In search of authenticity
Louis Amis goes to Vegas ahead of the Nevada caucus
The year-long “early state” phase of the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating process is drawing to a close, as candidates intensively court voters in Iowa (3 February 2020), New Hampshire (11 February), Nevada (22 February), and South Carolina (29 February). The rationale behind this system is that it allows some kind of cross-section of Americans to get up close and personal with the candidates, peer directly into their souls, and vouch for them to the rest of the country. But in the Democratic Party that rationale is breaking down. The validity of the cross-section is now fiercely questioned, due to the overwhelmingly white populations of the first two states. And the early-state voters themselves have been doing less vouching: In their desperation to replace Trump, they have tended to look less for who strikes them best than for what they imagine everyone else will like, further down the line. Probably not enough peering has been taking place. Which is a pity, because the American electorate hungers for the very thing that might be found in that way: A president who is a recognisable human being.
Throughout the 2016 campaign, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump steadfastly failed to convince a majority of voters that they were “honest and trustworthy.” Polling in the tumultuous final weeks suggested that Trump, without ever rising above water himself, still managed to outperform Clinton substantially on this question. Democratic voters now broadly acknowledge her gross failures in the areas of transparency and human warmth. But the ability of Trump, in all his florid bogusness, to survive the same tests is still regarded as a form of black magic. Trump seems to be able to warp reality itself. There is a sense that only the challenger pure of heart – whose views, track record, and personal identity cohere in a solid and intelligible whole – can emerge victorious.
But the Democratic electorate, unlike the Republican electorate under Trump, is both ideologically and demographically diverse. The superstar left-wing Congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has noted acidly that in many other countries she and Joe Biden, the initial front-runner for the 2020 nomination, would not be in the same party. And the demographic diversity is also increasingly difficult to negotiate. It is not easy to find a single person who appears equally convincingly to African American communities in the South, working-class whites in the post-industrial Mid-West, wealthy suburbanites, mixed-status Latino families, and wired urban millennials. And the verbal and theatrical formulas traditionally used to bridge those cultural gaps have become extremely well worn.
Nevada is the least talked about and least visited of the early states, despite being the biggest general-election battleground, and, significantly for Democrats, the most ethnically diverse. The reason for this seems to be that Nevada is so dominated by Las Vegas, and the wider American public simply doesn’t consider Las Vegas to be a real place. It’s important to point out that 2.2 million people live in the city or surrounding Clark County, and that the campaign events I attended over the last ten months mostly took place in high school gymnasiums and union halls like those in any other state. But it was still interesting to contemplate the candidates, as they tried to sell their own authenticity to voters, in the desert city that grew up around The Strip, where the only cultural rule is that things should appear other than as they really are, and the only reliable reality is money. Every detail of a casino building is designed, not only to entice, but to fool: To scramble the mark’s sense of value, even of space and time. They offer fake versions of New York, Paris, Egypt, Venice and Ancient Rome. Of the names in the shimmering skyline, only The Mirage is truthful. But another is indicative, too: It is that of the incumbent president, in 25-foot-high golden letters.
The campaign of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren began with a furor over the authenticity of her historical claims to Native American identity. She released the results of a DNA test suggesting that the blood of the Cherokee coursed in her veins at a concentration of somewhere between 0.1 and 1.5 per cent. The Cherokee Nation took offence, pointing out that this was not how tribal citizenship worked, and Warren privately apologised, hoping that Trump’s taunts of “Pocahontas!” would lose their charge over the next year and a half.
In the meantime, Warren had the best chance of uniting the Party ideologically. She was a populist, but also a technocrat. Unlike Bernie Sanders, she could explain in some detail how the things she said were going to happen were actually going to happen. This is how she was able to command the field for most of 2019. And, Indian ancestor or not, Warren had a powerful personal story to tell: Her boot-strapping rise from Oklahoman lower-middle-class struggle (daughter of a janitor; three brothers in the military), through community college and special-needs teaching at public school. A figure that appeared less like the Harvard professor she later became, and more, in the words of the Republican strategist Mike Murphy, like “the Fightin’ Grandma from Oklahoma,” might be able to offset the cultural threat of her radical politics in the general election.
Admirably enough, however, Warren has not leant too heavily on her past. “Fight” has indeed been the dominant buzzword of her campaign, but while she routinely mentions “Oklahoma” – she speaks with a moderate drawl – Warren has done little to incorporate those resonances in her public image. Only in the final stretch before the Iowa caucuses did her TV ads switch from policy to biography. Her rhetoric is entirely secular, and she gives no hint of any dormant fondness for, say, skeet shooting or baking casseroles. (She has given voters almost nothing of “the Grandma” – in part, presumably, because her grandchildren’s names are Octavia, Lavinia, and Atticus.) Warren is running more or less as what she is: An elite policy expert, whose humble origins inform her ideas but echo only faintly in her presentation.
“I think she’s a really smart lady,” said Nikki Tatalovich, 25, at an outdoor rally for Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, in the Las Vegas Arts District last August. “She’s a professor, and she comes from this point of view of like a humble mom, who’s also just like really smart and has a lot of good ideas.” Warren has taken a bet that campaigning in prose can work. Among her main rivals over the last year, she has been the least dependent on any kind of fairytale.
“The problem,” Tatalovich continued, “is that I don’t think there’s anyone who’s as pride-inspiring as Mayor Pete is. You hear him speak and you’re just, ‘That’s my guy! Everything’s gonna be OK!’ Even if it’s not like a real quality, that ability to believe in someone when they say that – I don’t know if Elizabeth Warren has that.”
The problem might also be that the last person to try this approach was Hillary Clinton, with whom Warren also shares the profile of the “smart lady.” Clinton’s example has made that hand even more difficult to play in presidential politics than before. Warren’s slide in the polls can be traced to a seed cleverly planted by Buttigieg himself, in an interview on CNN in September, when he accused her of being “extremely evasive” about the cost of her healthcare plan. In the televised debate in October, Senator Amy Klobuchar, who is running on her folksy Mid-Western identity, piled on: “At least Bernie is being honest here.” By December, Sanders and Warren were accusing each other of lying in a spat involving her gender, and the Senator from Vermont’s fans were calling Warren a snake. And Trump had started calling her Pocahontas again.
“I heard him the first time on a podcast and I was out walking, getting my steps, and I’m like, ‘Who is this guy?’” said Nancy, an accountant from Vegas, at the same Buttigieg rally. She was clutching a copy of his campaign memoir, standing alone in one of the few patches of shade. “And I went home and started googling around, and I’ve been addicted ever since!”
Buttigieg, 38 years old, is not running as an everyman, or even an ideal man, but as a kind of very mild superman: How Clark Kent would be if he never got changed, and only rose efficiently through the ranks at the Daily Planet and beyond. “You’re just blown away, like, ‘How does he know all this?’” Nancy continued. “My daughter and him graduated the same year from high school. But he speaks eight languages! And he’s just so brilliant, top of his class, Harvard, Oxford – oh my gosh!”
Buttigieg, 38 years old, is not running as an everyman, or even an ideal man, but as a kind of very mild superman
To put it another way, Buttigieg appears to people as the product of ideal parenting in the early 21st Century. “He’s got such a calming voice, he never yells,” said Nancy. Buttigieg served in the Navy Reserve in Afghanistan, and is happily and decorously married to a man; he plays piano and guitar. He draws most of his support from people who either raised high-achieving children, or were in a position to hope they might, as well as from some of those highly evolved young people themselves. He is a flattering mirror to the upwardly mobile; he emulates Barack Obama, sometimes even down to the bearing and verbal cadences, and doesn’t seem to realize that the air of calm superiority hangs very differently on him. At the start of voting he was polling like a front-runner among white people, and like a non-starter among minorities. His events in Clark County, which is only 42% white, have been almost as monochromatic as Trump’s rallies.
This is not just a matter of perception. Buttigieg is dogged by the record of his South Bend police department’s poor relationship with the city’s large black community. His campaign has been caught falsely attributing endorsements from black politicians, and using stock imagery of Kenyan people to illustrate publicity for its racial justice platform. At the time of going to press, it remained to be seen how many non-white voters in Nevada or South Carolina would see much authenticity behind his “Douglass Plan” (which is very progressive), or shift their support to Buttigieg on the basis of his successes in the first two states.
The term “pathological liar” is now thrown around on an almost daily basis in American politics, both by and at Trump. But former Vice President Joe Biden also has a consistent record of embellishment and outright falsehood, dating back to the speech plagiarising Neil Kinnock and fabricating elements of his own life story that doomed his first campaign for the nomination in 1987. This is one of many strong resemblances his political style bears to Trump’s own. (Biden’s main refrain, “restore the soul of America” is a moist-eyed rewrite of “Make America Great Again.”) Like Trump, Biden faces doubts about his mental acuity that paradoxically lend him some cover from his falsehoods and frequent verbal gaffes.
But folks know Joe. “Character, honesty, integrity and history,” said a burly white man called Scott, departing a Biden speech at a retirement community last year. “I’ve decided that I don’t have a second place: It’s only Biden.” Scott lived in Sun City MacDonald Ranch, a luxury suburban development built around a golf course. This February, at a Biden surrogate event at an American Legion post on the city’s impoverished West side, Robert McKinney, an 82-year-old Air Force veteran, used similar words: Dignity, integrity, honesty – Obama. “When they get in the Southern states like South Carolina, Biden’s gonna start going ahead of everybody, because he’s gonna get the black vote,” said McKinney, who is African American. He’d been in Vegas since it was known, for the viciousness of its Mafia-overseen segregation, as Little Mississippi. “Biden is a moderate. You know – you don’t swing this way or that way. You gotta be a moderate, because that serves everybody.” I asked him about the other candidates: “No, I don’t really listen to all that shit,” he said.
The campaign’s problem is that it has absolutely nothing more to add. Apart from the exact median position on almost every issue, there is no substance beyond what voters may have absorbed from Biden’s decades-long presence on background television: A muted figure on the world stage, occasionally stepping down from it to give someone a hug. The campaign is reduced to a circular electability pitch reminiscent of Trump’s first run (Vote Biden because he will Win); a Trumpian focus on aura, artificially maintained through imagery and stage management; and damage limitation. Among the staff, both morale and competence are low, which has occasionally manifested in another faint shade of Trumpism: conflict with journalists. I was interrupted in the middle of an interview and ordered to the press enclosure during the build-up to one Biden appearance this year. When I asked why, the operative responded: “Because that is literally what you do at these events.” Another staffer warned me that it was “a private event.” Only Trump’s team uses that terminology to describe community outreach during an electoral campaign for the highest public office in the land.
We “know” that “Joe” has the “Courage” and “Dignity” and “Integrity” and “Authenticity” to withstand any assault, but the Biden campaign was not built to suffer
The difference is that Trump loves the heat of the campaign, and thrives in it. For Biden every step of it will bring pain. We “know” that “Joe” has the “Courage” and “Dignity” and “Integrity” and “Authenticity” to withstand any assault, but the Biden campaign was not built to suffer.
Bernie Sanders is the only candidate whose authenticity is never questioned. There is broad agreement among his rivals, and among Democratic and even Republican voters, that he has never really contradicted himself. This is partly because both his message and his personality are so compact: Over the past six years at least, he seems to have seldom deviated, in any setting, from his stock of several dozen single-sentence applause lines, irritably rejecting any conversation to which they could not be applied.
“The first time I heard Bernie speak, he was one of the few politicians that could answer a straight question with a straight answer,” said Richard, a 27-year-old cook from Las Vegas, sitting on his skateboard at the back of a large Sanders rally in a public park last summer. “He says stuff that makes sense to me, instead of just the platitudes and whatnot.”
Sanders has quite comprehensively addressed the fatal flaw of his 2016 run: He now polls in competitive second place to Biden among black voters, and leads the field among Latinos. “The bigger picture is he’s the most honest politician we have,” Richard continued. “On a more personal – maybe on an equally large scale, actually – I’m black in America, you know what I mean? And so if it’s anyone that’s gonna have my back I believe he’d be the number one.”
The Sanders campaign differs from all the rest in that, beyond this impression of consistency, his personality has little conceptual relevance to his movement. He is an effective but incidental figurehead. Another reason he has faced fewer questions is that, beyond his large and fervid base, he was not widely considered a realistic prospect until late last year. Another is that everyone fears the relentless online attacks of that base. If he does become the nominee – and a plurality victory is likely as long as the moderate vote remains split – then the nation will be offered a political choice it has not been offered in a century. The choice may not be sufficiently illuminated by the low, evenly burning flame of Sanders himself. As his delegate haul mounts, other people – the allies and adjacent thought-leaders, and the regular supporters who in many cases despise the Democratic Party – are likely to find themselves stress-tested along with the ideology, by both Democrats and Republicans, in ways fair and foul.
Klobuchar, the three-term Senator from Minnesota, finally rose into serious contention with a strong third-place finish in New Hampshire on February 11th, dealing major blows to both the Warren and Biden campaigns. She is one of a number of late-middle-aged, white, Democratic Party stalwarts with heartland bona fides who were either kept out of the race entirely or suffocated in the polls by Biden’s bloated presence. That she has been the last to hold out, until the major flaws in every candidate to the Right of Sanders became more apparent, seems to offer in itself a proof of her character-based pitch as the modest but gritty underdog.
Her Mid-Western authenticity is strong. She says that whenever she considers gun-control policy, she asks herself, “Does this hurt my Uncle Dick in his deer stand?” She has been wooing voter house parties with her Minnesota “hot dish,” a kind of meat and vegetable casserole topped with Tater Tots. Her persona of the diligent and fair-minded country lawyer has natural appeal to the older and working- and middle-class white voters who began in Biden’s camp by default. The moderate lane of the primary is now being determined by the contest between Buttigieg and Klobuchar for the support of non-white would-be Biden voters. Both started essentially from zero, and Klobuchar’s past record as a county prosecutor is receiving intensified scrutiny from racial justice activists. But Klobuchar’s long and bipartisan record as a legislator, and as an electoral powerhouse in Minnesota, a light-blue state that is mostly deep red at the county level, gives her an advantage among moderates. Her age alone may help against Buttigieg: Her appearances before minority audiences won’t have quite the same air of middle-management gliding onto the shop floor for a pep talk.
When I saw Klobuchar up close last summer, she was taking anything she could get in Nevada, which on that day consisted of 50 white senior citizens curiously filling out the clubhouse of a suburban gated community. None of the audience members I spoke to were willing to commit their support to such a low-polling candidate at that time. But Klobuchar did something spectacular: She cracked them up. They were not laughing in the usual dead way, just to show that they understood a political reference. As Klobuchar horsed inelegantly around before them, riffing self-deprecatingly on the absurdities of the job – on worries of dripping hair dye, on asking ex-boyfriends for campaign contributions, on the slogan for her high-school run for class president (“Go all the way with Amy K!”) – her audience peeled with surprised, even faintly scandalized laughter. Her impression of Donald Trump was unusually good. A sense of humour, after all, is the best token of authentic personhood anyone can offer.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe