The Meaning of New Hampshire

A primary voter in Manchester, New Hampshire, February 9, 2016
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
A primary voter in Manchester, New Hampshire, February 9, 2016

In the days before the primary, the weathermen told us a snowstorm was coming. A big one. Then, it turned out, it would be here earlier and could last into the evening of the next day. The roads were going to be snow-covered and slippery, there were going to be strong winds, blowing and drifting snow, and low visibility. Of course, this being New Hampshire, it would’ve taken a northeaster of historic proportions to prevent a decent turnout at the polls (though with a population that is one of the oldest in the country, one could well have imagined some asking themselves whether it made sense to venture out into that kind of weather and end up in a ditch just to cast a vote). Instead, the sun shone, the roads were all plowed, and the people who stood in long lines waiting to vote in my little town were all in a good mood.

While waiting for the storm to arrive, we had the Democratic and Republican debates over the weekend to firm up our decisions or change our minds, though we are famous here for driving pollsters nuts by procrastinating till the end, like that lady who told a reporter on Primary Day that she was still unsure, walking to the voting booth, whose name to mark on the ballot. “Carly or Hillary, both wonderful women,” I imagined her agonizing in her mind. Of course, as Marco Rubio demonstrated during the Saturday night debate by making himself sound like an idiot, there were bound to be surprises. The Senator from Florida repeated the same attack against President Obama, using the same words, the same tone of voice, and the same facial expression, four times, even after Governor Christie shouted to the audience: “There it is, everybody, the twenty-five-second memorized speech!” and the other candidates on the stage were looking at Rubio with incredulity and growing alarm.

On the other hand, that bit of comic relief came amid some vile things said on the stage that night. I bet not many in the audience recoiled from Trump’s promise not just to bring back waterboarding once he is president, but to make it a “hell of a lot worse” than waterboarding. The notion that in order to win the war on terror the United States has to become more barbaric than even ISIS is now widely accepted, as the rapturous cheers that greeted Trump’s announcement showed. For our own sadists, despite what anyone says to the contrary, torture works, because they personally get such immense satisfaction from imagining what inflicting that kind of thing on another human being would be like.

In New Hampshire’s Democratic debate, as is usually the case, there was more substance and more of a conversation between the candidates. Clinton was prickly that night, complaining that Bernie was characterizing her as a woman running to be the first woman president, and as exemplifying the establishment, while at the same time bragging that Henry Kissinger praised her for running the State Department better than anyone had run it in a long time. She also argued for a hawkish foreign policy identical to the one espoused by the establishments of both parties in Washington that, after fourteen years of waging wars, hasn’t produced a single success. She even mentioned an open letter by a group of so-called national security and military experts complaining about Senator Sanders’s ignorance and naiveté about foreign policy. He himself agreed that Secretary Clinton had more experience in such matters, but that experience is not all that’s required of a president; good judgment, he said, is even more important, and so is learning from past mistakes.

Clinton also suggested, as many political commentators already argued, that Sanders was “unelectable” because of his extraordinarily ambitious agenda like healthcare for everyone and free college education, which would cost too much and therefore be unfeasible though both are available in many countries around the world; his call for a “political revolution” was a pipe dream in the United Sates. It may very well be, as we’ll soon find out. But without the kind of mass protest movement Sanders envisions, nothing will break the hold of the wealthy on our rigged economy and our political system. “You just can’t negotiate with Mitch McConnell,” he said during the New Hampshire debate. “Mitch is gonna have to look out of the window and see a whole lot of people saying, ‘Mitch, stop representing the billionaire class. Start listening to working families.’”

Seeing Trump signs in impoverished towns here that never fully recovered after the mills closed forty years ago makes one sad. These are clearly stunningly uninformed people, ignorant even of their own family histories. Do they imagine that factory owners took pity on their forebears and raised their wages out of Christian compassion, and cut down their work day from twelve to eight hours so they could spend more time with their children? Without the labor movement, the strikes, and the violence against strikers in these towns that for many decades horrified the nation and made the politicians finally take note, their lives would never have improved.

That is true today, as it was true then, and they work long hours for abysmal wages deprived of rights their grandparents had and took for granted, like overtime pay, paid vacations, and sick leave. One would expect them to vote for the politician who keeps explaining who’s been screwing them and what they need to do to get back their dignity. Defying common sense, they admire Trump, because for them he is the defender of the white race who loathes the same people they do. They believe that the New York billionaire is their friend and protector who’ll bring them jobs and happiness by making the lives of those hated immigrants and minorities miserable.

Clinton, the winner in the 2008 primary—the experienced, electable candidate, endorsed by many for being appealing to both the centrist and liberal wings of the party, for whom most Democrats I know were going to vote—was routed by Sanders 60 percent to 38 percent. People endorse me, because they know I can get things done, she kept repeating in her stump speeches and in the debates. The more one heard her say it the less one believed her, because one couldn’t help but recall all the wrong-headed policies she supported in her political career, like Iraq and Libya. Or the way she and her husband got rich by having overseas clients—some of them pretty shady characters, for whom they did favors in Washington—contribute between $54 and $141 million to the Clinton Foundation. In the end, it’s her integrity the voters didn’t trust. Even elderly women in my state abandoned her. Sanders told the truth about himself and this country, and Clinton has just done too many things in her political career she ought to be ashamed of to be able to do that.

As to what happens after New Hampshire in the other primaries, God only knows. We are a polarized country, angry and more than a little crazy. I recall back in the 1990s a reporter asking an elderly Serbian monk in some monastery what he thought about the war in Bosnia. He said, “Son, every once in a while evil creeps into people and there’s no way of getting rid of it, one just needs to let it run its course until they come to their senses.” I remember being shocked by the monk’s words, and one can quibble about the details, but he turned out to be right. It’s not a pretty thought, nor does it make the election less terrifying or give us much reason to hope that things will get better in this country, no matter who wins.