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Ryan: Bernie at the Embassy Fortress
Photo by Sean Ryan

Ryan: Bernie at the Embassy Fortress

The riverfront Hilton was under construction.

It looked like a fortress behind all the mesh and ticker tape. Well that Saturday night, this fortress belonged to Bernie Sanders. He had half of the Embassy Ballroom, as part of his Town Hall with NARAL Pro-Choice America, whose logo and theme are purple so almost everything in the room was purple.

Exceptions were media, who you could tell by their exhaustion and their over abundance of equipment. Bernie himself, dressed in a blue suit. And the anti-Bernie onlookers leaning against the back wall, muscles throbbing like just after a workout.

Photo by Sean Ryan

2020 was Bernie's second go-around, and presumably his last attempt at the presidential office. In 2016, he got the shaft. Especially here in Iowa. Basically, he was publicly sacrificed then asked to smile for the cameras as his head rolled around the stage like a soccer ball.

So now he's jittery, alert. And, yes, salty.

Ha ha, he must be thinking. Surrounded by all those gut-devouring Democrats, he's the Independent. Or, as his fellow candidates say, often derisively, "The Socialist."

Ha ha, joke's on them, just came from L.A. Specifically, from the set of the Joe Rogan Experience, a podcast that began as one man's hobby and has since evolved into a media revolution.

Ha ha, how's it feel now, corporate media?

Ha ha, currently coming for you.

Sanders uses that term often, "corporate media." He says it with disgust.

And he would be correct. The success of Rogan's podcast signifies a growing restlessness in America. Most Americans are tired. Annoyed by a small band of loud jackasses whose tantrums have become a kind of social guillotine, and a media who profit off the discord despite — and this is the worst part — many times not believing much of what the incendiary drivel that they write. Then along comes Rogan, naturally curious and rather direct.

Photo by Sean Ryan

It speaks to the magic of America, Joe Rogan, stand-up comedian and former wacko on "News Radio," a commentator for Ultimate Fighting Championship and former host of "Fear Factor," which was essentially a show about tormenting people for money, a job that often saw Rogan goad contestants into eating roaches or jumping from tremendous heights, only to badger them the moment they were about to follow through.

So who could've guessed that Rogan would become the unstoppable gatekeeper of new media, one of the most powerful figures of an entire generation, with tens of millions of people listening to every episode — far more than the audience of any mainstream show?

Who would have guessed that Joe Rogan would be the Socrates of our time? And that his interview with Sen. Bernie Sanders would make for one of the best episodes in Rogan's massive catalogue?


You should know that there was corruption at the last Iowa Caucus.

You can see that indignation in Sanders at times. Why wouldn't you? The man was robbed of a chance in 2016.

So but now Bernie is back, with a newfound snarl.

Ha ha, the Hilton is on locust street. As in, all the other candidates better prepare for a retribution on par with the plagues of Egypt, locusts and frogs and blood. Figuratively speaking, of course.

Ha ha, joke's on them.

They are boxes and he is a circle. Smooth, pliable, impossible to ambush. They are lines and he is a squiggly. They hassle with lip service. Bernie? Lip service? You have got to be kidding me! He talks like this! All the time! AND EVEN LIKE THIS! WHEN HE REALLY HAS SOMETHING TO SAY! OKAY, YOU ARE GOOD KIDS, HAVE A BERNIE STICKER!

Just listen to that accent of his. You think he would have left it so unpolished had he cared about playing the traditional game?
He has many enemies.

But he is also kind. He spends his campaign money on practical items. You won't see an elaborate lighting system at a Bernie speech. Not by his doing.

Photo by Sean Ryan

Instead, you'll see an audience of hungry and wayward but compassionate people. Sure, there are also the snoots. The amorphous herd of oft-outraged, over-educated, many-color-hair-dyed young folks with their own elaborate ideas about the risks and possibilities of any given social tradition.

In their natural setting, the snoots are harmless. They've got volume. And they know how to bully a conversation to a graceless close. But, for the sake of our country, they occupy a space once controlled by the last group of sanctimonious bullies, who came from the opposite side of the political spectrum.

Sometimes the only way to stop a forest fire is by lighting a controlled fire around the edges and waiting until the outrage subsides. Then it's off to the next burning forest.


Every one of Bernie's Iowa appearances had a completely different crowd.

This was his fourth event of the day. Or was it the fifth? If you add in the selfies every appearance is practically double. People want proof that they stood next to Bernie Sanders.

Photo by Sean Ryan

Understandable. He has that suction energy. In part because he seems to be constantly distracted. Not enough time for niceties and good posture. More important to thresh the common-sense ideas from the misconceptions and the doubt.

Ha ha, and they call me a radical. Me? A radical?

Or at least that's how Sanders appears to see it.

Ha ha, black sheep? Ha! If only!

He is something like the penniless untouchable who cleans out the septic gutters. And when he emerges, he is immaculate and saved a puppy or something.

Photo by Sean Ryan

He disdains the labels that have been thrust on him. All of the candidates do. Yet, the lesser known candidates would do anything for widespread misconceptions. At least then people would know who they are.

So maybe Bernie is the charismatic, quirky unwavering, radical, who everyone likes in some way. You don't look at him and say, "Guided by evil." If you disagree with his ideas, you say, "Now how the hell did he arrive at that conclusion?" Or at the very least you're entertained.

Because he's got an endless supply of certainty and a face ruddy with urgent disdain.

Like him or not, he believes what he's saying. And he seems perennially capable of veering off-course. Partly because he ramped his metaphorical go-kart over the edge of the track decades ago and has been pluming through fields and gravel roads ever since like Mario Kart through the suburbs.

Photo by Sean Ryan

He's like a grandpa with ADD. The kind of guy who could just as easily have a basement full of chemistry equipment or an attic of dust-covered bongs, leftover from the rollicking meet-ups so full of mysticism and chance. Unapologetic revelry. An air of the half-crazed, like a character right out of Kerouac's "Big Sur."

And it's clear that he's always been like this, but nobody cared. Then the times changed and the outliers in a generation of outliers needed to hear these ideas, the ideas that Bernie has always lived with on display.

For many Americans, his spirit is understandable but his arguments are nonsense. Put Sanders in a room with steel workers from the Midwest or wheat farmers from Kansas and, if everyone is wearing earplugs, they'll all get along. And even when Sanders talks about democratic socialism, he tends to eschew the insufferably convoluted language you find among the vocal left in the professoriate.


Who do you think should be the Democrat nominee for president in 2020? Can I get a show of hands? Computers, you say? Ballots? Haha, no. No ballots necessary. You raise your hands, I'll count. A lot of you, you say? Yes, yes there are. But don't worry, I have counted many times in my life.

Besides, I'll keep reminding myself that whoever we choose, they'll probably become the candidate, then maybe the president. So let's see those Iowa friendly paws. What's that, your hands are frozen together? Yeah, it's pretty cold in here, after all it is Iowa in the winter, full of blizzards of the most terrifying caliber, so it's a good thing we held this event in isolated locations that people have to travel to.

This is essentially how Iowa's caucuses work.


The Hilton Embassy Suites was around the corner from the Iowa Events Center, where Bernie had spoken earlier for the Presidential Gun Sense Forum. Slightly farther was El Malecón.

In the audience, 125 people or so. Every seat was occupied. People leaned against the back partition wall. Under strange chandeliers.

Sanders was nailing the part of his speech about "I proposed a livable wage and somehow I'M the radical?"

Photo by Sean Ryan

A man in the back wearing a firefighter T-shirt said, "That's really wrong." He grumbled. The man was pissed. He pivoted. There were a few others in the room who felt the same as he did, but not as openly.

Then the man groaned loudly and, with a sarcastic laugh, said, "That's really embarrassing."

Eventually, he stormed out of the room. Was he a guest at the hotel, curious to see Sanders in person despite disagreeing with his ideas? Or had he come here to see Sanders? The two situations are very different. Because this was an open ballroom that just about anyone could get into. You could stroll freely.

In the lobby, a lavish forest of chairs and a waterfall and indoor plants that might have been real. Kids rushed into the glass-walled elevator and looked out at the world fading below them as they rose and rose. People at the hotel bar waved for their next drink between glances at one of the many TVs. Did they realize Bernie Sanders was giving a speech around the corner? Did they care? Any time Sanders said "Workforce" he waved his forefinger with each syllable.

Then, somehow Sanders angled the speech, deftly, back into his "Radical" complaint.

"I wanted to give every American health care and people said, that's radical. ... that's radical. ... that's radical."

His point was, how about his foresight?

Then he said, "You don't see the outrage on TV about that one." Again, he rebuked the media. He told the audience, "Don't just listen to what's on television every day." They were no friends of Bernie's.

Ha ha, he must have thought.


Without much ceremony, his speech was over, and, like a grandfather who only recently got a smartphone and doesn't understand young folks' obsession with badly angled photos, he announced, "Now come on up and we can do the selfies."
With absolutely seriousness, "We've got our selfie specialist right over here."

Photo by Sean Ryan

People in Bernie T-shirts trickled out the entrance. Some of them had gotten selfies with the man. That was pretty cool.

As we strolled back to our car, we spoke to two women in purple Bernie shirts. They had been onstage behind Bernie, patiently holding their Bernie yard signs the entire time, in their purple "Reproductive Freedom Voter" T-shirts and their calm admiration.

Photo by Sean Ryan

Like Bernie, the 2016 election had left a bad taste in their mouth. They bemoaned the caucuses, last time around. Hillary Clinton won Iowa with 49.84% to Sanders' 49.59%, the closest margin in the history of the Iowa caucus. The victory gave Clinton 23 national convention delegates, two more than Sanders.

"We got shafted," one of them says, tired of searching for a euphemism.

Shady, to say the least. Like a bake sale run by the Mafia. At least a dozen ties were awarded by a coin toss. Not even an actual coin. A phone app that simulated a flip.

Photo by Sean Ryan

Reports emerged that, at several locations, Clinton supporters had coerced undecided caucusgoers and convinced supporters of floundering third candidate Martin O'Malley to choose Clinton over Sanders.

The two women told us that they saw it with their own eyes. That, in Des Moines, the Clinton officials misdirected and even denied Bernie supporters in order to secure a win for Hillary. For the Bernie supporters who were able to attend the caucus, their food and beverage and waiting area conditions were dramatically worse than those afforded to Clinton.

Both women half-smile with exasperation that retains hope. They shrug when they tell us that, of course, the media didn't report on the malfeasance. It was something I needed to look into, they said, because the whole situation was rife with corruption. And the media, as always, helped clean up the crime scene.

"Stolen," one of them said.

"We'd be living in a completely different country right now if Bernie hadn't been cheated," said the other woman.


Neither woman said whether they voted for Trump or Clinton. Presumably the latter. But they did mention that Clinton's dicey tactics provoked apathy among Bernie supporters. Many skipped the final election altogether. Others quietly protested Clinton by casting a vote for the libertarian candidate. "Or, you know."

Again, Trump was everywhere. How did he have so much power over his critics and enemies? He found a way to live in their heads, to disrupt their daily lives. Of course, only they have control of whether or not another person has that kind of power. And a politician, a man they would never meet and certainly never know.

Yet, still, he turned his critics into raving ex's who could never move on, could not have a conversation without derailing into foaming-at-the-mouth invective.

Neither woman had that steam, that crosswise look that never straightened out.

Photo by Sean Ryan

But Sanders had a smarter, deeper, more viperous form of it. The word "crusade" comes to mind.

Des Moines was the largest city in Iowa and here it was, Saturday night, and the streets were empty and the buildings were mostly dim. Maybe people were at the Fair. Nü-metal veterans Slipknot would be taking the stage in an hour or so, all shrieking and middle finger.

Every hotel, motel, and AirBnb for 80 miles was booked. My dad and I wound up in Arthur, Iowa, a charming town with 206 residents, two hours northwest of Des Moines. So we slumped onto the hood of the car for a moment, collecting the fragments of thought we had left. That day alone we'd seen 10 different events, 6 different candidates.

"I'm glad that Iowa gets the first pick in the election," I said, still not really sure how the caucus system worked, or what a caucus is to begin with. "It's good that they have a voice."

One of us started to flesh out the idea, but both of us shrugged.

"Beautiful sky," said my dad, then scrambled down a stairway to get a few photos.

Photo by Sean Ryan

A two-tone sky. Pink-orange and blue. Something about the way those colors blended, so undecided. I stared west, because that's where we would be going. That's where you were meant to find triumph. Then up early the next morning to attend a church service featuring Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).

If only the entire country could have hunched onto the hood of my car beside me, gawking out at soft blue like an ocean over the miniature city.

So I decided that those were the moments I would write about in this series. Scenes of meditation. Something we could all use, and something that most legacy media outright avoided, favoring snarky op-eds masquerading as news.

The way the air plashed gently, with a sway, everything about life felt navigable, lost to the vicissitudes of terrain and quiet water. Across the Des Moines River, downtown Des Moines looked peaceful. All lit up like a cathedral on Christmas. I smiled and stared at a red neon sign with an umbrella and the word "Travelers."

New installments come Mondays and Thursdays. Check out my Twitter. Email me at kryan@blazemedia.com

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