Scenes from the Democratic Meltdown in Iowa - Rolling Stone
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Scenes from the Democratic Meltdown in Iowa

Two parties — one at a Marriott, one at a dive bar — reveal a deep divide in the Democratic base

CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA  - FEBRUARY 02:  A cutout of the eyeglasses and hair of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)  is stuck on a mirror at a campaign field office on February 02, 2020 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses will be held on February 3. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Even if Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, will he be able to unite a fractured party?

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

There was panic on the streets of Des Moines, Iowa, as Democrats wondered: Could life ever be sane again? Even before the state bungled the results of its all important caucus vote, internecine beef within the Democratic party was beginning to boil.

The night before the caucus clusterfuck, while the Super Bowl played, Bernie Sanders acolytes threw a party at a hole-in-the-wall bar in downtown Des Moines. Bearded 20-somethings smoked actual cigarettes outside and discussed the difference in rental prices between Silver Lake and Williamsburg. Inside, the crowd of canvassers and campaign staffers bopped to “Common People,” the Britpop class-rage anthem by Pulp. Writers from New York magazine, as well as leftwing publications like Jacobin and n+1, sidled up to the bar and got down to discussing labor rights. The nearest L train stop was 1,100 miles away.

Oh, how divergent it all was from the scene at the Marriott, a five-minute walk away. There, at a Super Bowl viewing party held by Bloomberg News, cable news hosts like Jake Tapper and Dana Bash congregated with a small army of Politico reporters, Democratic operatives (including Pete Buttigieg’s spitfire senior advisor, Lis Smith), a coterie of staffers from the British Embassy in Washington and roughly half The New York Times masthead. There, they noshed on nachos, applied Bloomberg-branded lip balm, sipped bottles of Blue Moon, and watched Shakira shimmy and J.Lo pirouette on a stripper pole. Later, some of these godheads of corporate media spilled into the horrifically bright lobby and congealed around hotel bar. Nobody went outside to smoke.

All weekend long, the Marriott’s lobby was a teeming exhibition, an archaeological dig with layers of modern political history on display. Everywhere you looked there were fault lines, and a thin bat’s squeak of payback. There were former Obama staffers who now work for Pete Buttigieg, whispering about how the cantankerous Sanders could never unite the party. You could see Jennifer Palmieri, the 2016 spokeswoman for Hillary Clinton, who lately has been enraging Bernie supporters by saying that “nobody likes him.” There was Donna Brazile, who offered proof in her own book that the Clinton campaign had rigged the game against Bernie — after she herself had engaged in some political skullduggery on behalf of the Clinton machine.

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The Marriott was so packed with the saboteurs of campaigns past that Bernie aides didn’t even like to walk through the lobby, much less stay at the unofficial campaign hub of DC mediaworld. (They opted for the Doubletree by the airport instead).

If the messy Sanders shebeen down the street was the id of the Bernie revolution, the sterile Marriott bar was the superego of the Democratic party. The contrast encapsulated the coming battle in the democratic party should Sanders prevail in Iowa and beyond: a young, grassroots insurgency versus an establishment battalion that is terrified at the thought of Sanders winning the party’s nomination.

The Sanders shindig Sunday night was conjured by the hosts of Chapo Trap House, the popular podcast of the self-proclaimed “dirtbag left” — the radicalized, often vulgar, and sometimes hilarious internet creatures all in for Bernie. The show’s hosts gathered in a tiny and graffiti-covered back room that looked like a charming imitation of a Lower East Side dive bar bathroom and discussed their candidate’s chances in the caucuses and whether one could get HBO interested in a miniseries starring Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Out on the dance floor, a massive image of Jeffrey Epstein’s bungalow on Little Saint James, otherwise known as “Pedophile Island,” was being beamed onto the walls.

Chapo Trap House Party in Iowa
Photo: Vaudeville Mews

Rumors about the results of the scuppered Des Moines Register poll — the hotly anticipated barometer for Democratic candidates that was shelved the day before due to data-collection hiccups were flying around the bar. The poll’s results supposedly were good for Bernie and bad for the centrists, particularly those they call Uncle Joe and “Mayo Pete.” Upon hearing the gossip, one canvasser began twerking to scattered applause.

Another hopped on stage and grabbed a microphone for a call and return with the crowd.

“When I say ‘Fuck,’ you say ‘Biden!’”

“Fuck,” he yelled. “Biden,” the crowd roared back.

“When I say ‘Fuck,’ you say ‘Warren!’”

“Fuck,” he yelled. “Warren,” the audience answered back.

And so it went with Buttigieg, Steyer, and even Tulsi Gabbard, the poor thing. So much for party unity.

But, after what happened in the last primary cycle, these warriors had reason to be feeling vengeful. And though the hopeful vibes for their candidate’s chances in the caucuses were radiating around the room, they could see the establishment forces conspiring against them in real time. Even before the squelched caucus results threw this whole thing into a blender, a drumbeat of Democratic dreck had been fueling rage in the Bernieverse. First there were stories that Obama privately remarked that he would speak out against Sanders if necessary. Then came the trailer for Hulu’s new Hillary, pouring some Clinton haterade into the mix. Des Moines was buzzing that weekend over an NBC report that John Kerry was overheard at a hotel nearby saying that he would be willing to enter the race to stop “the possibility of Bernie Sanders taking down the Democratic party.” (Kerry has emphatically denied this.) On MSNBC Chris Matthews was saying on a Morning Joe panel discussion in Iowa that Sanders could win “real big” here but that “Bernie Sanders is not going to be president of the United States.”

Who can say for sure? Not Matthews, not Iowans, not the crowd at the Marriott or the Bernie bros packed liked sardines into the dive bar, screaming expletives and David Byrne lyrics into the karaoke microphones.

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