Jessica, Tascha, Sasha. If only they could have, they would have voted for Bernie Sanders. But they couldn’t. Donald J. Trump won and soon he’ll be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. I met them a few days before the New York primary. Back then, in April, it still seemed possible that DNC would appoint the leftist senator from Vermont, who opposed the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who was committed to fighting for universal health care and defending immigrants, as the Democratic Party nominee in the presidential race.
Sasha was fantasizing about Trump vs. Sanders when we spoke at Bernie’s rally in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. “It would be like a comic-book fight. The embodiments of two completely different visions of the US running against each other.” Tascha wouldn’t leave the Sanders campaign office, calling volunteers and sending them out for the last minute door-to-door chats with voters. I met Jessica right after the primary. What surprised me was that despite Bernie’s loss in New York, she refused to lose hope. Maybe she knew that Sanders’ campaign was finished, but the progressive movement started by him was just beginning.
It became clear after the NY primary that Bernie wouldn’t win the DNC nomination. His supporters were left with a choice of Trump or Clinton to vote for in the upcoming election. They branded the former a fascist, and the latter a war criminal and a Wall Street candidate. I asked the Bernie supporters, how they felt being in the U.S. that was soon to be ruled by Donald Trump. Why did he win? What were their anxieties and hopes for the coming four years? And last but not least, what would the result be, had Bernie run against Trump?
Jessica Frisco: I haven’t felt so scared for our future since the Great Recession hit in 2008.
I went to bed the night of the election knowing that Trump had won and yet, even when I woke up, it still felt surreal. I didn’t think it was possible for him to win. When I stepped outside my front door, there was a white man in his 20’s in a truck with a huge “Trump/Pence” flag hanging off it, driving around the block in circles so that everyone could see it. That was a really scary feeling because I realized how empowered a lot of these white men, and racist, intolerant people now feel – they feel validated by Trump being their President and I think it will be a scary time for a lot of minorities, women, etc. that Trump targeted during his campaign. I haven’t felt so scared for our future since the Great Recession hit in 2008 when I was 16. I remember going to bed that night feeling like there was a big dark cloud over the world and that the future was going to be really scary (it turned out okay!) but I had the exact same feeling when it was certain that Trump had won.
At the same time, I feel optimistic that now is the time to reform the country and particularly the Democratic Party.
We’ve had a narrow 2-party system for so long and the parties really just represent the interests of rich people and corporations. As much as I didn’t want Trump to win, I feel a bit spiteful towards Hillary Clinton and the Democrats for pushing Bernie out of the race and not listening to their constituents during this campaign or during the last 8 years. The middle class is disappearing and we need a party that will actually take on the tough fights for us – the Democrats haven’t been that party for us but now after their stunning defeat, we can hopefully begin to reform and rebuild so that they become a more inclusive and responsive party. That idea has actually given me a lot of hope.
How would you explain the reasons for Trump’s victory?
The country was ready to take on the system of corruption in our government and the failure of capitalism where inequality was increasing tremendously. There was a populist movement sweeping the country and the Democrats eliminated their populist candidate so Trump was all that was left.
Hillary was a bad candidate all around. She may have been qualified and probably would have been a good president, but campaigning is different from governing. She lacked inspiration and a clear message about why she was running and what she would do as president. Bernie’s message was, “Make the government work for all people, not just those at the top.” Trump’s message was, “Make America Great Again.” But if you ask anyone to tell you what Hillary was running for – they can’t! She wanted to be president and to continue doing what Obama was doing. That doesn’t speak to the millions of people who feel like the middle class is slipping away and it doesn’t inspire people to get involved or to go out and vote. I think she and her campaign sorely underestimated how much Americans were tired of establishment politicians and gridlock in Washington and missed a huge chance to cater to those people.
I can’t help myself, but I have to ask you how you imagine the scenario of Bernie running against Trump?
If Bernie was the nominee, I am almost certain he would be president today. For the reasons I listed above with American being ready for a populist candidate, he fit the bill perfectly and it would be in a much more respectful and humane way than Donald Trump. He is the country’s most popular politician right now with an 80% approval rating and he had the clear and inspiring message needed to easily win against Donald Trump, irrespective of the millions of people in grassroots support who propelled his entire campaign. It is very upsetting that the Democrats pushed him out of the race (as proven by the leaked emails), not just for the American people, but for Bernie himself who did all the right things throughout his whole life and should have been given the chance to participate in a fairer election.
But he didn’t have this chance, and for the next four years you’re stuck with Donald Trump in office.
I am very anxious about the next 4 years, although I am going to try really hard to keep an open mind and take each of Trump’s policies and actions one at a time. I don’t think he will do anything to fight climate change, which is terrifying, and it’s possible he and the Republicans will dismantle Obamacare. My job at the health department revolves around enrolling people in Obamacare and helping undocumented immigrants to get insured, so that could change as well. I have looked at some of Trump’s policies for fighting political corruption – such as not letting government officials switch to being lobbyists for the government – and some of them are actually good! So I do actually think Trump can clean up Washington in the ways that he promised. And as I mentioned above, I do think now is the time to really reform the government and build the Democratic Party up from scratch. Trump’s whole campaign was a surprise at every step of the way and I think the next 4 years will be like that as well.
Are you still involved in the movement started by Bernie’s campaign?
I am still involved – I started a group called Grassroots Action NY and we are working on state level reform and supporting local candidates. We want to change the election laws in the state which were shown to suppress votes during the primary. 3 million people were registered as ‘Independent’ and therefore couldn’t vote for Bernie in the primary. 128,000 voters were deleted from the registration records and couldn’t vote, polls closed early upstate so anyone working long shifts couldn’t vote, etc. There are so many simple things we can do to make our election system fairer and more accessible, so that’s what our group is focusing on over the next year. There are a lot of grassroots groups that formed during the Bernie campaign that are doing similar work and that understand the necessity of organizing against any of the bad policies Trump and the Republicans might push in the next few years.
Tascha Van Auken: This is utterly heart breaking to me. The Democratic Party really fucked us all.
How do I feel waking up in the U.S. with Donald Trump being the 45th President of the United States? Completely devastated and terrified. That’s the first, raw emotion. We lost everything. And it’s not about winning or losing in itself of course, but about changing the direction of this country. And we couldn’t do it. An unimaginable candidate won the presidency, and on top of that, progressive candidates across the country lost because Democrats just didn’t turn out and vote. Republicans gained control of our entire government. It’s an absolutely horrifying scenario. Worse than I could have imagined.
So, why did it happen?
Democrats didn’t turn out to vote. HRC and the Democratic Party ran a fear campaign. It’s funny because they threw the slogans “Love” and “Stronger Together” around a lot but the whole campaign was run on fear. Fear of Trump, fear of Russia. There was never a vision, never something people, who weren’t already members of the establishment, could look at and say “Yes” to. Campaigns that run on fear don’t turn out the vote. We know this already!
That’s why it’s so shocking that they thought it could work. This was 100% foreseeable. From the moment Hillary became the nominee, the discussion about issues stopped. It was just fear, fear, fear, Trump, Trump, Trump!
I was a delegate at the convention and I have to say that this was a turning point for me. That was when I understood that the Democratic Party had no interest in welcoming this new energized progressive base that grew during the Bernie campaign. If anything, they did just about everything they could to turn these people away and attract Republicans. An insane and losing strategy, and yet the DNC and HRC somehow didn’t see it. It’s shameful. From the moment she was nominated, we all knew a Trump presidency was possible. And without a popular democratic nominee to bring out voters, down ballot democratic candidates lost as well.
I’d also like to say that, as a woman, I’m sad and disappointed that she was the first female nominee. I just want to scream “Really!? This is the best we can do!?” And because she was such an enormously flawed candidate, and because Democrat voters turned off and didn’t vote, there are many amazing female down ballot candidates across the country that lost their races. This is what I think of when people start shouting about Hillary being a woman and that we need to support her no matter what. I 100% want more woman in power, but I don’t want them to be establishment elites. Also, in the case of the presidential race, I want them to win! Hillary always polled badly against Trump. Always. And the DNC manipulated things to make sure she was the nominee, and truly progressive, visionary female candidates like Zephyr Teachout, who ran for Congress in NY, lost their race. This is utterly heart breaking to me. The Democratic Party really fucked us all.
And what if the DNC had nominated Bernie Sanders? Would you live in a different political reality right now?
Yes of course, he would have won; he always polled better against Trump. And his numbers improved the more people got to know him. He had support across the political spectrum and, even better, he was bringing in people to the political process who never wanted to be a part of it before. I’m not just talking about young people (which is what the media is fixated on of course) but older people as well. When you looked at the people doing work in NYC, there were people of all ages and from all political backgrounds. This is the type of popularity that Hillary was lacking. I’m not a big believer in stepping in line behind a candidate no matter what they say and do. I think that’s a really dangerous thing to do. We always need to critique and push people in power, even Bernie. I have plenty of critiques of him and his campaign but what I truly loved about his message was that he was constantly reminding people that it wasn’t about him, and that if he won, he would have to be pushed and held accountable, as would other politicians. Because that’s just what you have to do with people in power. And with Hillary’s campaign, it was all about stepping in line and not criticizing a single thing about her. That’s what happened when she became the nominee; discussion and critical thinking were strongly frowned upon, and we are never going to have a healthy democracy if there isn’t room to critique those in power. As a final thought, I am stunned that HRC supporters are still standing behind her and the DNC after all of this. I think we all need to be better at holding power accountable in this country. Unfortunately, our culture often demands the opposite.
How do you imagine next four years with Trump in the office?
Wow, I don’t know really. It’s going to be an incredibly hard 4 years, and especially hard and terrifying for some people more than others. We have to protect each other. We have to be inclusive with our organizing and our conversations. Jon Schwartz at The Intercept wrote a piece yesterday and recommended that people make politics a central part of their lives, and I think he’s right. I really believe that this is the only way we are going to be able to correct the damage that is being done. The damage was already being done of course, and now it’s just going to get worse. More people need to be involved in the political process. Being politically engaged has such a low status in this country and I think that this has allowed extremely sub par candidates to control our government. I think part of the problem is that people don’t really understand what it means to be politically involved, and in part this is because it means different things for different people, but the truth is that if even a small percentage of this country’s population became truly politically engaged, we could change the horrifying tide we are headed in. Most people just don’t understand how close a lot of these down ballot races are; to use NY State as an example, we can get progressive legislation passed that can shift things, if we just elected one or two more progressive Democratic candidates in our state senate. Legislation to improve voting laws, campaign finance reform, universal health care for our NY State are all things that can actually happen if we just flipped a couple seats in the state senate. There are races that are won or lost by a dozen votes. I think many people who are not a part of the political process just don’t know this and see political involvement through the lens of their evening news – as protesting and marching, maybe donating money. And while there is value to those actions, you don’t necessarily walk away feeling like you’ve done something that is changing anything. And this makes me feel like we need to create better systems for involvement. I think there are lots of online tools, but those only take people so far. We need to be better at the on-the-ground, face-to-face stuff. I suppose that this is the lens I view the next 4 years through. We are now in this completely fucking horrifying scenario. What can we all do to get ourselves out of it? We have power – we truly do, but it requires work, and a little faith in our fellow citizens. The only way it happens is together. There is no game changing plan that doesn’t involve work and collaboration.
You’re still involved in grassroots politics, right?
Obviously I will keep working on things, but my goal (as always) will be to find ways to open up the organizing umbrella to allow as many people to join and help with the work. We need more people. Even though, by America’s standards, we had a lot of people working to help elect Bernie, more than I’ve ever experienced, it’s not enough. More people need to be engaged in the political process beyond just the presidential election every four years. Attached to that I think that as progressives and activists, we need to be better at welcoming new people, creating systems to help people become more involved. Personally, I’d like to start at as humble a place as possible and think about what I would have done differently, what I did wrong, what didn’t work. I’d like to take some time to reflect on this and then move forward again. For me, I am trying to focus that anger at the people in power who engineered this. It’s useless to direct it at people around me, people I love and know. If anything, when I was riding the subway yesterday morning and saw the sombre faces all around me, I felt even more love for the people in my community – and why not extend that “community” quite broadly. The most transformative thing that happened during the Bernie campaign was that people across the political spectrum organized for him. We started to strip away this kind of Democrat/Republican binary thinking that is really so damaging for community building. And building community is the only way we are going to be able to fight back in the next four years.
Sasha Grafit: Trump won with internet memes and sound bites. This is what wins campaigns these days.
Waking up in the US with Donald Trump was one of the most shocking and sickening experiences of my life. It felt like the whole country had really lost it. The biggest concern about the next four years is that irreparable damage will be done to the environment and the rights that many “non-mainstream” (aka not white) Americans have just started to enjoy. I fear that a bizarre cast of characters (Giuliani, Chris Cristi, Ben Carsoni) will be given high leadership positions in the new administration. These are people who are racists, proven crooks and disbelievers in the fact that human activity damages the environment. Numerous sources have described Trump as someone with a short attention span and a low tolerance for people who disagree with him: we can expect a lot of random and weird appointments.
I believe that the reason for Trump’s victory is that he ran a better campaign for the modern day. Hillary’s campaign was a very old-school style campaign of staged photo ops, carefully scripted messages. Trump won on internet memes and sound bites. This is what wins campaigns these days.
Trump also identified a lot of different pains for the America voter. Although his solutions for them are dubious, calling them out was enough.
Also, finally, remember that Americans buy into bullshit timeshares and nonsense sales pitches and sweepstakes: Donald Trump essentially sold himself to the American people like one of those infomercials. As much as we mock them they work as sales tools.
I am a supporter of Bernie’s political revolution and look to him as a leader in these times more than I do Hillary. I think that very early on it was predicted that Bernie could defeat Trump but Hillary couldn’t. Bernie faced massive disadvantages from the media and from the DNC. It’s not surprising: Clinton didn’t fairly win the primary and so she couldn’t win the election. The Democratic Party truly failed because they chose a candidate for the American people instead of the other way around.
Politically, I see myself becoming more active in protests, reaching out to my representatives, and becoming the best person I can be in my work and art. At the end of the day, no matter who is president you still have to work hard, contribute to your community and be a good person. I think a lot of people were living in a fantasy that as soon as Trump gets elected everything will be golden and shiny and new and wonderful: they will be disappointed because nobody can help them out of their miserable angry lives except themselves.