Attending Bernie Sanders’ 26,000-strong #Bernie’sBack rally at Queensbridge Park two weeks ago, I had an uneasy yet familiar feeling you only get when observing American politics as a foreigner and a paranoiac: they’re probably going to shoot this guy. I still remember watching Obama’s inauguration through my fingers, waiting for the gun shot to ring out.
It’s a (largely) irrational feeling but one worth interrogating. It isn’t about gun violence, or American violence — that which permeates everything here from the national anthem to the NFL to drone strikes.
It was the impossibility of it. Of an Obama in 2008, or a Bernie in 2019.
This man is inspiring so much hope, and hope feels so antithetical to this American moment as to seem impossible.
The rally marked Bernie’s first major public appearance since his heart attack earlier in the month. “To put it bluntly, I’m back” said Bernie, who came out to AC/DC classic “Back in Black”.
The heart attack was the most divisive talking point amongst the people I spoke to. “If Trump is considered fit, then Bernie is more than fit,” one supporter told me.
“If I could give him my heart, I would” said a young woman anxiously flipping her placard over and over.
“God, if he dies, I don’t know what we’d do. We’d be so screwed.”
But to most supporters, the heart attack was exactly what the doctors said it was: minor. From crushing debt, mad insurance rackets, resurgent fascism, and the Democratic National Convention’s darkly comic mishandling of Trump in 2016, Bernie supporters have more pressing issues on their minds than his health.
“It’s costing me about $50,000 a year to keep my husband alive,” a middle-aged woman tells me. “Can you understand that? Can you comprehend that?”
I really couldn’t.
“What Bernie is saying isn’t radical. These ideas shouldn’t be radical. This is about people being able to live their lives.”
Bernie seemed to echo her later, on the stage: “It is not a radical idea to say that all of our people regardless of their income have a right to live long and healthy lives.”
The mainstream media, particularly The New York Times and The Washington Post, have created a narrative around Bernie and his supporters that any journalist who leaves Twitter for a Sanders’ event can immediately see is false.
This is not a mass of neckbearded podcasters, dropping the R-word and misquoting Foucault. Were those people there? Sure, but to say they are representative of the movement as a whole is like saying that every Trump supporter drives a car with a confederate flag on it.
It’s a dangerously reductive view of movements which, like it or not, represent a diverse swathe of the American populace.
The only uniformity I witnessed was one of enthusiasm. Here were people – old, young, queer, disabled, black, latinx, everything – who were incredibly engaged with their candidate and his politics. I talked to people who had started unions, run for local office, organized protests, sought knowledge and experience, all spurred on by the wave of inspiration that Bernie set off when he ran in 2016.
“It wasn’t until I heard of a man by the name of Bernie Sanders,” declared Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “that I began to question and assert and recognize the inherent value as a human being that deserves healthcare, housing, education, and a living wage.”
Cortez, who gave a rousing speech before Bernie’s headliner, is a testament to the power of Sanders’ movement. Last year, she was tending bar in Manhattan and being, she has said, underpaid and sexually harassed. Now, she’s a more recognisable political figure than half the Democratic presidential candidates.
Who was the last Australian politician to inspire so many in such a palpably urgent way? Bob Hawke? As the light on the hill grows dimmer and dimmer every time the ALP kowtow to the radical right-wing politics of Morrison, Dutton, and the Murdoch press, it becomes all but impossible to imagine a Bernie succeeding in Australia.
And an AOC type? If a 28-year-old POC tried to stir up such ideals in Australia, she’d be run out of the country. We’ve done it before to people way less radical than her.
Outside the rally was a little cadre of rabid Trump supporters. They waved flags. They chanted. They screamed abuse at people coming and going, with a guard of cops standing in front of them.
“BRUSH YOUR TEETH YOU LIBTARD FAGGOTS!” one man yelled, red-faced and paunchy, “BRUSH YOUR TEETH YOU FILTHY LIBTARDS!”
Coming in, their anger had some bite. Leaving, it was pitiable.
“Wall Street, the insurance companies, drug companies, fossil fuel industry, military industrial complex, the whole damn 1%” bellowed Bernie, “the question we’ve got to answer: are we prepared to stand up to them and transform this country?”
He left the stage, electric, to the chunky power-riff of “Back in Black,” and Brian Johnson belting out: “FORGET THE HEARSE, CAUSE I NEVER DIE.”
Could a Bernie Sanders-style politician succeed in Australia? Send your thoughts to [email protected]. Please include your full name for publication.