The Democratic convention began in an atmosphere of nervousness, as polls showed that the RNC’s seemingly disastrous orgy of plagiarism, hate, and rambling celebrity has-beens somehow lifted Donald Trump into the lead. The nervousness soon burst into outright panic as it quickly appeared that the Bernie Sanders contingent was far less reconciled to Hillary Clinton as the nominee than the desultory Republican regulars were to Trump. The inevitable smooth convention, coaxing the Bernie holdouts back into the fold, was now in question. For many people, the unthinkable prospect of a Trump presidency had become thinkable for the first time.
Sanders attracted a sizable following by appealing to a long tradition of good government in liberal politics. At the same time, he mobilized a radical ideological vanguard that had previously steered clear of Democratic politics. For them, the attraction of Sanders was neither merely a reiteration of the Howard Dean or the Eugene McCarthy campaign, nor merely a farther-left version of standard Democratic liberalism. His raw language of class, revolution, and the rigged system framed politics in stark binary terms — either the forces of light or the forces of corruption would prevail.
The ideological vanguard does not represent a majority of Sanders’s supporters, many of whom have changed candidate preferences throughout the primary, and who on the whole support Hillary Clinton at a 90 percent clip. But that minority has commanded vastly outsized attention. Journalists have spent the last year noticing enraged, conspiratorial Sanders supporters swarming social media, dismissing inconvenient facts as a corporate or Establishment plot. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by Twitter mentions.
The first, or at least the most blatant, sign that the Bernie Sanders movement would not be easily and smoothly unified behind the Democratic Party came earlier in the summer. One of Sanders’s choices to represent him on the platform committee, Cornel West, who has frequently denounced President Obama as a “niggerized,” self-hating sellout, negotiated for a left-wing platform friendly to Sanders. Then he bolted and endorsed Green Party candidate Jill Stein. The Sanders delegation consisted not of his representative supporters, but his most irrational ones. They had no coherent strategic goal, no ask. It was not as if Hillary Clinton was going to concede that his 45 percent of the vote in the primary was close enough and he could have the nomination. Despite the fantasies circulating within the Bernie fever swamp, the election had not been rigged or stolen, as even his former press secretary conceded.
In place of a strategy was diffuse rage. Protesters, minimal in Cleveland, thronged through the streets of Philadelphia. Inside the convention hall, Bernie Sanders loyalists booed everything — mentions of Hillary Clinton, moderates, liberals, left-wingers, even the opening prayer. Some of them repeated the “Lock her up!” chant heard in Cleveland. It seemed possible that the entire convention would be a chaotic cascade of jeering and hostile chants.
Sanders tried to calm his supporters, but had only partial success. Screams and shouts continued through speeches by Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Warren. They did not represent Sanders himself, or his supporters. (Possibly the most memorable line of the evening came from former Bernie activist Sarah Silverman, who, grappling with hecklers as a trained comedian would, ad-libbed, “You’re being ridiculous.”)
Ridiculous or not, they dominated the entire day. It was a testament to the power of a fanatical, disruptive minority. In a sense, his entire campaign has been evidence of this same thing. And if the Bernie movement had convinced the mainstream of the Democratic Party of anything, it was how horrifying the world would look if that vanguard ever gained real power.