SANTA MONICA, Calif.—Around 10:30 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, a triumphant Hillary Clinton offered her defeated Democratic presidential primary rival Sen. Bernie Sanders an olive branch. “Let there be no mistake: Sen. Sanders, his campaign, and the vigorous debates that we’ve had about how to raise incomes, reduce inequality, and increase upward mobility have been very good for the Democratic Party and for America,” she told the crowd of supporters at Brooklyn’s Navy Yard as she celebrated becoming the first woman to head a major party ticket in American history.
Three hours later and roughly 2,500 miles away, out came Sanders himself, introduced to a crowd of a few thousand supporters at the Barker Hangar as “the next president of the United States.” To roaring applause, he promised to “take our fight” to the July Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. He closed his speech with the mantra “the struggle continues.”
What he meant by this promise was unclear. I think I know what some of his dead-enders heard, however. “Without all this rigging he would have won already,” said Heather Kim, a schoolteacher and member of a Koreans for Sanders California group. “We all know, she’s stolen the vote, her and the media,” Linda Bassett chimed in.
When confronted with the sheer unlikelihood of fraud being perpetrated on that scale and with the margin of victory, which had climbed to about 3.5 million votes by the end of the night, the women remained credulous. “I don’t put it past them,” Bassett said. “When it goes to be counted, they’ve got all those computerized machines. We know that there’s algorithms.” A third member of this crew—all in their late 50s or early 60s—concurred. “I was there in 2004 in Ohio, I know the shit they pull,” Margie Hoyt said, seeming to nod to accusations of vote machine tampering by Republicans during that election.
The trio spoke in this way, in what we will call the Trumpish vague, all sinister they and techno-conspiracies, and they were not alone among the supporters I spoke with. The view hasn’t exactly been discouraged by the candidate, who likes to describe the process by which he’s lost the nomination as “rigged.” Kim cited a popular theory that the exit polls were off by suspiciously wide margins in several states, which to her indicated foul play. The Nation has repeatedly picked apart this view but it still has significant cachet in Bernieworld, and has even been endorsed by top celebrity surrogate Tim Robbins.
Rachel Brookhart, a 25-year-old server whom I’d met earlier in the day while she was volunteering at a Sanders headquarters in East Los Angeles, said she believed the election had been stolen. “It seems that there’s been a lot of voter disenfranchisement and maybe some unsavory numbers,” she told me. Brookhart cited the 125,000 voters who were purged in New York. This was a disgrace, but there is no evidence that Clinton benefited from it or was responsible for it. Brookhart also complained of the Associated Press’ decision to call the race for Clinton on Monday, saying that’s what inspired her to get out and volunteer. She wants Sanders either to be given the nomination or to run as an independent, a sentiment echoed by most of the Sanders supporters I spoke with—and she would never vote for Clinton. “I honestly believe a President Clinton would be more destructive than a President Trump,” she said.
I heard this a lot among diehard Bernie supporters in the campaign’s last days: Donald Trump is a madman, a bigot, a lunatic who is not fit for the presidency, but he wouldn’t be as bad as Hillary Clinton. They also say they wouldn’t support her even if Sanders endorsed Clinton, which they don’t expect he’ll do because he’s a man of “authenticity.” (Maybe all the accusations of election theft, including implications from the candidate himself, play some role in this view.) “People will say ‘vote for Hillary to defeat Trump’ and to me they’re both trash,” Angel Villasenor, a 32-year-old Latino man who actually supported Clinton in the 2008 primary, told me as he entered the Sanders event. As for Trump: “I think he’s a terrible person, a terrible human being, I don’t support him at all,” he said. But he’s probably not that dangerous. “It has no legs, it’s just nonsense,” Villasenor said of Trump’s xenophobic anti-Mexican rhetoric and policy proposals. “He’s using that as a platform to get all those racist folks behind him.”
“I am hoping that somehow Bernie will run on a third-party ticket. If not, I will vote for [perennial Green Party candidate] Jill Stein,” said Troy Corley, a 57-year-old small business owner. “I absolutely will not vote for Hillary Clinton.” Even those who are considering voting for the lesser of two evils are doing so very reluctantly. “The other two are shit and shinola, you can’t tell the difference,” 63-year-old Richard Grossman told me, without specifying who was which. He also said that his Jewish-Hungarian ancestry made him especially fearful of Trump and his extremist supporters. But vote for Clinton? “I don’t think I would,” he said. “But I’ve not 100 percent made up my mind, because to me the most important thing is to keep the white supremacy vote out of the White House.”
Clinton even lay at the center of Bernie supporters’ affection for their candidate. Why do they like Sanders so much? “Because he’s the only person that has a plan to do a change in this country and he’s not a corrupt lying criminal like the other one [Hillary],” said Christina Norton, a 37-year-old nurse who had flown in from Boston to attend the event. Her friend Margaret Alsop twisted herself in knots attempting to justify the idea that Sanders should use the superdelegate system, which she wants to eliminate, to secure the nomination. She did this because her views about Clinton are so strong. “I think Hillary’s a warmonger,” she said. Again, this makes for a poor contrast between Clinton and Trump: “I think he as a person is absolutely vile. I think as a politician she is absolutely the worst.” She continued, “I think he would do less harm than he is projected to if he were the president. I don’t support him at all and I think it would be absolutely disgraceful if he were to get into office, but I think he’s full of shit. … I don’t think he would do half the corruption that Hillary would do.”
Maybe it’s unfair to blame Sanders for his supporters’ extreme dislike of Clinton. But those dark feelings have hardened in the past couple months as Sanders’ odds have slipped away, and he has insisted that he was losing because of a rigged process and media bias, not because the minority voters that make up a large share of the Democratic Party prefer his opponent by wide margins. When I spoke to Sanders supporters at a Los Angeles event in March, the vast majority of them said they would be able to support Clinton in a hypothetical matchup with Donald Trump. At Tuesday’s event, the opposite was true. This actually tracks with polling: Between March and May, the percentage of Sanders supporters who said they planned to vote for Trump in a Washington Post poll climbed from 9 percent to 20 percent. Similarly, the number of Sanders supporters who would commit to voting for Clinton in a YouGov poll shrank from 63 percent to 50 percent between April and May.
Trump clearly sees an opportunity in all this. “To all of those Bernie Sanders voters who have been left out in the cold by a rigged system of superdelegates,” Trump said in his own speech Tuesday night, “We welcome you with open arms.”
He was talking to people very much like Margie Hoyt, who fumes at the thought that she might be asked to cast a ballot for the former secretary of state. Bernie is “my vote and they’re not taking [it] from me in November,” she said. Hoyt then dropped into a whisper: “I will not vote for that bitch. She isn’t getting my vote for nothing.”