Midday, and the small union hall is filling up, slowly, slowly. At the front, the chant has already started “Hill-ary”, “Hill-ary”; staffers, thin young men and women, walking around geeing people up. At the foot of the stage, other staffers are choosing people who’ll go up there, sit behind the candidate for the speech. They’re looking for two or three of everything, to fill about 30 seats: shiny, smiling teens, lumpy older guys — this is a plumbers’ union — and then the touchier aspects, looking for Latinos and blacks. The staffers’ eyes are darting ’round the crowd, but they can’t be seen to be doing this too obviously.

They do it too obviously. If you’re watching it — and no one but me really is — it goes from professional and no-nonsense to creepy quite quickly. Someone slides through the crowd; they’ve seen a whole black family. Earnest discussion with the parents. Does a skerrick of doubt cross their face? If it does, it doesn’t deter. The family trails through the crowd behind the staffer, the two kids bearing their cute homemade signs — manufactured in a secret Hillary lab somewhere no doubt. They’re installed close to the centre of the three rows of plastic seats, where the TV cameras will pick them up. The stage is three-quarters full.

The staffers look around again. They see a mum and a teenage kid, the latter in a motorised wheelchair. They look at the pair. Then they look at the three small steps to the stage. Then they talk earnestly. At that point, I look away. The music’s playing, the venerable Hillary tape, KT Tunstall, and Tom Petty’s American Girl, a hymn to teenage female sexual stamina (“oh yeah/all right/take it easy baby/make it last all night/she was/an American girl”) that has been Hillary’s electoral hymn for the last eight years. The hall has filled to three-quarters. It doesn’t fill any further.

True, it’s the middle of a weekday in a working rust-belt city, but even so, it’s a smallish crowd. And a big contingent are plumbers, lumpy guys and a few gals in double-denim, pulled off sites to give the event a blue-collar glamour. There’s others in double-denim too: kids, but they’re mostly dorks. The Clinton campaign has a few of those. She’s about an hour late by now, not a good look. The staffers work around with a series of increasingly weird chants: “Give me an H an I, an LL, A-R-Y. Why? Hillary, that’s why!” That went round 20 or 30 times. It started to do my head in.

Union Joes, students, organisers … it was hard to tell who was here for Hillary. I can understand voting for Hillary for all sorts of reasons. But who turns out for a rally? No, that’s not fair. There’s a whole bunch of people here for whom Hillary represents something. “I’m here for her,” a woman with a perm from around 1965 tells me. I kinda know the answer before I ask: “Because she’s been there for us.” Then she turns back to enthusiastically cheering in the zen-like mantra.

A lot of Americans talk in soundbites — team Hillary more than most. The stage seats have now been filled with beaming families. I try not to think of North Korea. The chants rise to a crest, a chubby civil rights lawyer comes on: “You all know me … you don’t want to hear from me … here she is the next President of the United States!” And the TV pool crew comes in walking backwards, the bright white lights emerging, and Hillary in the middle of them, big grin, big eyes like the front of Luna Park, above a yellow poncho type number. She’s taken to these, in single colours, lately, even though they look like a Mao tunic. I try not to think of North Korea.

“Hellow! How are you!” She’s at the mic. She doesn’t need the mic. The voice is brassy, bounced off the back of the room. She’s taken up some sort of from-the-gut projection style, the same style Oprah had. “It’s a new carrrr! For everyone!” “It’s a new era! For everyone!”

“Look at these kids! What’s that sign you’ve got there honey?” Oh, not the children. Please, not the children. She works the front line, quickly, perfunctorily, then she turns back to the mic for the speech.

“We’ve got a fight on our hands! This is the most important election of our lifetime! I’m not a natural politician, but I’m a fighter! And I’m fighting for you! For the woman, who wrote to me from Fond-Du-Lac …”

Late to get here, and now the speech is on fast-forward. It’s a great speech, a well-honed stump, joining current issues — “families doing it tough” — to her progressive past, starting as a lawyer sent to South Carolina in the ’60s, to get black kids out of adult prisons. She rattles through the policies: national minimum wage, affordable college, “real equal pay, not what we’ve got now!”, “real jobs coming back to America!”.

Some of it is Bernie, a lot of it is shameless, and it is all delivered in a paint-stripping roar, punctuated by applause. She’s mostly targeting Trump now, with the occasional side-kick at Bernie, picking gun rights — which Bernie, coming from a pro-gun hippie libertarian state, is for — as an example of “one industry my opponent doesn’t seem to want to regulate!”.

“Y’know I’m not a natural politician, like my husband or President Obama,” she says, and she’s right. Hillary hits a pitch, a level, a mode, and she doesn’t vary it. It is disconcerting for all but the most devoted, and it is switched on, slightly hyper, in the interest of momentum. The natural politician would luxuriate in events like these, take their pitch from the crowd, respond in real time. Hillary pitches forward, slightly too fast, with the air that, if she doesn’t keep moving, she’ll collapse entirely.

And who could blame her if she did? She’s been plunged into a nightmare afresh. Having been anointed once, and had it all snatched away from her by a more compelling candidate, she is now facing the same desperate, primary-by-primary struggle she was in, in 2008. This time it’s not to some superstar, some sleek multi-racial man from the future, but to a Brooklyn-Vermont old Jew — a hippie turned cranky old lawyer-type. She’ll probably win on pledged delegates, and if she doesn’t, she’ll do it on “superdelegates” (I can’t see the Democratic machine giving up the party to a socialist insurgency) but Sanders is pushing her to the buffers. Hillary is already far to the left of where she’d want to be, and contemplating how she’ll get back to the centre. But more importantly, and woundingly, the Bernsurgency makes visible what no one really wants to acknowledge, and that is that Hillary is by no means many people’s first choice. She’s not a legacy candidate, like Jeb, or Rand Paul, but nor has she got there on her own. She’s not lying when she says she’s not a natural politician. Forceful and talented as she is, even in a fairer society, she would not have made it to this place on her own. That knowledge hangs there, in the middle distance. The first woman President would be a triumph, a further de-centreing of power. But coming after the improbable and extraordinary rise of Obama, it can’t help but feel compromised. That is a bitter thing, but hardly significant, of itself.

More important for anyone even vaguely leftish is that Clinton’s positions on matters domestic and global are next-to-impossible to take. In the (Bill) Clinton years, she was an advocate for the global trade policies that decimated the heartland; as a Senator she resisted minimum-wage and other measures, while palling around with the Walton family (of Walmart fame). She was significantly to the right of Obama on foreign policy, and the projection of American power. She’ll need to stick to some of the leftish domestic positions that the Bernsurgency has forced her to take up, but her heart wouldn’t be in it. Were the Congress still to be controlled by the Republicans, there seems little doubt that she would make a deal to get a budget through, rather than put up the concerted resistance and guerrilla warfare that Obama has put up. Obama is slated for his drone wars, and extension of surveillance, but Hillary does not have his qualms about the full projection of power.

But we never move forward on all fronts. For many of the people here, the women especially, black and white, for middle-aged and older black men, for people of a progressive mindset but a conservative disposition, Hillary would represent a triumph not despite all that can be said about her, but because of it. “It’s her turn,” a woman said to me, “and her turn is my turn.” This was in Ohio, and she’d had an auto-parts job, fitting seat covers over car seats, for 20 years. “It was a good job.” It sounds like hell. But it was better than what she had now, which was part-time work at a friend’s hair salon, sweeping up clippings, shampooing.

Twenty hours a week, at six bucks an hour meant she was part of the “recovery”, off the unemployment books. She looked like America looks, outside of the prime-time TV and away from the coasts: lumpy, pale, tired, old before her time. What would help her most from what’s on offer is Bernie’s universal public health system, and low-income tax credits. But for her and for many others, Hillary represents the possibility of more modest, but more likely gains: “I think she can get things done. I’m not sure Bernie could. And he’s not going to win anyway.”

For a younger generation, for people who want more challenge from politics, Bernie Sanders represents hope and possibility; for an older generation, hopeful of seeing actual gains, and mindful of their mortality, Hillary represents a real movement of sorts — not merely a set of policies that might do some small good, but embodied in a person disregarded as a person in her own right, seen as an after-effect. In that sense, I think that many people see Hillary’s rise and eventual triumph as some sort of completion of a long social revolution. And who’s to say no? There’s no one objective perspective as to what represents progress. Anyone who’s even mildly progressive would have to start pushing against the decisions of a President Hillary Clinton from day one, but no one could deny that her elevation would be some sort of final shattering of a certain idea of what power was. A black president, followed by a woman president. That would be a thing.

That’s the thought I hold on to, as Hillary leaves the hall through the floor, and the music comes back on, and the daggy Hillaryettes gaggle around her, and the plumbers make for the trestle-table bar in the corner of the room, and Hillary crouches for photos with the children, and that too-wide smile, and those too-big eyes, and that golden-yellow tunic, and if you had a “socialist realist” filter setting on your camera you wouldn’t need it, and I try not to think of North Korea.

Peter Fray

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