San Francisco’s Crissy Field is a treeless stretch of grass nestled in the armpit of the Golden Gate Bridge. The setting is picturesque, but the location—foggy, windswept, inaccessible—sucks. This did not stop Senator Bernie Sanders from summoning his supporters there on Monday, for what would turn out to be the last night, indeed, the last few minutes, during which the Vermont senator still had a shred of an excuse to remain hopeful about his prospects.
Moments after his speech concluded, the media would proclaim Hillary the presumptive nominee, throwing cold water on the prospect of a competitive final primary of the season, which Hillary all but swept anyway. But did those of us who’d trekked from across the Bay to experience a rare moment of actual participatory democracy in California know that? Of course not. We simply charged our vape pens and headed over.
The “doors” opened at 3:30pm. I arrived at 5, just in time to catch the concluding notes of a set by the band Fantastic Negrito. Sets by Fishbone and Dave Matthews followed. The former did not play their hit “Party at Ground Zero.” The latter spoke mainly about his mother’s affection for Bernie in a voice that resembled that of Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade (who knew?). The wind picked up, the temperature dropped. There was a lady in a Bernie shirt carrying a duck, and a man with a bullhorn admonishing us to go vegan.
After over two hours of songs and speeches, plus a visit from Danny Glover—“I am not getting too old for this!”—Bernie took the stage. None of us could have known that major news outlets were planning to declare Hillary the presumptive nominee in the very near future, but looking back it seemed to be on the campaign’s mind, most notably in the voice of Ohio state senator and designated crowd-hyper Nina Turner, who led chants to “Fight On,” in between noting her general distrust of the mainstream media.
And what of Bernie? At what point might it have dawned on him that this was going to be his last stump speech, his last chance to look forward instead of back? Did he know as he approached the lectern?
He introduced his family, a.k.a. “the extended Sanders clan.” He noted the size of the crowd, thanked Fishbone, thanked Glover. I’m not sure if having to wait around on a frigid Monday evening seaside on the Bay affected my take on this, but it seemed like Bernie was hedging somewhat, like he was focusing more than usual on what he’d accomplished, past tense, than what he hoped to: “This campaign to me has been an extraordinary experience and I will tell you why.” The average donation per Bernie supporter was $27—he’d proven to the nation that a successful campaign could be mounted absent the support of Wall Street and/or a Super Pac. He was considered a fringe candidate not long ago—he’d proven to the country that his ideas were far from fringe, were in fact national priorities with surprisingly broad support.
It was not a concession speech—far from it—and therefore lacked the wistfulness attendant to such things. But I got a sense that such a speech was on his mind, that perhaps in the moments before he took the stage—moments that dragged, following Turner’s exit, like an awkward silence during the set change of a high school play—perhaps Bernie was stationed in one of those ominous SUVs he’d ridden in on (I was hoping for a helicopter entrance; no such luck), sitting on the phone with someone from the Clinton campaign, talking through the latest developments, negotiating the inevitable truce.
Perhaps, as he looked out across the sea of supporters—not the 100,000 rumored online, but a decent mess of folks, say 15,000 or so—he was thinking, “This may be it.” The path, if there’d even been one these past few weeks, was fading, had faded.
And yet, here Sanders was, standing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, in a liberal outpost there’s no way he could have hoped to have been standing in as a candidate of consequence in the presidential election, in early June, 2016, back when he started this journey a year ago. Maybe he was thinking that this was it, but I hope he was also thinking, “Savor it.”
There is a collective fantasy about Donald Trump indulged by readers of this piece, of this site—by, let’s face it, people who read, generally. Trump is the kind of person for whom both the phrase and the act “run out on a rail” were invented: not so much a charlatan as a criminal, an aberration in our collective democratic experiment. The fantasy is that, come November, Trump will not just be defeated but banished along with his toxic following. The latter won’t happen, and none of us will be able to un-see the side of our country that Trump has so tactfully courted and exposed.
But Donald will lose, and the country will recover from the calamity that he represents. This inevitability is the consensus opinion of the experts, but it’s also the outcome we feel in our guts, which brings me back to Bernie. Toward the end of his speech, Bernie enumerated the reasons for Trump’s eventual loss, laying out the pragmatic case. High voter turnout, which is predicted, which Bernie will have helped create, always favors the Dems. But Bernie went beyond pragmatism, striking the note his campaign has struck since day one: These things we feel in our gut—that Trump will lose, that college should be free, that health care should be free, that everyone should be free, unconstrained by the abstruse machinations of a bureaucracy that obscure the entitlements that a decreasing minority cling to—these things do not have to remain gut feelings. They can become reality. They must.
At press time, Bernie has vowed to fight on, “all the way to Philadelphia.” God bless the stubborn punk. He’s not going to be the next president. This doesn’t mean his efforts were in vain. These things we feel in our gut, they’re out in the open now. Bernie supporters would do well to make sure they stay that way. It’s not just about defeating Trump, but about advancing an agenda that’s been a long time coming. Sanders was just the whistle on the teakettle. Keep the fire going, and, whistle or no, the water still boils.