Early last Monday morning in downtown Martinsburg, W.Va., Andy Billotti brought his 15-year-old silver Dodge Ram pickup to a halt in the parking lot of an abandoned podiatrist’s office at the corner of Maple and King.
The bearded, blue-collar white man who got out of the truck was the Donald Trump demographic personified: a fourth-generation Italian-American construction worker with four kids, two of them in community college. He was wearing steel-toed boots, carpenter pants, a grey hoodie from a youth baseball team he coaches, and a cap bearing the logo of Dietz & Watson, which is a brand of luncheon meats.
Then the working man patted his pickup and said, approvingly, “Made in the U.S.A.”
But appearances were decidedly deceiving. On the passenger seat of the venerable rig was a carton of Bernie Sanders yard signs. Billotti had come to the vacant doctor’s office—one of the old examining rooms was serving as Sen. Sanders’s campaign headquarters for the panhandle of the Mountain State —to pick up more. Then he was going to motor up and down the hills and knobs and hollows of Jefferson and Berkeley Counties, W.Va., encouraging as many voters as he could to support the socialist senator from distant, but no less vertical, Vermont in the West Virginia primary on Tuesday, May 10.
“I am the only blue vote in my family,” Billotti said. (For reasons that no one fully understands, the colour blue has come in past decades to represent the Democratic Party. Republicans are red.) “That’s part of my charm,” he smiled.
As the presidential primary calendar convulses toward a mid-June conclusion, with the promise of bitterly contested—and possibly riotous—national conventions looming on both sides, and as spite and personal enmity among the candidates overwhelm their philosophical differences, the campaign of Bernard Sanders for the White House remains remarkable for its choleric consistency. Truth be told, Sen. Sanders has been growling the same speech and defending the same dialectic every day for more than 35 years—and there is no sign he plans to stop. While far behind Hillary Clinton in the race to become the Democratic nominee, Sanders said last week that he is in the race “until the last vote is cast.” His campaign announced this week it raised US$25.8 million in April, compared to a monthly average of US$17 million.
His constancy is part of his charm, the construction worker said in Martinsburg. “That shows me integrity,” Billotti vouched. “That shows me that the man is true to himself, and if he is true to himself, he will be true to the people.”
Billotti has been a Democrat all his life but has never canvassed for anyone before. In this, he shares much with the millions of voters—many of them young, first-time electors—who have coalesced around Sanders and his promises of tuition-free universities and jails full of Wall Street crooks.
Related: Heading to the heart of Bernie Land
“Me and the wife were discussing our options and we didn’t have much enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton,” Billotti recalled. (That placed them squarely in the mainstream of American public opinion; even most Democrats disapprove of Clinton’s ethics and dispute her “inevitable” suzerainty.) “Then I heard that there was this senator from Vermont who called himself an independent and who was moving over to the Democrats. I watched him announce his candidacy and that’s when I knew I had to do everything I could to support him. Before that, I had no idea who he was.”
Everything that Sanders was espousing seemed to rock Billotti to his core. He had seen true poverty up close in the nation’s cities, he said, when he worked in Washington and elsewhere, digging out subway tunnels so that the suburban elites might glide to their towers downtown. “Bernie says that the system is rigged, and it is,” Billotti stated. “I’ve seen people who didn’t start out with an advantage, and they’re never going to catch up. It’s not equal. The opportunity’s not equal. There is enough in the world for everyone if it is spread out fairly. Why shouldn’t everyone have enough to survive?
“As a species, we should be here for each other,” he went on, “and that’s what Bernie believes, too.”
A correspondent recalled a Sanders rally in New Hampshire last summer, and a woman who stood up and shouted, “This is Denmark stuff! This is Sweden stuff!”
“If we could be like Norway,” echoed Billotti, “even if the taxes were much higher, if it’s across the board, and we see the fairness, and we see the justice for everyone, then I don’t mind, and that’s a strong belief in my heart.
“I have four kids and I don’t want them going to war,” Billotti said. “Bernie won’t send them.”
Then he opened the door of his old Ram 1500 and studied the little white label on the inside of the driver’s-side panel.
“‘Made in Mexico’,” he read. “Well, oh my.”
Sanders stood at a podium in Washington last Sunday and when someone asked him what lessons might endure from his quixotic run for the White House, he snapped, “I’m not into legacy.”
He was, at this event for a small gathering of reporters, all about numbers, and especially incensed about the hundreds of so-called “superdelegates”—senators, congressmen, party panjandrums—who had declared for Clinton even before he, Sanders, threw his hat into the ring. (It was the day after Barack Obama, at the final White House Correspondents Dinner of his presidency, taunted Sanders by jibing, “Next year at this time, someone else will be standing here in this very spot. And it’s anyone’s guess who she will be.”)
“They are going to have to go into their hearts,” Sanders said, predicting a tumultuous convention in Philadelphia and the mass abnegation by superdelegates of their premature embrace of his opponent. Indeed, the numbers that Sanders used to support his case were convincing: in the state of Washington, for example, the Vermonter had won 72.7 per cent of the popular vote but all 10 of the state’s superdelegates remained pledged to Clinton. It was the same in Colorado and Kansas and New Hampshire, and so on.
What was clear was that every delegate—be he mortal or super—in the dozen states that have to vote will be as vital on the blue side as on the red. So Clinton was motoring up and down the hills and knobs and hollows of Appalachia in what she called her “Scooby van,” and her husband, the 42nd president, was down in Logan County, W. Va., being booed and heckled by unemployed coal miners with cries of “We want jobs!”
“Obviously, we are taking on virtually the entire Democratic establishment,” Sanders said in Washington, D.C. Then he switched gears and, almost smiling, he said, “I hope that my legacy will be that I was a very good president of the United States.”
Late last Sunday afternoon in an uptown park in Washington, D.C., right beside the statue of Joan of Arc that was given by the women of France to the women of the United States in 1922, a bearded, sixtysomething Turkish immigrant who gave his name as Avni pulled his racing bike to a halt.
It was May Day, and some left-wing activists had placed some placards against the base of the effigy of the Maid of Orleans. There were exhortations to boycott Mexican strawberries until the people who pick them are allowed to form a trade union, and posters that said “Honor labor” and others that shouted “Venceremos We Will Win” and displayed that famous image of Che Guevara, who—God does have a sense of humour— shares a birthday with Donald J. Trump.
Avni was the Hillary Clinton demographic personified: over 65, well-educated, urbane. Yet he, too, was an avid supporter of Sanders, and his vote, like millions of West Virginians, Californians, Kentuckians, New Jerseyites, South Dakotans, New Mexicans, Oregonians, and others, has yet to be counted. The Democrats of the District of Columbia will stage their primary, the last of the 2016 cycle, on June 14 (which happens to be Guevara-Trump Day in Havana and Manhattan).
“Bernie Sanders has already won,” Avni was saying. “He has broken the great taboo of this country. ‘Socialism’ was a dirty word, and now it isn’t. Now it is possible to be a socialist and to be mainstream. It doesn’t mean you’re a weird person.”
He predicted that “the current system cannot last long. When you have a technological society based on information, then capitalism doesn’t work. The Internet is the true expression of socialism: information flows from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”
“Will you vote for Hillary Clinton if she wins the nomination?” a reporter interjected.
“I don’t know,” said Avni. “All I know is that I am very happy now. Bernie Sanders has made me feel that, as a socialist, I belong in this country. After 45 years in America, I finally feel at home.”