Democratic frontrunner Bernie Sanders has only half-heartedly disavowed his most abusive devotees—and that will not serve any one of us well, least of all him.
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A Black female director who has spent her career on projects about racism and the civil-rights movement—a documentary about mass incarceration, a TV series about the Central Park Jogger case, a movie about the life of Martin Luther King Jr.—posts mild criticism of a presidential campaign’s tweets. A few days later, she’s posting screencaps of people threatening to send her to the guillotine.
An HIV-positive, non-binary comedian and TV makeover-show co-host whose two main jobs are being funny and doing hair, makes a joke about a presidential candidate’s messy hair. A member of that candidate’s staff fires off a “joke” tweet, saying that the comedian is “trying to look hot while … [they] die of AIDS.” When the TV co-host finds out about the tweet and reacts with pain, supporters of the candidate angrily pile on, telling the host they deserved it.
A reporter publicizes the existence of that staffer’s Twitter account, which also calls female candidates fat and ugly, speculated that candidates’ spouses might be on the way to a “psychotic break,” and, most troublingly, encourages followers to sign up for a rival campaign and sabotage it by mass-removing people from the phone-banking rolls: “Spread the word guys im not joking it could really fuck up his entire campaign if enough people do this ….u just didn’t hear it from [me].” The staffer is fired. Within hours, the reporter’s home address has been posted online and widely circulated, there are hundreds of hostile comments on the reporter’s Twitter feed, and someone has used a prank service to send over 4,000 spam texts to his phone.
This sounds like a recap of a long, contentious primary season, but it isn’t. This has all happened, courtesy of Bernie Sanders supporters, over the course of one week. Countless similar incidents have preceded it, and there are countless more to come.
The “Bernie bros”—toxic, extremely online supporters of Bernie Sanders—have been a subject of discussion since 2015. Back then, you could dismiss the subject as inside baseball. The harassers were random shit-posters, message-board dweebs, or young guys with jobs at independent progressive media sites, and their targets were often other progressive writers—disproportionately female and feminist ones, sure, but people in their own social circle—so the whole thing looked like horizontal aggression. Moreover, no one ascribed power to the Bros in 2016: They were the fringe supporters of a long-shot candidate, suffering a decisive early loss to Hillary Clinton. The harassment looked like sour grapes.
Yet the question has become more urgent as Sanders begins to achieve real power. All of the incidents described above happened after Sanders won Nevada and consolidated a decisive lead in the Democratic primary. This isn’t people lashing out over a bitter loss; it’s how they behave when they’re winning. The toxicity of Sanders’s campaign has become the potential toxicity of his administration: Should any politician, no matter how progressive, be held above accountability to the point that his staff can actively encourage followers to engage in illegal or unethical activity? Should the press ever have to live in fear of publishing unflattering facts? Medicare for All is a worthy goal, but is it a goal we want to achieve by mocking one HIV-positive person relentlessly, for months or years, about how funny it would be if they died of AIDS?
The answer so far is that yes, so far, this is exactly what Sanders supporters want. They operate in a dynamic wherein cruelty is inseparable from the exercise of power, and where not just Republican enemies, but insufficiently enthusiastic Democrats—including people who are already marginalized and disproportionately subject to abuse—must be cowed into submission. The question is why.
I’ve been receiving Sanders-related pile-ons for about five years. I praised a Rebecca Traister piece about Bernie bros, which earned me a Twitter pile-on, which got me mad enough to write a Tumblr post about the pile-on, which went mildly viral, and ever since then, I’ve been a core figure in Bernie Twitter’s complex cosmology of Neoliberal Shills and Wine Moms. I occupy roughly the same spot in the average Chapo Trap House fan’s imagination as Mr. Freeze does in Batman—not the Joker (that would be Hillary Clinton), not even one of the villains who gets her own spin-off, but a reliable adversary.
So, no, I am not neutral; my understanding of the movement is informed by spending half a decade subject to its worst excesses. Yet it is very hard to understand the impact of this phenomenon unless you’ve been on the receiving end. The pile-ons aren’t constant; sometimes, they’ll leave me alone for months, sometimes they’ll happen once or twice a week. I can never be sure what will trigger them. Direct criticism of Bernie Sanders can bring it on, but I’ve also experienced volcanic outpourings over innocuous statements: saying that I found the musician Father John Misty obnoxious led to public calls for my death. Saying that I’d read a waitress’s tarot cards in an airport bar led to dozens of nasty comments and mocking jokes—not the worst thing, sure, but when I mentioned that I was in the airport because I was coming back from my grandmother’s funeral, they got worse.
Dogpile leaders often insist that you can’t call what they do abuse, because there’s no intimate relationship. But, though this relationship isn’t romantic or familial, it’s intimate in the extreme—people pore over every social-media feed I have, contact me through every available channel, discuss my body, my relationships, my family. Some seemingly have alerts set up, so they can respond to anything I say within seconds—and though I don’t want that intimacy, I can’t make it stop. The inevitable product is fear. Fear of death when threatened with death; fear of rape when threatened with rape; but also (yes, Virginia) the fear I remember from growing up with an abusive parent: the constant, lingering stress and anxiety that comes from having to spend every day wondering when you’ll set off your abuser. It’s nerve-wracking to spend every moment of your public existence worried that you’ll trigger someone’s out-of-control rage, and exhausting to realize that, no matter what you do, the other party will inevitably find a reason to lash out.
As with any abusive dynamic, fear can give way to despair. The overt death threats and doxing scare me, but the incidents that leave scars are more insidious. For Sanders supporters to mock a depressive episode that landed me in a hospital bed, as they did for many years, or for them to make a meme out of my father abusing his children, when my father threatened to kill me many times over, is to send the message, not that they will kill me, but that my death would be a good thing. That my life has no worth, and as long as they’re in it, I should not expect it to contain anything but suffering. My ability to function depends on not internalizing that message. There are days when that task gets harder, and the future looks very dark.
I don’t like to talk about those days, because when people are invested in making you suffer, why give them the pleasure? But it feels important to stress that human cost, when talking about a phenomenon people often dismiss as “mean tweets.” A mean tweet is an isolated occurrence. A mob that follows you everywhere, for years on end, looking to inflict maximum damage, is not mean. It’s violent. Political violence should be viewed with an eye toward its ends.
Bernie bro–like mobs are a common internet phenomenon. The toxicity surrounding his candidacy fits exactly the typical patterns of mob harassment as described by Anil Dash: “Once a web community has decided to dislike a person, topic, or idea, the conversation will shift from criticizing the idea to become a competition about who can be most scathing in their condemnation …. The tactic here is for the community to use any publicly-accessible information about the person as ammunition for attacking them, and to delegate the worst attacks to the most anonymous members of the community … Achieving hypervisibility for the target catalyzes the worst abuses.” Or, to quote a more succinct description by Margaret Pless: “A target gets dragged into the public eye, more people begin to abuse them, and that abuse escalates as individual trolls try to one-up each other. In the eyes of the mob, the target’s life is a game, and the object is to screw it up as much as possible.”
We’re used to seeing this violence from the right: the mobs of TERFs that dox trans women and inundate them with dysphoria-triggering verbal abuse, the message boards that work to push mentally ill or queer people into silence or suicide, the various -Gates that exist to push women out of video games or comics or tech. It’s easier for progressives to name and resist those abuses, because we can see their end goal: asserting white, cis-male dominance, and pushing marginalized people out of the public sphere.
Sanders feels like a more complex phenomenon, because his goals are good ones: He wants free healthcare, he wants free college, he wants (a year after Elizabeth Warren proposed it) free childcare. It’s reasonable to want those things, and to want them passionately. It’s also, supposedly, unfair to attribute the extremes of toxicity around Sanders to the candidate himself—even though the power of his social-media following is something he openly touts on occasion, and even though some of the people involved, like David Sirota, Briahna Joy Gray, or Ben Mora (the subject of Bixby’s article) were offered jobs on his campaign.
Dash says that leaders of harassment mobs downplay their responsibility with four predictable talking points: “Our community has no leaders, everyone just participates”; “I can’t be responsible for what my followers do”; “How do we know that the attacks didn’t really come from the other side?”; “What about this person in our community who was also attacked?”
In his answer to the question of Bernie bros, Sanders said that he “disowned” the “few people who make ugly remarks.” But in the rest of his answer, he managed to hit nearly every one of those talking points: “We have over 10.6 million people on Twitter, and 99.9 percent of them are decent working people.” (I can’t be responsible.) “Talk to some of the African-American women on my campaign, talk to [former Ohio State] Senator Nina Turner, talk to others and find the vicious, racist, sexist attacks that are coming their way as well.” (What about this person in our community?) “All of us remember 2016, and what we remember is efforts by Russians and others to try to interfere in our elections and divide us up. I’m not saying that’s happening, but it would not shock me.” (How do we know the attacks didn’t really come from the other side?)
Sanders cannot “disown” the abuse if he’s also busy making every possible excuse for it. If he has failed to rein it in, it’s because it serves him. If it is impossible to criticize Sanders without having your life ruined, people won’t criticize him. If it is impossible to express enthusiastic support for another candidate, people won’t support them. If it is impossible for the press to hold Sanders or his staff to account without individual journalists being subjected to terrifying reprisals, then the press cannot hold Sanders to account, and he can control both the seats of power and what people are allowed to say about their own government.
Perfect, superhuman leaders do not exist in life. They exist in propaganda, and what toxic Sanders supporters seem most vehemently interested in is not hurting individual people, but creating a state of play in which only propaganda about Sanders can be spoken without reprisal. By doing so, they’re creating the conditions for a president who acts without accountability, a president who gets to create his own truth and use his passionate following to terrorize anyone who contradicts him—a president very much like the one we have now.
Whether any powerful man should operate 100 percent free of opposition or criticism is not a question that seems to have occurred. The goal is obtaining power. Whether that power will still serve them when Sanders is in the Oval Office is just one more question we aren’t allowed to raise. The history of the Sanders movement is still being written. The history of the world shows us that when people make it dangerous to question their leaders, they are creating the conditions for their own destruction.
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