Like a millennial Paul Revere, the girl in the plain white t-shirt and pixie cut strode eagerly through the streets of Philadelphia, alerting her fellow revolutionaries to the news: “She just resigned! She just resigned!”
As word spread, the crowd chanted, “Down with Debbie! Down with Debbie!” and bobbed their bright blue Bernie Sanders signs to the beat. “Debbie” was Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Moments before, just a day before the start of the Democratic National Convention, she had announced she was stepping down from her job as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The reason? A white-hot WikiLeaks dump of DNC emails, many of which revealed damning favoritism toward Hillary Clinton.
The emails represented exactly the kind of backroom bias Sanders’ strongest devotees always suspected. Throughout primary season, critics called them conspiracy theorists, but as they marched along Philadelphia’s Broad Street on Sunday, these thousands of self-styled rebels felt at once vindicated and infuriated. Sanders’ events are often gleeful love-fests, held to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel. This time, Sanders’ people were out with their pitchforks—literally.
“The DNC documents show this election really wasn’t an election at all. It was a coronation,” said Joshua Rothstein, a 25-year-old comedian from Brooklyn, his cardboard-and-duct tape pitchfork in hand. “Before those documents came out, I would have been happy to support Hillary.” But, he says, “the leaks put me over the edge.”
Wasserman Schultz’s departure, especially the day before the convention begins, instantly casts the Democrats as a party in turmoil. That’s a far cry from the image the party hoped to present after a contentious primary season and a Republican convention last week that revealed another party embroiled in internal conflict. Instead, the leaks—including emails in which DNC staffers plot to exploit Sanders’ Jewish heritage to undercut his campaign—have rekindled the resentment that fired Sanders’ many primary victories against Clinton. Now the same tool that was supposed to help propel Clinton to victory is once again dragging her down. The Clinton campaign’s superior tech savvy still promises to be an asset come election day. But the Internet’s most banal medium of all—email—has become Clinton’s greatest liability.
A Grand Old Party
As the leaked DNC emails threaten to derail the Democratic convention, they are also a gift to Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee, who are already hard at work casting Clinton as “crooked.”
In fact, just as Wasserman Schultz was announcing her resignation, a party hosted by the RNC in Philadephia was about to kick off. Banners hung around a cavernous pro-wrestling arena named the memorable moments Clinton would like the public to forget, from Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings to the more recent FBI investigation into the former Secretary of State’s use of a private email server. This weekend’s WikiLeaks scandal was just the latest bullet point.
“We’re going to make the case that we are the change,” said Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort to a crowd of reporters and volunteers. “The establishment and the people who created the problems we’re suffering today are represented by Clinton and (vice presidential running mate Tim) Kaine.”
On stage, Manafort and RNC chairman Reince Preibus gloated about the Democratic party’s misfortune. “When you rig a system and spread emails around to each other and your staff in that manner, I think this kind of outcome is inevitable,” said Preibus.
To illustrate that point, the RNC had set up a series of games, including a giant wheel of fortune. No matter how many times you spun, it always lands on Hillary. The name of the game: “Hillary Clinton’s Rigged System.”
WikiLeaks released the email dump Friday, the same day Clinton announced Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate. If the group’s intent was to wrestle attention away from Kaine, then it succeeded. The emails dominated the weekend news cycle, forcing both Clinton and Kaine to respond to the controversy in a 60 Minutes interview Sunday.
While Clinton said she “can’t speak for people who were not working” for her, Kaine, a former chair of the DNC, spoke frankly about bias in politics.
‘This election really wasn’t an election at all. It was a coronation.’
“You’re not going to find anyone at the DNC or the RNC or any political organization who is a complete agnostic and doesn’t have an opinion about a candidate,” he said. “There’s a difference between that and trying to alter the outcome.”
In an effort to wrest control of the narrative and twist it back to make Trump look bad, the Clinton campaign has started to push the idea that the leak is just that: an attempt to alter the outcome. Specifically, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook suggested Sunday that the DNC email leak was the work of the Russian government seeking to prop up one candidate over the other. “Experts are telling us Russian state actors broke into the DNC, stole these emails,” Mook told CNN. “Other experts are now saying that the Russians are releasing these emails for the purpose of actually of helping Donald Trump.”
As conspiracies go, it wouldn’t be the most far-fetched. The DNC admitted earlier this year that its servers had been hacked, and an independent analysis by the group CrowdStrike concluded the breach was carried out by Russians. Another data dump by a hacker who goes by the name Guccifer 2.0 suggested the breach was carried out by a single individual after all, but that hypothesis turned out to be spurious when researchers found Russian error messages in the Guccifer 2.0 documents that once again implicated Russian intelligence.
Looking for the Exit
Also in the mix as the day’s spin and counter-spin spiraled out on TV and online was Talking Points Memo‘s detailed anatomy of the Trump campaign’s plentiful ties to Russia and its president Vladimir Putin. Manafort, for one, once worked for former pro-Putin Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort called the intimations of collusion between Trump and Putin “desperate,” as did Wikileaks.
Clinton campaign pushing lame conspiracy smear that we are Russian agents. Last time we were Mossad. Get it right. https://t.co/WrTt175zfe
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) July 24, 2016
Just who got their hands on the emails first, however, will likely make little difference to the people marching in the streets this week and going to the polls in November. The fact is they belong to the Internet now.
“It’s pretty fucking damning,” said Parisa Vahdatinia, a 31-year-old engineer from Brooklyn, as she held a sign that read #NeverHillary.
Whether the leaks will inspire Democrats to leave the party, as Vahdatinia predicts, is still unclear. But they give Sanders himself a very strong hand in shaping the party’s future. When he takes the stage at the Democratic convention tomorrow, his former followers will be looking to him for guidance.
This time, Sanders’ people were out with their pitchforks—literally.
To be sure, polls do show that Sanders supporters have already migrated to Clinton en masse. Marchers in the streets may represent just the most committed faction of Sanders supporters, the ones most motivated by his “rigged system” message. Those are the same disenchanted voters Trump seems to believe he still has a chance of bringing into his column.
But Republicans likely can’t rest easy either. “You don’t say stupid things on email,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, who still has his job, said Sunday night. And who knows? Maybe Republicans don’t. But time was, his own party establishment wasn’t exactly happy with the rising political fortunes of a brash businessman named Donald Trump.
Whether the GOP is more careful before it hits send, email has proven remarkably adept as a medium that can affect the fortunes of the most powerful politicians. Here’s a thought: as long as the pitchfork is making a comeback, maybe it’s time to run campaigns by carrier pigeon.