The job of a Democratic operative must be great. It’s the easiest of money. You get paid from a bottomless pit of megadonor cash to recycle the same garbage every four years. The idea of misogynist “Bernie Bros” was workshopped by the Clinton campaign in the 2008 primary—they were called “Obama Boys” back then—and rolled out in earnest in 2016. But since the last election, Sanders’ has gained the endorsement of prominent young women of color in Congress while diversifying both his base and his campaign staff. For a moment at least, it seemed that the myth of the “Bernie Bro” was all but dead.
With the Iowa Caucus fast approaching and Sanders pulling ahead of his rivals in early states, the “Bernie Bro” smear is coming out of retirement. Earlier this month, NBC published an op-ed by former Breitbart spokesman Kurt Bardella, who had a road-to-Damascus moment in 2016 and became a Democrat. In the piece, titled “Trump’s MAGA supporters and Twitter Bernie Bros have this ugly tactic in common,” Bardella wrote:
The attacks against Warren come from the same corners of social media that disparage Democrats (like myself) as being “puppets,” “centrist,” “anti-Semitic, and “ageist” for having the audacity to question or scrutinize their chosen leader. People of color and women who dare to disagree with Sanders’ political assertions have often borne the brunt of this abuse.
Strong words in defense of people of color coming from a guy who used to work for a far-right website that featured a “black crime” vertical.
An interview with Hillary Clinton released shortly thereafter also helped to revive the smear. She told interviewers:
[I]t’s the culture around him. It’s his leadership team. It’s his prominent supporters. It’s his online Bernie Bros and their relentless attacks on lots of his competitors, particularly the women. And I really hope people are paying attention to that because it should be worrisome that he has permitted this culture — not only permitted, [he] seems to really be very much supporting it.
More often than not, the examples cited of the Sanders’ campaign “supporting” this “culture” are instances of his staff operating well within the norms of political behavior in a highly competitive primary race.
Sanders comms director Briahna Joy Gray was accused of encouraging the “doxxing” of “The Hoarse Whisperer,” a liberal Twitter account with 230,000 followers, after MSNBC showed one of his tweets on air. Gray tweeted: “I’m sure [Brian Williams] doesn’t know who HW is, or he wouldnt have credited this account. Can we help him out?”
As it should be clear from the context, Gray was calling on Sanders supporters to show MSNBC “receipts” of Hoarse Whisperer’s trollish behavior so that they might see what kind of toxic person he is before promoting him to their audience.
When leftwing TV writer and podcast host Jack Allison leaked out part of his resume with the name redacted, it was called “doxxing” even though no other identifying details were released.
Because of the pseudonymous nature of social media, it’s not hard to find accounts that support Bernie Sanders posting problematic things and then use them as proof that “Bernie Bros” are real. These are then paired with specious examples of the Sanders’ campaign “encouraging” a “toxic culture.”
The irony is that there is a widespread belief in Russian troll farms that have an all-powerful hold on American discourse, yet it’s never assumed that “Bernie Bro” accounts might be Russian bots. Twitter accounts with fewer than 100 followers are held up as evidence that the core of Sanders’ base are toxic, violent misogynist harassers.
All the identifying account details are removed, but one can easily search a unique phrase in the text— “unhappy hildos”—and it brings you to the account of someone who is clearly experiencing some kind of psychosis.
It would be one thing if it were just random Twitter accounts pushing the “Bernie Bro” narrative, but mainstream news outlets are going out of their way to validate it.
This week, the New York Times published an article titled “Bernie Sanders and his Internet Army.” The subtitle— “At the start of his 2020 bid, the Vermont senator told his supporters that he condemned bullying. Is it his problem if many don’t seem to listen?”—implies Sanders’ indifference to the “Bernie Bros” at best and a winking tacit endorsement, at worst.
In the piece, America’s “paper of record” gives us all the unsubstantiated Twitter gossip that’s unfit to print. For sources, it relies on some of the site’s worst actors, who have dished out their fair share of harassment themselves.
The Times offers an absurd, demonizing portrayal of Sanders’ supporters filled with unfalsifiable allegations framed in weasely terms— “they often,” “they will”—that insinuate these actions are routine:
When Mr. Sanders’s supporters swarm someone online, they often find multiple access points to that person’s life, compiling what can amount to investigative dossiers. They will attack all public social media accounts, posting personal insults that might flow in by the hundreds. Some of the missives are direct threats of violence, which can be reported to Twitter or Facebook and taken down.
The specific examples that are used to support this narrative are even more suspect, given that they come from people like Candice Aiston, a notoriously toxic troll who has been suspended from Twitter on multiple occasions. A sampling of Aiston’s greatest hits: “get Bernie’s dick out of your eye” “99/100 women reported Bernie Sanders supporters made them lose interest in sex,” etc.
She also once cynically used a rape to score political points, gleefully reporting that the perpetrator supported Sanders. She only removed the post after the victim asked her.
Of course, getting nasty online is all in the game, but the New York Times shouldn’t make her out to be an innocent victim. The story mentions that her law firm got a bad Google review, providing anecdotal support for its statement “they often find multiple access points to that person’s life.” The remaining clause of that sentence— “compiling what can amount to investigative dossiers”—might refer to Hoarse Whisperer’s “doxxing.”
Turns out you can manufacture a story out of petty Twitter drama pretty easily. Did you know the New York Times won 127 Pulitzers? Seymour Hersh used to work there.
Anyways. What about the death threats?
Sady Doyle, another person known to get into bitter fights with Bernie supporters, told the Times that someone once sent her a message in 2016 that said “If you ever have a child, I’m going to dash it on the walls of Troy.”
On Twitter, she even provided screenshots of the message but she doesn’t show any sort of tie with Sanders or his supporters.
While it’s clear that a threat was sent, it could have been sent by anyone, including the far-right which has been known to harass and threaten women who write about feminism.
Incredibly, she attempts to connect the death threat to Washington Post op-ed writer Liz Bruenig, claiming that Bruenig followed this account. She baselessly speculates that Bruenig might have sent it herself because of her “predilection … for wedging classical references into mundane statements”
The only “evidence” she gives is screencaps of some unhinged person interrogating Bruenig about following the account that sent the threat. This actually seems more damning of Doyle than Bruenig. Doyle made a libelous claim that Bruenig was guilty of terroristic threat and bad literary allusions, which incited a third person to harass her.
Online harassment, sexism, doxxing, racism—these are all real problems. But it fundamentally hamstrings any effort to actually address these issues to constantly weaponize them in bad faith against your political opponents. The greatest example in recent memory was the callous appropriation of #MeToo in the context of the spat between Sanders and Warren earlier this month.
We can bemoan the decline of “civility” in the digital age all we want, but there has to be a recognition of the basic nature of the beast. A bunch of people dogpiling you when you make a bad take on Twitter isn’t “violence.” And a campaign staffer quote-tweeting your bad take isn’t “inciting harassment” against you.
There are awful people who support every candidate, and online communication provokes a lizard-brained response in the best of us sometimes. But a candidate shouldn’t be judged by the worst of their supporters. Nor should the will of millions of people of all colors, genders, sexualities, religions, etc. be erased and invalidated because you don’t personally like their preferred candidate’s politics.
The return of the “Bernie Bro” is a sign of desperation, really. Sanders is winning, and they hate it. It’s that simple. Clinton paid more than a million dollars to have people post for her in the last election. “Bernie Bros” do it for free, so this obvious positive has to be spun as a liability.
With these transparent ploys, the highly paid consultants—the David Brocks and the Neera Tandens—just reveal their sneering contempt for the American public. They think we’re stupid enough to fall for it.
But we eschew the lies we hear with their ears for the truth we see with our eyes. We see the myth of the toxic “Bernie Bro” proven false every day when we look around at the diverse coalition of kind, sincere people working alongside us. We see the falsehood of Bernie the finger-wagging mansplaining misogynist crumble when we look at his record and his daily actions.
We don’t listen when they say that down is up. We look with our own eyes, and we see a candidate fighting for us. We see someone who represents the things we believe in.