Amidst the specter of white nationalism, Reno feels the Bern
On Friday the 13th, a day after the third 2019 Democratic debate, and hours after he shared an unexpected hug with a Trump supporter in Carson City, Senator Bernie Sanders arrived at the University of Nevada-Reno to speak on the subject of “College for All.”
The stage was suitably set: A cool evening breeze filtered through the quad wedged in between the mammoth “Knowledge Center” (library) and its accompanying parking garage. A crowd of about 350 people, young and old, had gathered to see the iconic Democratic socialist from Vermont.
Senator Sanders had visited UNR before — most recently, last fall, stumping for Jackie Rosen’s Senate campaign — and he’ll probably return again. But perhaps as compelling as the speaker was the locale in which he spoke, especially given the ominous undercurrents plaguing Nevada’s land-grant institution.
Just a day earlier, white supremacist fliers were posted on several campus buildings at UNR and nearby Truckee Meadows Community College. Earlier this semester, a swastika was found in a stairwell of Wolf Pack Tower, the part of Circus Circus serving as a dorm replacement for those buildings damaged in UNR’s catastrophic July gas explosion (UNR has a lot going on).
Neither were these two incidents the first time white nationalism emerged from the fount of Reno higher education. Remember that famous photo of the yelling tiki-torch white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville? Remember that iconic blond guy screaming in that photo? Yeah, he went to UNR.
As for Nevada’s other most famous alumnus? That would be Colin Kaepernick.
So, the astute observer might wonder how Bernie would be received on this September 2019 evening. Purple-state Nevada holds an early caucus, but the shades of blue and red which compose its mixed chromatics are quite pronounced.
In advance of Sanders’ arrival, the grassy area was shaded while the evening sun illuminated the nearby buildings with a pleasant glow. Students sat on the lawn, and sign-waving supporters stood behind on choral risers, with American and Nevada “Battleborn” flags fluttering at attention. More Bernie supporters waited on the library steps; still others observed from various levels of the adjacent parking garage.
Police, too, monitored the situation from the highest levels of that garage. With a chill, I suddenly wondered how I might escape if something were to happen, if it might be possible to exit three rows of fencing. It certainly didn’t seem easy.
And that garage probably wasn’t just good for viewing. Almost two years out from the Las Vegas shooting — and a day after a Texas state senator threatened Beto O’Rourke’s life on Twitter — my mind turned to a distinctly non-zero possibility.
But then, “On the Road Again” played over the loudspeakers. Willie Nelson seemed an appropriate artist, age-wise, to herald Sanders’ arrival.
First, a series of speakers were introduced, and their remarks were refreshingly brief. These included Austin Daly, the leader of UNR’s Young Democrats, Nora Prochaska, Bernie’s campaign rep at UNR, Evelyn Galvan, a senior at UNR, and finally, Autumn Harry, a graduate student at UNR and member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe. While the first few speakers made the expected points about taking America back from Trump and how they, as young(er) students, were inspired by Bernie’s electric 2016 campaign, the last speaker brought in Native, local issues and connected them to Sanders’ campaign.
“I am proud to announce, that beginning this semester, Paiute language is now offered as a course here at UNR,” Harry said, to loud applause. “This is the first time our Numu language will be spoken on this campus since the university’s establishment in 1874.”
“Wow,” a man in the audience exclaimed.
Harry then bridged to the star guest. “I’m confident that educational opportunities are only going to increase with Senator Sanders’ plan to provide free tuition, making higher education accessible and affordable to all.”
The Bern on the Lectern
Finally, to the John Lennon anthem “Power to the People,” Senator Sanders ascended to the podium. He started by apologizing that he had lost his voice, but, to be honest, his voice sounded the way it always does: gravelly, Brooklyn-esque.
“Our view of human life is very different than that of Donald Trump and his friends,” Sanders said with deliberate pace, his tone stern, his presence steady and authoritative. “They believe that the function of life is to lie, cheat, step on anyone you can, along the way, in order to make as much money as you possibly can.”
A practiced rhetor, Sanders contrasted what he characterized as Trump’s ethos with his own.
“Our vision is one that understands our humanity is based on our love and concern for our fellow human beings,” Sanders said.
Step-by-step, Sanders went through the main points of his platform — railing against the evils of the corporate elite, his plan for higher education reform, Medicare-for-All, the Green New Deal, criminal justice and immigration reform. There were few surprises in what he said; Bernie’s views from 2016 have become popular in his party, and indeed, most Democrats running have in turn adopted many aspects of his platform.
During Sanders’ sections on healthcare and college education, the details on deductibles and progressive taxes surprisingly kept the audience engaged, but it was his rhetoric on climate that soared, given his adept way of shifting his tone between zingers and earnest concern.
“Right now, we have a president of the United States that believes climate change is a hoax,” Sanders said. “I believe that Donald Trump is a hoax.”
He followed up that quip with, “Let me make a promise to you, which is a pretty low-bar promise — if elected president, I will believe in science.”
Both lines delivered substantial applause and reaction from his audience. But then Sanders’ voice took on a hushed, serious tone:
Climate change, according to the scientists, is the existential threat to our entire planet. Now I’m not here to scare you, I really am not. But what the scientists are telling us, is that if we do not get our act together, and very, very shortly, there will be irreparable damage done to this planet, within the next eleven years, and it only gets worse after that. And what we have to got to think about is 20, 30, 40 years ago, when you are looking your kids in the eye and your grandchildren in the eyes, and they say to you, Grandma, Grandpa, didn’t you know what the scientists were telling us? Why didn’t you do something while you had the chance? I don’t want anyone here to be in that position.
Sanders also pushed back against his critics who have seen his policy positions as unrealistic by invoking a quote of Nelson Mandela:
[Nelson Mandela] said, ‘Everything is impossible until it is done.’… It means, that if you have a dream, people around you, [they’ll say], ‘Oh my God, that is ridiculous, you can’t do it.’ And after you accomplish it, people will say, ‘hey, that’s obvious, of course — we all know that should have been done.’
The example was playful, but probably inspiring to a crowd of college students.
At the end of his thirty minutes on stage, the candidate concluded his remarks with a call-to-arms. “Do not allow anybody to tell you that you cannot bring about the kinds of changes that this country desperately needs,” Sanders said. “Do not believe them for a moment — that’s what they want you to believe… Brothers and sisters, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.”
The crowd dispersed quickly. Soon the grassy field, the library steps, and the parking garage were mostly empty; only a small crowd stayed around to shake Sanders’ hand before the Vermont Senator was shepherded away. I was relieved that nothing had happened — that UNR’s submerged far-right constituency had stayed among the shadows, that the event had come and passed in peace.
But it did give me pause.
Sanders’ appearance felt more like an older statesman inspiring a younger generation than the words of a front-running candidate vying for president. This was what the rhetorical situation called for — he was, after all, trying to inspire college students to become involved in his campaign. But, since Sanders’ Democratic competitors have adopted his positions, perhaps he has already accomplished enough.
This is the second post in an creative nonfiction (opinion) series about presidential candidates visiting UNR. You can read the first post, about Beto O’Rourke’s April visit to Bibo Coffee, here.