SANTA MONICA, Calif.—This is how a revolution ends: its idealism tested, its optimism drained, its hope turned to bitterness.
But if Bernie Sanders’s revolution has run aground in California, which will be one of the last states to vote in the Democratic primary on June 7, he was not about to admit it here, where thousands gathered on a sun-drenched high-school football field of bright green turf.
“We are going to win here in California!” Sanders said, to defiant cheers. In the audience, a man waved a sign that said, “Oh HILL no!”
This is Sanders’s last stand, according to the official narrative of the corrupt corporate media, and if there is anything we have learned in the past year, it is the awesome power of the official narrative—the self-reinforcing drumbeat that dictates everything.
Sanders continued: “I believe that if we win here in California, and if we win the other five states that are voting on June 7, we’re going to go marching to the Democratic convention with a hell of a lot of momentum. I believe that if we do well here in California, we’ll march in with momentum and we’ll march out with the Democratic nomination!”
But then again, according to the official narrative, the primary is already over. Also according to the delegate count, which has Sanders’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, just 78 short of the 2,383 it takes to win the nomination. Also according to the Democratic voters, some 3 million more of whom have supported Clinton than Sanders over the past four months of voting. And also according to Clinton, who told CNN the other day, “I will be the nominee.”
But in the world Sanders’s supporters inhabit, this is all so much media manipulation. “Do you trust the media?” asked one of his introducers, the television host Cenk Uygur. “No!” yelled the crowd. “Do you believe they’ve treated Bernie Sanders fairly?” “Fuck the media!” yelled someone standing near the press riser. (Sanders was also introduced by two actors, Dick Van Dyke and Rosario Dawson.)
Sanders and his people have their own sets of rules. All you have to do is unskew the delegate counts, they explain, take out the superdelegates, imagine they all vote for Sanders, imagine certain primaries had been conducted according to different rules. Angry memes about missing votes and stolen precincts ricochet around social media. Did you see what happened in Nevada, when the party, Sanders’s supporters claim, changed the rules to keep them from getting more delegates at the state convention? The game is rigged!
The Sanders movement has become impervious to reality. Some have even called into question the nature of reality itself: “Bernie Sanders’ ‘political revolution’ is political only inasmuch as thought is political,” a self-described “metamodernist creative writer” named Seth Abramson wrote in the Huffington Post a few days ago. “By the very nature of things—we might call it perceptual entropy—the impossible, once perceived, enters a chain of causation whose natural conclusion is realization.” By this logic, Abramson reasons, Sanders is actually winning. It’s, like, the Matrix, man, or something.
A sign in the crowd to the left of the stage said, “Smash the patriarchy!”
A sign on the other side of the stage said, “Eliminate the 1%!”
A 25-year-old art model named Vanna Mae Caldwell told me, “Here is what they don’t tell you: None of the superdelegates have actually voted yet!” California, she believes, is going to go for Sanders in a landslide, and then the Democratic convention—which she plans to attend, as a protester—“is going to be very interesting.” If Sanders does not get the nomination, Caldwell will not be able to bring herself to vote for either Clinton or Donald Trump, whom she sees as two sides of the same corporate coin; she’ll vote instead for the Green Party’s candidate, Jill Stein. “I’m Bernie or Bust,” she said proudly.
Caldwell discovered Sanders last year through Tumblr and YouTube videos. She is an active member of three different Sanders-boosting Facebook groups and livestreams once a week “to motivate people to vote for Bernie.” It has changed their lives, being a part of this movement. Something like that doesn’t just end. Does it?
“The delegate system is corrupt,” said Prasad Paul Duffy, a 58-year-old spiritual activist and filmmaker with shoulder-length blond curls. He was sitting cross-legged and barefoot on the field before the speeches started. “It’s a tool of the 1 percent, the powers that be. It should be abolished.” Clinton, he believes, is “owned by the billionaires,” and he could never vote for her.
“I would vote for Trump,” Duffy said. “At least he’s challenging the status quo. He sees we’ve been sold down the river and we’ve got to get it back. I prefer Bernie’s means to Trump’s! But Trump is being demonized in the press for similar reasons as Bernie is being ignored. They’re both challenging the system. We are people who don’t believe in the system! We want to make a new system where people take care of each other.”
Among the dozens of Sanders supporters I met over the course of two days, this was not a universal view. Perhaps half said they will reluctantly vote for Clinton in November. (A recent poll found that 72 percent of Sanders backers nationally would support Clinton; the Sanderistas who go to rallies are a more dedicated bunch.) The Bernie-or-Bust-ers tended to be young, male, and white; few described themselves as Democrats, and many were new to voting. Women, people of color, and Democrats seemed more open to Clinton.
More than once, I met couples debating the question. “I will not vote for Hillary Clinton,” vowed Eric Thiercof, a 20-year-old pool-maintenance worker. “No, no! Anyone but Trump!” interjected his girlfriend, Florencia Pina, a student.
As Sanders gave his usual 75-minute consciousness-raising diatribe in Santa Monica, the temperature dropped about 15 degrees, and people began to stream off the field. By the time he got to the climactic line—“In fact, we need a political revolution!”—the whole back half was empty, and the crowd was practically too sparse to give the requisite answering roar.
Maybe they know it’s over after all.
This—Clinton and her challenger still duking it out for the Golden State, while Republicans rally around their presumptive nominee, Trump—is not what most people expected. But most people didn’t know Bernie Sanders.
When Republicans, a few weeks ago, contemplated the choice between a messy convention and a nominee many disliked, they decided, en masse, to suck it up and get on the winner’s bandwagon. Democrats, on the other hand, may get both; they show no inclination to rally behind the almost certain winner. What does that say about Sanders, and about Clinton?
Sanders has repeatedly said he will not play the spoiler—by running as an independent or backing a third-party candidate such as Stein. He says he will do everything in his power to defeat Trump. But many Democrats worry that by dragging out a contest he cannot win—and continuing to attack Clinton’s character, and the nomination process, in sharp terms—he is deepening the party’s divisions. The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson called Sanders’s antics “reckless in the extreme,” in one of a litany of recent liberal commentaries fretting that he is now hurting Democrats’ general-election chances.
A spate of recent polls have shown Clinton tied with or slightly trailing Trump in November matchups, the apparent effect of a Republican Party that has unified and a Democratic Party that remains fractured. The Nevada convention chaos—which featured physical altercations and a continuing barrage of threats by Sanders supporters against the state party chairwoman—raised the possibility that even if Sanders eventually backs Clinton, some of his followers may be too embittered to follow his lead.
Many Sanders supporters told me they had once liked Clinton, but over the course of the primary they have come to dislike and distrust her. “I didn’t originally have a very strong opinion about her, but now I don’t like her very much,” Brett Miller, a 33-year-old waiter in Anaheim, told me at Sanders’s rally there. He’d come to see her as a bought-and-paid-for pol with no firm principles. A Sanders supporter wearing a “Hillary for Prison 2016” T-shirt got approving whistles and thumbs-ups as he strode through the crowd. A video-game developer named Adam Riggs said he wouldn’t vote for Clinton even if Sanders asked him to.
It seems fitting that this potentially final battle royale should take place in California, a big, liberal state populated by all the various Democratic tribes: the kombucha-sipping hipsters of San Francisco; the techno-utopians of Silicon Valley; the limousine liberals of Hollywood; the large black and Latino populations. All the party’s tribes are overrepresented here, and it’s not clear who is in charge of this unruly coalition.
Most of the state’s Democratic establishment has come out for Clinton. But the popular governor, Jerry Brown, has not endorsed; a former independent with a quirky political profile, he has a bitter history with the Clintons, having run against Bill Clinton in a sharply acrimonious bid for the presidential nomination in 1992. Brown and Clinton met for an hour and a half in Sacramento on Monday; the prospect of an endorsement was not among the topics discussed, according to the governor’s office. A Democratic source in Sacramento told me Brown is considering endorsing Hillary Clinton but has not made up his mind. A poll of the state conducted earlier this month gave Clinton an 18-point lead over Sanders, but in a new poll released Thursday, her lead was just 2 points.
The question is what it will take for Sanders to be satisfied with some sort of moral victory short of the nomination. This week, he was given five slots on the Democratic platform committee, which will allow him to influence what the party stands for—presumably an important goal. Sanders is also thought to be interested in reforms to the nominating process that he has derided as “rigged.”
But while his aides have occasionally alluded to these sorts of goals, Sanders continues to behave like a candidate who still believes he can win. On Monday, he criticized Clinton for turning down one last debate; on Tuesday, he sought to wring an additional delegate out of Kentucky by challenging the vote count in one district. His speeches give about as much critical time to both Clinton and Trump, and his crowds boo both with equal vehemence.
Is Sanders—the onetime liberal gadfly whose views few of his colleagues heeded—simply enjoying the spotlight’s validating glow for as long as it lasts? Or is he as delusional as some of his dead-ender fans? It’s impossible to tell.
I asked Howard Dean, Sanders’s fellow Vermonter and onetime insurgent Democratic presidential candidate, whether he approved of the way Sanders is conducting himself these days. “No,” said Dean, who has endorsed Clinton. But he said he understood.
Near the end of Dean’s 2004 campaign, he told me, just before the Wisconsin primary, he had started to realize he was going to lose, and he was bitterly angry about it—the unfairness of the process, the way he’d been treated. Late that night, the phone rang in his hotel room in Milwaukee. It was Al Gore, the former vice president, who had endorsed him.
“I ranted and raved for 10 or 15 minutes,” Dean recalled. “And when finally I stop for breath, he says, ‘This is about the country. It’s not about you.’ That stopped me in my tracks.”
Dean quit the race the next day. Accepting defeat, he said, was a process. “Having been there, it’s a gradual landing you have to bring yourself into,” he said. The question, he suggested, is whether there is someone close to Sanders who can say to him what Gore said to Dean.
In Riverside on Tuesday afternoon, several hundred people filled a brightly lit college basketball gym and waited for Hillary Clinton to appear. Another 1,500 were stranded outside, across a cordon from a knot of left-wing protesters. One held a sign that said, “White Feminism Is Not Feminism—Keep White Imperialists Out of Riverside!” They chanted, “Hillary is a war criminal!”
Inside, Clinton’s supporters voiced varying degrees of frustration with Sanders. Some viewed him as a well-meaning idealist who’s doing no harm; some lauded him for moving the party in a progressive direction. But others were less pleased. “I hope that, after the California primary, Bernie will revert to the gentleman he once was and get out of the race and throw his support behind Hillary,” said Debbie Boyd, a retired deputy sheriff from San Diego who was wearing a wide-brimmed white hat festooned with Hillary buttons.
“I was very loving toward Bernie Sanders until about a week ago, but now he’s working to elect Trump,” said Kathy Katz, 73, of Temecula. “We’re all way more liberal than the Democratic Party, but some of us realize you can’t win an election that way!”
“He has manipulated his campaign into something degenerate,” said Autry Harper, a pixie-haired aspiring opera singer from Lake Arrowhead. “He only became a Democrat so he could use our party, and the way he’s attacking Hillary is helping Trump.” Harper believes Sanders’s insistence that he is entitled to have a say in things despite losing the primary is fundamentally sexist. “It’s his male privilege,” she said.
Clinton, for her part, has taken to pretending Sanders does not exist. In her speech, she referred only to Trump, whose candidacy, she said, “may have started out as entertaining, but now it’s really, really concerning.” She added, “We have a bully pulpit in the White House—that doesn’t mean we want a bully in the White House!”
Earlier that day, Sanders was in Anaheim, where a few hundred people crowded bleary-eyed into a hangarline convention-center hall for a morning rally. Over and over, they told me they thought the primary had been unfair to him, particularly the media and the superdelegates. “They’re trying to silence him. He deserves a chance!” says Carlos Frank-Estrada, a 27-year-old photographer, whose plaid shirt has a slogan painted on the back: “THEY CAN’T ORDER ME TO STOP DREAMING.”
Sanders was introduced by a blind Filipino delegate and a gay actress who spoke passionately in favor of transgender rights and compared Sanders to a unicorn, because “he seems too good to be true.” Sanders, leaning on his lectern with both hands, recounted a moving encounter with a barista whose eyes filled with tears of gratitude for Sanders’s campaign. A man waved a homemade Sanders muppet in the air.
“Poverty is not discussed in Congress. It is not discussed in the media,” Sanders intoned. A voice from the crowd shouted, “Bernie or bust!”
Sanders heard. He smiled. But he did not answer.