Awards–style ceremony of self-congratulations that the Clinton Democrats had planned. Videos castigating Donald Trump for his hostility toward women, the undocumented, and the disabled were followed by speeches from Democratic specimens of each group—a choice that felt excessive and almost cruel. (Was it really necessary to remind these speakers that Republicans hated them to prove that Democrats embraced them?) Trump hadn’t knocked machine politicians, but Pennsylvania furnished its share of them, including Representative Bob Brady. Nor had Trump knocked Silicon Valley, but a Silicon Valley bro was brought out nonetheless to voice his strange opposition to Donald Trump’s boasting about his construction projects, noting that he, by contrast, “built in the cloud.” Cory Booker gave a long, haranguing speech, almost entirely yelled, in which he made the requisite allusions to 1776 and “the city of brotherly love.” “Let us declare again that we are a nation of interdependence,” he cried, though it wasn’t clear what declaration he was referring to. Joseph Kennedy III, flashing the powerful family jaw line, introduced Elizabeth Warren with an anecdote about being upbraided by her on his first day of law school. But Warren dropped her role as regulator and gadfly, adopting instead a hushed tone of bedtime storytelling about strong Clinton and evil Trump. Only Michelle Obama, by sheer force of charisma and uncompromised intelligence, punctured the mood of calculated calm and cheery self-regard, as she described waking up every morning in a house “built by slaves”—a line meant to herald the achievements of the Obama presidency and a potential Clinton one, but that left the specter of unremedied injustice hanging in the air.
Sanders’s arrival prompted a sudden release of emotion, pictured in the weeping faces of delegates and supporters, a few of whom were my friends. The New York Times cited their emotion as a kind of rebuke to Clinton, a reading that missed the point. People had devoted countless hours, weeks, months of their lives to this extraordinary campaign, and the emotion breaking over their faces was simply ardor, grief, and release—it was about Bernie, not about Clinton. After the flood of feeling, Sanders’s speech slid into a few strange moments, as when he lauded Clinton’s plan to rebuild “roads, bridges, water systems, and wastewater plants.” Otherwise remarkable for his ability to cut through bullshit, he fell into the Democrats’ penchant for weak speech when describing a compromise proposal he worked out with Clinton that “substantially reduces student debt,” or when praising Clinton for recognizing “that Medicare must negotiate drug prices with the pharmaceutical industry.” But it was gratifying to hear him displace, ever so slightly, the Democrats’ unwavering rhetorical reference to children, and to invoke, in a kind of old prophetic tone, the importance of caring for “the children, the elderly, the sick, and the poor.” Ending his speech with a clear call to his supporters to vote for Clinton, he left the podium hunched, walking slowly, as if he had just strained to discharge an unpleasant duty.