The boys are back in town.
Bernie Bros — the shit-flinging, dick-tugging, coarse-bearded goblins of some unnameable hell spout — didn’t go away after they sabotaged Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. They spent the years since in a state of accelerated devolution, turning more base and vulgar and vile, screaming on podcasts and sharpening their yellow fingernails for the orgy of abuse to come. Their beady eyes glittered with malice as they beheld the slate of Democratic candidates, each a future tribute on the blood-stained altar of their Maoist demigod. The talking heads of cable news would be thrown into the gulags, and billionaires publicly executed. In dreams, they could almost feel the edge of the guillotine’s blade: sharp, yet not sharp enough to grant their victims an easy death.
The Bernie Bros are dangerous. The rabid, seething, absolutist young white men who support Bernie Sanders for president are deluded freaks with no grasp on political reality, let alone American values. They’re a critical difficulty for his 2020 campaign — online harassers with racist and misogynist views. A toxic army, the mirror image of Donald Trump’s red-hat militia. They could cost Democrats the election in November.
So you’ve heard, and so you may trust. But anyone who experienced the 2016 election through the faulty prism of the internet should know that social media trends are just a piece of the puzzle, and can be a deceptive one at that.
Almost a year ago, we learned that Bernie’s support this time around includes a strong core of women and non-white voters. Women under 45 make up a larger share of his base than men in the same age bracket. Sanders won endorsements from Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib — three out of four members of “The Squad,” progressive women of color under 50 elected to Congress in 2018 — after defending them from critics that included prominent Democrats. He is gaining ground with black voters, dominated in the Nevada caucuses thanks to Latinx outreach and unionized workers, and has built a staff with women and people of color in key positions. White men, meanwhile, are overwhelmingly more likely to say that they’re financially better off due to Trump.
The gulf between these two narratives is widening, thanks not only to anti-Bernie liberals aghast at his popularity but also conservative commentators — as well as Trump — who delight in the squabbling among his opposition. As Bernie’s outspoken advocates gain confidence in his path to a nomination, the effort to halt his rise has resembled a proxy war instead of a direct coup; the media and the internet are often less focused on the man than the virtual crusade waged by Bernie Bros in his name.
His team trumpeting an endorsement from Joe Rogan — a podcast meathead and transphobe — didn’t help, a chaotic move at best. Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg have all hit him for supposedly fostering a den of cyberbullies. This week, the campaign was compelled to fire a regional field director in Michigan over a private Twitter account where he insulted other candidates, their families and their surrogates with edgy shitposts that included cruel commentary on sexuality and physical appearance. Scott Bixby, the Daily Beast reporter who uncovered his activities, soon found himself inundated with spam texts, presumably an act of revenge from Bernie zealots. Some saw it as an eye for an eye — that Bixby was doxed for doxing one of them.
The field director’s exposure added fuel to the already raging Bernie Bro fire, along with new complicating factors — the ex-staffer is a gay Latinx man, but he tweeted remarks judged to be homophobic; his friends insisted that none of it was especially bad, and that the contents of a private social media account are categorically different than public statements. Bernie Bros are typically charged with harassment, but in this case, the ostensible targets had no inkling, so was he even harassing anyone? Besides, they argued, in real life he’s a good guy and a great organizer, an asset to the movement. He shouldn’t be tossed aside for a bunch of tasteless, sometimes vicious jokes.
A lot of that defense is too naïve. Secrets come out, especially the embarrassing, poorly kept ones, and they’ll always be fair game. Bernie, who repeatedly disowns the supporters posting this kind of crap, had no choice but to make an example here. Meanwhile, his followers will try to resurface equally nasty content from his detractors, to show that we’re all rolling around in the same mud. But as we submit to this wearying escalation, we may want to question its relevance. When Bernie folks say that the axed campaign employee is a sweetheart in person, counter to his noxious web persona, they are (intentionally or not) presenting the case for separating these identities. That however barbaric they are online, they’re building a kind, wholesome, compassionate network on the ground — one that’s far less clued into the combat playing out over Wi-Fi.
It seems obvious when Bernie wins, for example, the approval of casino employees up and down the Las Vegas Strip, that this outcome exists in a universe apart from Twitter trends and feuds. No Warren, Bloomberg or Buttigieg backer would tell us that it’s a bunch of hotel maids abusing them on the timeline, because it’s not. What you see in 2020 is moderate Democrats striving to diagnose non-white, non-male, non-hetero enthusiasm for Bernie as a pure function of problematic cis straight white masculinity — as in 2016, when Gloria Steinem suggested that women were flocking to Sanders “for the boys.”
You can always blame the boys.
As it turns out, I’m one of them. I participate in Twitter beatdowns. The judgment circles wherein a single unfortunate is told, by perhaps thousands of people, and in many hilarious, creative ways, to eat a bowl of shit. A ritual shaming is the internet’s bread and butter, nothing groundbreaking. But there’s the rub. It’s the ritual — the roteness — that’s hazardous. You can roast a dozen assholes by noon and forget you even did so before dinner, and why. Like the vast majority of social media, it’s a fast, dirty thrill, and you’re shortly sniffing out the next. I can’t quit clowning on grifters and suits.
That’s not Bernie’s fault; it’s my fault when I can’t resist going in on a conservative op-ed writer, or a Democratic candidate hewing to the corporate line. I don’t consider myself part of a mob, but a tide that washes over awful takes masquerading as insight or conventional wisdom. It’s a populist principle: Instead of letting someone declare themselves the final arbiter and expert, you join with the masses to show this mouthpiece of the status quo or the reactionary right how many disagree with them. It’s an unsolicited reality check.
Again, this isn’t a Bernie-specific activity, but I’m sure my negative replies to tweets and headlines that overwrite his success, or sneer at policies like Medicare for All and the cancellation of student debt, is what got me added to a group DM for men who love Bernie. Currently at 67 members, the chat is a barrage of polling data, election updates, memes and feverish speculation. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, the atmosphere is jubilation or dread. But the focus is on positivity, and excessive worrying is met with encouragement to carry on. The lads are a diverse bunch, if mostly younger than myself (I turn 35 next month), which is one reason they routinely call themselves “Bernie Boys.” Of course, this is also a way to skirt the “Bernie Bro” label — the substitution of “boy” isn’t just an indicator of youthful exuberance but an assertion of healthy, thoughtful, vulnerable masculinity that challenges the conventional “bro” vibe. The same forward spirit is present in a common, counter-ironic refrain: “dudes rock.”
What happens when you get a lot of leftist dudes in a room together is something beyond their common ideology. The boys ask each other for advice on fashion, dating, work and fitness. Straight or queer, they compliment each others’ selfies — everyone is a “handsome king.” They discuss books, best practices for phonebanking and whether you really need a bed frame. If someone is having a bad day, the rest of the boys lift him up, talking honestly about their own struggles. It’s a channel for “staying informed, getting involved and supporting one another emotionally,” as one member puts it to me.
In both the chat and the public sphere, the guys eagerly “simp” for Bernie and fellow socialists. The horniness is free and unabashed; it’s part of the fun, amplifying the hashtag #HotGirlsForBernie and contributing #HotBoysForBernie. They share receipts for Bernie donations, encouraging more. Some will joke, especially when a new dude joins, that the DM is for “targeted harassment,” but in practice, no such mobilization occurs. A bad tweet shared in private group will elicit some lols and mockery, and perhaps a couple of replies to that effect on the actual timeline. But even when royally pissed off by the media, the DNC or a centrist candidate, the boys are far more likely to blow off steam in the chat than turn abusive on the outside. It was amusing to see, when Warren had a big debate night destroying Bloomberg in Nevada, how the Bernie loyalists rallied to applaud her performance — and shred the pundits who disliked it.
“It’s felt great to have a supportive community to talk about serious political issues with when the stakes are this high,” says a 22-year-old union staffer in Sacramento. “There’s a really wide range of people in the chat of different ages, life experiences and orientations, and having this comradely atmosphere feels like one constant hangout to vent and provide support when some ratfuckery goes down or some big win comes through. It’s not just online, either. We organized some of the people [to canvass for Bernie in Las Vegas] through the chat, which meant more doors knocked on and more voters brought out. None of that would have happened without having set this up.”
That utopian outcome sounds familiar. It’s what the internet promised us a lifetime ago: the opportunity to connect, develop and thrive. To discover an alignment with people we otherwise wouldn’t know were there, or how to reach. It’s a fruition despite the odds. Bernie speaks of a “revolution,” and in a bizarre congruence, it’s a revolution that Silicon Valley used to dream of but currently fears. A kind of disruption they romanticize and suppress in equal measure. It’s comical: Bernie is beloved by their workforce, too.
* * * * *
Originally, the Bernie Bro was a “Berniebro” — one word. He assumed consciousness in the fall of 2015, when Robinson Meyer, a staff writer for The Atlantic, published a portrait in words titled “Here Comes the Berniebro.” It takes the form of 30 generalizations, each beginning with the phrase “The Berniebro … ,” which gives it a sinister, incantatory aspect, as though Meyer is summoning this character from a dark abyss. He describes a white, privileged and extremely online man who is prone to stridency, though he wavers a bit as to how that affect scans on the web. At one point, the Berniebro is embarrassingly grandiose, like he’s “declaiming in the Roman forum.” Elsewhere, he “writes with an urgent, anxious seriousness when discussing national politics” — an appropriate register, one might allow. (In my 2020 Bernie Boys chat, there is a dire current, the unison of necessity: It’s do or die, and to hell with the rest.)
All told, Meyer’s piece is lighthearted, an artifact of the era when internet writers sought to taxonomize many different species of bro, and a gentle nudge for white guys who, if they slightly modulated their approach, could better sway others to their perspective. (MEL’s Alana Levinson wrote memorably of the “cuckboi,” a man-child with nice politics but an incommensurate lifestyle.) Most importantly, though, Meyer’s Berniebro wasn’t long for this world: He’d only be with us “until Sanders drops out of the race.” Few expected the campaign to endure; it was emblematic, not pragmatic.
Only four months later, in February 2016, Meyer would pen the closest thing he ever wrote to a mea culpa: “It’s Not Just Berniebros.” The piece marvels in horror at the “semantic drift” of the term, with Meyer its helpless Dr. Frankenstein. What had been intended as a good-natured corrective to progressive men with his sort of background had mutated into an epithet, the subject of brooding thinkpieces and messy flame wars. Among the most harmful misreadings he identified was the conclusion that Bernie Bros operate from a baseline of sexism, their hatred for women the primary fuel for posts that savaged Hillary and her surrogates. No matter: That horse had left the barn, and the crisis of misogynistic online harassment was forever tied to the question of how Bernie’s camp spreads their message, or tears down their enemies.
In the initial coinage, Meyer was careful not to spread his net too wide: “The Berniebro is not every Bernie Sanders supporter,” he wrote, a line he’d be compelled to repeat later on, defensively. Yet the fact remained that he’d called out men, and men alone. “Sanders’s support skews young, but not particularly male,” the first article stated. “The Berniebro is male, though. Very male.” From this, one may extrapolate flawed masculinity as a root cause.
Then, as now, the pseudo-insult “bro” was a crux of disagreement: Liberals waving off “Bernie Bros” as a bunch of hectoring, entitled dudes led working-class, non-white and non-male Bernie backers to feel erased, or that their efforts to get him elected didn’t count. That they had no voice or agency. The impulse to gather these folks, too, under the “Bernie Bro” banner leads to linguistic debates that are painfully awkward at best. Last month, writer Erica C. Barnett drew fierce criticism for applying the term to a trans woman, arguing that it “refers to assholes who support Bernie of ALL genders.”
That’s completely at odds with Meyer’s definition, of course, yet it tells you that the #NeverBernie crowd currently sense an assault from every angle, and that the anti-feminism and vitriol they identified in 2016 have metastasized beyond any single demographic. The incident was likewise illuminating as to tactics: Meyer wrote up Bernie Bros as long-winded Facebook promoters and polemicists, whereas in 2020 the Bernie contingent is associated with Twitter swarms that coalesce to ridicule and dog-pile any opinion they consider to be in bad faith, or simply asinine.
Even so, the old Facebook network endures — assisted by an algorithm that rewards and highlights the nastier memes attacking Bernie’s opponents — and some people continue to use the platform the way they did four years ago. Among them is Eric Maier, a musician, organizer, activist and old college pal who grew up in Vermont and lives in Burlington. Maier’s thoughts are rarely tweet-sized, so Facebook suits him better; you can count on at least one unapologetic Bernie post a day, if not more. His most recent (as of this writing) takes Elizabeth Warren to task for bashing Sanders while struggling thus far in the primaries. “The only thing her movement does better than Bernie’s is being led by a woman,” he wrote. “Which is better. But clearly isn’t going to be enough.”
On paper, Maier could seem the model of a Bernie Bro — he has no qualms in being known as such, and he’s a white cis man in his early 30s (our alma mater is a profoundly white, elite institution). Yet Maier isn’t spending his time on Twitter, scoring burns on pundits and wonks. He is less into shouting others down than inviting spirited exchange, as the comments on his Facebook page reveal. He has his convictions, and he’s ready to fight for them at the drop of a hat. Moreover, he identifies as queer, and as a born Vermonter, he’s been conscious of Bernie his entire political life, which tests the assumption that his enthusiasm derives either from noxious heteronormativity or bandwagoning motives. In fact, it’s almost inherited, rather than insurgent.
“Bernie was always loved,” Maier tells me. “My folks, their friends, growing up in centrist white liberal Vermont, everyone liked Bernie — he’s a genuine guy who was working hard. That was my first impression. Then, in college, I was proud to have one of the only real politicians. He honeymooned in the Soviet Union, sent letters to Latin American leaders as mayor [of Burlington]. I’m super proud of the radical stuff.”
Maier’s home state, he explains, doesn’t automatically favor a democratic socialist like Bernie: “The demographics of Vermont are a little unexpected for people who aren’t from here. It’s a state where there is a Republican governor now, I had a Republican governor as a kid and we had shitty Howard Dean for a while. Half of the state is salt-of-the-earth Republicans. They’re not homophobes, they’re saying the right shit. Classic Republicans — fifth-generation farmers, carpenters, mechanics. It’s not just hippies and Patagonia liberals, by any means.”
Nevertheless, respect for Bernie was practically universal. “It’s the way he relates to people,” Maier says. “You could tell he was a weird, regular dude, showing up, rather than a fake politician. People in these communities, there are no big cities — they value authenticity. Vermont perspective is funny. It’s not hero worship, it’s just, ‘Yeah, Bernie, he’s great.’ There’s not even a million people in this state. He’s had a conversation with someone one degree away from you. None of this would be possible if he weren’t from such a small state.” More than once, Maier has seen Bernie grocery shopping, a rite of passage for locals.
As for his own role in the Bernie movement, Maier acknowledges “shitposting” but says the best people involved put boots on the ground. He canvassed in New Hampshire in 2016, and again this year. “There’s five to 10 times more actual enthusiasm and engagement,” he says. “I was open to Warren; I was frustrated that it was a white straight dude again. But when it came time, it was like, It’s Bernie.”
On the digital side, the work is more ideological: “Maybe it’s lofty, but I do feel some of my purpose is to reframe things. I don’t think I’m changing someone’s mind if they’re a neoliberal, but I can make it a little less maddening for someone on the fence between liberalism and leftism. There’s such toxic and twisted ideologies that we’re taught, and it takes work to undo the attitude of, ‘They say this, and it seems like it might be true.’ I kinda do take the shitposting seriously. Obviously there are some horrible loser white dudes picking fights, working out their dad issues. Others are writing thoughtful stuff, and only respect the opinions of people who organize. I got deep enough to figure out who I trusted.”
He estimates that “one out of five” Bernie Bros are “lame pieces of shit,” while those he likes “are pretty realistic. They might go dark for three weeks and say, ‘Sorry if I went negative or didn’t show up, I gave up hope.’ They think about suffering and the full extent of the trouble we’re in. A liberal is someone who thinks it’s gonna be okay,” he says, whereas “there’s a dark realism to the Bernie movement, realism that stops just short of cynicism. But sometimes people delve into it, and then we’re here for each other. It’s not this blind faith so much as ‘Might as well try to do something.’”
That philosophy, and its risks, are partly summed up by Maier’s criminal history: In December 2018, a month after his popular band Madaila played their farewell show, he was arrested and charged with two counts of unlawful mischief for twice defacing a Burlington mural called “Everyone Loves a Parade!” The public artwork, as the Vermont alt-weekly Seven Days describes it, “features Canadian artist Pierre Hardy’s renditions of historical and present-day Vermonters parading through the streets of the Queen City.” Critics, Maier included, say it whitewashes history, denying the trauma of the region’s indigenous people. So he spray-painted the word “COLONIZERS” across it, and when that was scrubbed away, he returned to melt the faces of the famous white Vermonters with paint-stripper.
A surprisingly robust police investigation caught him, but he avoided court and went through a restorative justice panel, which he’s credited for his subsequent interest in “more constructive ways of inspiring conversations around race, inequality and politics.” He regrets the vandalism, despite his urge to speak out against the American legacies of genocide and slavery. “It wasn’t supposed to be about me,” he says. “I do think drastic action is necessary, and you can make statements, but I ended up bringing other people into it, like my family. I was in a reckless time of life. I fucked up my whole life in seven different ways — I’m still recovering from that.”
Still, the fire isn’t gone. “I did have a few people in my life who moved away from Burlington for being black, one the victim of racial harassment, others for microaggressions. You think, ‘Wow, I’ve had these friends who move away from these places they could love because of white supremacy.’” This awareness is evidently the core of Maier’s belief in a platform like Bernie’s, and his distaste for passivity. There’s something absurdly metaphorical in a diehard Bernie supporter defacing an homage to whiteness called “Everyone Loves a Parade!” — an impolite act of anti-imperialist dissent wherein the message is confused by the method, and potential allies are alienated.
Who, besides a Bernie Bro, is so prepared to rain on someone’s parade?
* * * * *
It doesn’t take a great leap of understanding to know that people who claim to be targeted and harassed by Bernie Bros are wary of further exposure. One staffer for a rival campaign, I noticed, hasn’t tweeted in regards to Bernie — at all — since 2016. Of the approximately 30 people and organizations I tried to contact because I thought (or they had said) that Bernie supporters had mobbed them in some way, almost none replied. I messaged accounts for small and large grassroots teams, campaign accounts for other Democrats in the race, political writers and #Resistance personalities. I tweeted at random individuals who were tweeting that Bernie Bros had turned them off the candidate, or continually abused them for their views.
Finally, after a few weeks of striking out, someone wanted to talk.
Lauren Hough, an author based in Austin, Texas, is probably less amused and more familiar with the hyper-aggressive Bernie hive blitz. Though it’s not as if she’s a stranger to rough waters, or socio-political extremes. You may recall her viral 2018 essay for HuffPo, “I Was a Cable Guy. I Saw the Worst of America.” She’s also written about being raised within the Family, a notorious religious cult. I messaged her as she was on her way out the door to vote early in the Texas primary — for Elizabeth Warren.
“I know we throw the word ‘cult’ around,” Hough begins. “And having grown up in one, I don’t like using the word. But I swear to Christ, arguing with bros online reminds me of arguing with cult members. It’s not just their absolute certainty of belief, or the inability to even accept [Bernie] might be flawed. When they do swarm, they tend to use the same language, like it’s scripted from headquarters. I assume it’s not. I think they’re just copying each other, which doesn’t make the analogy any less apt. One week, you’re an anti-Semite. Then you’re a Biden hack. The next, you’re a snake. This week, I’m taking money from Bloomberg.”
Hough is annoyed at the Bernie crowd’s refusal to see anyone else as suitably informed. And it’s not a gendered complaint. This past weekend, she tweeted, “I’ll vote for Bernie if he’s the candidate. I will also still think he and most of his supporters are fucking assholes.” What’s galling, she tells me, is that they “can’t seem to imagine that someone might’ve looked at the candidates, weighed the options and chosen someone other than Bernie. Which says more about them than they’d like to admit.”
Hough has a theory of how it all works. There are, for one thing, Bernie supporters “who seem to hunt people to fight with,” she says. “They smell blood, and three days later, I’m tweeting about Dolly Parton, and my mentions are still ‘WHY DO YOU HATE JEWISH PEOPLE, LAUREN?’” These free-roaming soldiers interact with, and can be mobilized by, prominent “shit-stirrer” accounts, as she puts it. They’re the Bernie boosters with a significant platform, and an acid quote-tweet from one of them can encourage smaller fish to mass against the person or media outlet they’ve criticized. For hours, they can like and retweet the best dunks rolling in, extending the spectacle while rewarding lesser-known accounts. “They’ve earned their medals today,” Hough says. “They mattered. The tribe is stronger. Which is what it feels like to be in a cult — unless you were me, and the true-believers scared the shit out of you.”
Even then, Hough sees in order of magnitudes. One Bernie squad gangs up on you for laughs, but another will go for the figurative kill. “It’s usually the cut-paste swarms,” she says, folks who don’t bother to personalize their insults or hardline rhetoric. That is, a lot of Bernie Bro “anger” at those not on their team is low-effort shitposting, idle amusement and trash talk rather than an overture to sincere dialogue. They spit in your general direction and move on, figuring there’s no hope in trying to persuade you. That’s the kind of response I’ve gotten for, say, a post encouraging a Warren-Bernie cease-fire.
Far worse is when they decide, by some murky calculus, that a long-term siege is appropriate. Hough encountered this for defending Kamala Harris and, bizarrely, for an innocuous, offhand remark about the senator from California. “Literally the worst I’ve gotten was from a half-assed joke tweet: ‘Kamala is a Top,’” she says. “It was three days of dudes misgendering me, calling me fat and ugly. Someone doxxed a Lauren Hough in North Carolina, and some asshole accused me of fucking my dog.”
These escalations are unpredictable, but Hough thinks “it mostly depends on which massive hub account sics their people on you.” Some cliques, she says, “don’t stop until you go private. Then you’re a coward. High-fives all around. The bitch is dead.”
Like many who have run afoul of Bernie Bros, Hough has no beef with the man himself. “He’d probably be a great president,” she says. “But I worry about his chances. There are a whole lot of people who, when you ask them about specific socialist policy, Medicare for All, for example — they love it. Ask them if they’d vote for a socialist, and they hear ‘communist’ and see a 1980s montage of bread lines in front of flat gray buildings while the secret police haul their husband away for speaking against the Party.”
Under a theoretical Sanders administration, she notes, Bernie Bros would be in for new disappointments, “a lot of compromises they’re still convinced only the others make, and it’ll feel like betrayal. But they probably won’t admit it happened any more than the MAGAs can admit they were lied to about who would pay for the wall.”
In a fitting complication, Hough has also vouched for the right to rudeness that Bernie folks freely exercise and enjoy. “Expressing my opinion that a whole lot of one asshole’s supporters are assholes is not abuse,” she’s tweeted. “Please google ‘abuse.’”
* * * * *
So reads the headline for a recent Guardian column by Porochista Khakpour, a novelist and essayist whose forthcoming collection, The Brown Album, charts “immigrant and Iranian-American life in our contemporary moment.” In her piece on this year’s election, Khakpour relates her enduring dream of a woman president, one she’d hoped Hillary would make a reality.
During that primary campaign, Bernie registered as just another condescending old white man. In the aftermath of Trump’s win, however, she eventually came around to Bernie’s unvarnished style, and his unequivocally progressive ideas on everything from the Middle East to healthcare to minimum wage. Khakpour is now a “superfan,” she writes.
Naturally, the Bernie Bros were Khakpour’s enemies back in the day. Sitting on the same side now, she’ll nonetheless tweak them for bad behavior. I wanted to interview her not only because she had effectively joined their ranks from the opposing army, but also in light of a diagnosis she offered on Twitter: “I think the reason people find young white male Bernie supporters — aka ‘Bernie Bros’ — so annoying is because these dudes are just annoying, period,” she concluded. “Have you seen young white dudes get excited? Video games? Cars? Boobs? These guys wrote manifestos instead of essays for my classes!”
This harks back to the Robinson Meyer taxonomy of the Bernie Bro, which starts from the proposition that the group of men he’s analyzing are obsessive, aggrandizing and subpar listeners. That they were fixated on Bernie is, as Khakpour’s tweet echoes, almost irrelevant. Or it would be, if they weren’t angling to put him in the White House. Meanwhile, there’s the temptation to forgive Bernie his nastier believers, as he disavows the harassment in his name, over which he has minimal control, and they’re ultimately yelling in favor of a moral agenda that benefits more than them alone: the dismantling of inequality and disenfranchisement across the board.
“I blocked hundreds of them,” Khakpour says of the 2016 Bernie Bros. “Any time I’d say a word of support about [Hillary] or express some concerns about Bernie, all these dudes with a very 4chan vibe would be at my neck. It probably was a significant factor in the end for me pulling away from Bernie that election.”
While she went into the 2020 race with eyes toward Warren, the battleground was nowhere near as fraught. “I did have some Bernie Bro encounters, but they were different,” she says. “Maybe they’d grown up, but they weren’t crazy and scary. And then when I went all in for Bernie, the bros were rather adorable in welcoming me. The other thing I discovered was that the ‘bro’ concept was a bit of a convenient myth, at least this time around. I started to notice a ton of Bernie supporters were women of color, and I was shocked at how easily they were erased by fellow liberals in favor of the ugly Bernie Bro narrative.” That history has lately resurfaced in headlines remembering how Bernie “stumbled with black voters in 2016,” which run somewhat counter to the record of his significant youth support across racial lines in those primaries.
If you bump into “young men who are clumsy, annoying or abrasive in their passion, well, that’s just young men for you!” Khakpour goes on. “I don’t think they’re a big liability as much as the idea of them are. I wish the Warren camp in particular would stop spreading this idea — it’s a bit desperate and quite transparent, as they just can’t find much bad to say about him. I actually was at the receiving end of a lot of nasty Warren stan behavior, but ‘Warren stan’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it. And we like to pretend anyone who supports women is automatically virtuous, but this is clearly wrong.”
Upon revealing herself to be a “Bernard Brother,” as she jokingly formalizes it, Khakpour was embraced by the community, where she was introduced (virtually) to “really interesting” people. She plans to go canvassing in South Carolina and hopes to meet a few IRL. I wondered, given that Khakpour closed her Guardian essay by appreciating Bernie’s “love for us,” if she thought Bernie Bros who praised his “authenticity” were, in a manner, drawn to paternal warmth. (I was remembering how Eric Maier characterized the toxic Bernie Bros as dudes working out their father issues.) “It’s hard not to love him,” Khakpour answers. “He’s so sincerely fighting for us and wants us heard that it’s just so unlike politicians. I think Bernie becomes a really amazing role model for so many young people — he’s the rare example of an older adult who never compromised his values.”
How poetic it would be, I reflected, if the rage some Bernie supporters heap on his competitors, and on their supporters, was at bottom a warped, misplaced affection for him. They’re quicker than anyone to slam liberals who call Hillary, Warren, Harris and Nancy Pelosi “queen,” but they have no problem calling Bernie “dad.”
* * * * *
The moment I began this piece, I reached out to the biggest Bernie Bro I’ve known: a black woman. Destine Madu is an old New Jersey friend — she’s from Maplewood, and I’m from South Orange, neighboring towns that feed into a single high school, where we sat at the quiet kids’ table for lunch. By 2016, she had lost that quietness, and was far and away the most committed to Bernie’s campaign of anyone appearing in my social feeds. Destine didn’t just fill her Facebook page with fiery pro-Bernie content (though you could, absolutely, count on that), she also organized, and when Philadelphia hosted the Democratic National Convention that August, she joined protesters to denounce the party establishment and Hillary Clinton.
If you search Destine’s name online, you’ll find media coverage from that week, because several articles repeated a quote she gave to ABC News. Brushing aside the fact that Bernie had urged his base to throw their weight behind Hillary, the nominee, she said of Sanders: “He’s like Moses. He led us to the promised land.” I remember being struck by her commitment at the time, the willingness to participate in a mass action that led to the detainment of dozens, just to present a symbolic objection: that Sanders could beat Trump, but Hillary would lose. I had voted for Bernie myself in the California primary, but I was neither so pessimistic on Clinton’s outlook in the general nor idealistic enough to think the Democratic machine could be challenged.
So I wondered how she was feeling in 2020, especially as a black woman, with the specter of the white, toxic, presumably male “Bernie Bro” once again haunting the leftist-liberal discourse, reopening old wounds.
Except I couldn’t get in touch. Destine and I last caught up a couple years ago, when I was visiting the East Coast — after hanging out at a bar in New York with other friends, we’d barely caught the last train back into New Jersey, where we both grew up. I rarely look at Facebook these days, so I assumed her timeline was full of Bernie 2020 posts, and that she’d be eager to discuss her admiration for the Vermont senator. Instead, I saw that she’d been silent since November 2019, to the concern of many: Her wall is now littered with messages asking where she’s been, or to give someone a call.
She didn’t answer when I sent a DM through Facebook, nor via Instagram, where she was last active in October 2019. She has YouTube and Twitter accounts, but they’ve been dormant longer still. I even tried to connect on LinkedIn, to no response. It struck me that in trying to report on how the internet has changed our communication of politics, I had run up against its most fundamental limitation: Nothing is ever truly direct.
When, at last, I got Destine’s number from a mutual acquaintance and sent her a text, mentioning Bernie, I was shocked, but pleased, to see the bubble that meant she was typing back. “Hey Miles,” her response read. “I’m open to talk and reflect on the movement in 2016.” Within an hour, we were on the phone. “I turned 35 in October,” Destine says, “and that’s when I pulled away from social media. Not at any prompting or any traumatic event. It was the digital equivalent of walking into the woods. The last story I really checked out was another cop shooting, another unarmed black man getting shot. I guess I’d had enough, the names just started stringing together. It was just too much.” The political shift of that month, she says, was “the nonsense with the Democrats ‘getting ready’ to ‘think about’ impeaching Trump.”
She took inspiration from Erik Hagerman, a middle-aged liberal white man profiled in The New York Times for living in a total information vacuum at a pig farm in southeastern Ohio, so as to avoid news of the Trump era. “That weirdo in the Midwest who had the privilege to just check out,” as Destine refers to him. “I remember tearing into that guy. Then, I had the realization: Wait a minute, I could do that too, in a way. I pretty much just took myself back to the early 2000s, when we didn’t have Amazon doing entire neighborhood surveillance, just a self check-in, catch up with whatever I missed out on.” Where the revolution is concerned, she says, “we’re obviously outgunned — citizen or foreign, we’re not running up on the U.S. government. We’ll implode, like Rome.” She has an accepting laugh at this.
August of 2016, the week in Philadelphia for Occupy DNC, is something you can tell Destine will never forget. She marched, and she was on the front lines of a protest engineered in part by a local landscaper named Billy Taylor, who had applied for permits months ahead of other likely demonstrators. Nearly everyone of that action, she says, “has pretty much gone underground, because we went so hard. For [Bernie] to kowtow to the Clinton political machine, it was like, ‘Wow, this is it.’” (Sanders made a show of unity the first night of the convention and, in emails and texts, urged supporters not to protest on the floor.)
“We all talked about it, we all cried, we all did our mourning before that well-televised crying in November. We all knew that Trump was going to win. I became very disillusioned, I was Bernie or Bust, and my tires went bust,” she says.
Destine tells me what changed after: “Even up until last year, I wasn’t a gun owner. I became a gun owner last July. It’s been something weighing heavily, something I’ve always wanted to do, own a gun and be a proficient gun owner. It’s not listening to trap music and waving your Smith & Wesson around.” She got licensed in New Jersey, a strict gun-control state. “Part of this hiatus is bringing people on board with me,” she says, observing that “the liberal northeast is especially gunphobic. I’m not a conservative or anything, god no. Jewish people need to be gun owners, black people, homosexuals, Muslims, people who are disabled. Anyone can take advantage of you. That’s another soapbox. The trope is the white, burly, redneckish American male in charge of the whole gun scene. I want to be the first to tell you that’s not the case.”
If she’s bullish on the Second Amendment lately — as some leftists are — that’s because “that whole disappointment in 2016 has helped me evolve into someone who stands firm on values,” she says. “It’s not red versus blue. Start by figuring out your own identity. Occupy DNC united people around the country and world. I’ve met people from all over, they’re ‘Don’t Tread on Me,’ but they’re voting for Bernie. Every single demographic and age group was there. That was America. Everything positive, everything good, was there for that one solid week in FDR Park. We looked out for each other, nobody got sick. The treatment there, even the cops were very respectful. It could have gone south so easily. We thought, [Bernie] may fall to the political machine, but he embodied something we all wanted so badly.”
This is when I know Destine is tearing up. “Once we realized that Bernie wasn’t going to run anymore,” she continues, “some people decided they were voting for Trump, and some decided they’d write Bernie’s name in.”
“I went there as a nobody and now I have a trail — publications interviewed me, and it made me realize, ‘Wow, I’m a legit activist,’” Destine says. “That’s what it gave me. It brought forth a deeper sense of self.” She takes a second to remember the shy and unsure kids we were together, decades ago. “It’s like, thank god we didn’t peak in high school,” she jokes. “The quiet ones are really the most vocal. I have a deeper sense of pride in being American. I’ve seen what we can do. Remembering it evokes a deep emotion, it’s miraculous. We all really believed this; it was a convergence. Like an alternate reality. It was literally history being made. We couldn’t have known that at the time, but we knew it. That cohesion. I wish regular people, like you and me, were in charge of this country. It can be done. I don’t buy any of these Boomers saying ‘that’s not the way things are,’ because I’ve seen it.”
Destine laments the breach of trust — and continued chasm — between leftists like her and the moderate liberals. “I have some friends that actually voted for Trump, but they weren’t vicious to me,” she says. “I’ve had liberal friends tear into me. The Democrats are actually starting to be pretty intolerant. That kind of ‘social justice warrior’ is just not it. They can’t relate to certain hardships. No, some people can’t go out and get a job, because of X, Y and Z. There are certain things where people are so blind, in their echo chambers, in their bubbles. The ones chanting ‘Get Trump Out,’ they’re gonna be the first people to call the fucking cops because they see me in a hoodie. I’m like, Et tu, Brute? Those are the people you watch out for. I’m not too worried about the Confederate flag folks, I know who they are and to stay away. But god forbid I’m running up the street with my kidney bleeding, these [white liberals] are the people who’ll lock their doors and shut their blinds and record it on their Ring cameras,” she says.
She sees no light at the end of 2020. “I don’t believe in this current system,” she tells me. “Andrew Yang, I liked the Universal Basic Income. If not for Bernie, Yang would be my choice.”
Sounding worried, I prod a bit. “You’re not going hard on Bernie 2020?” I ask. “How are you feeling?”
“Nah, I’m not even feeling anything,” she replies. “What’s going on in D.C. has corroborated what I’ve been saying for the past four years. Trump’s going to get reelected, and look at all these people he’s pardoning,” she adds, describing the U.S. as what Westerners have labeled “a third-world country,” right down to the rigged elections. Bernie’s hurdle in 2020, she says, isn’t a lack of momentum. “It’s the fear tactics from the DNC again, same tactics from 2016. You’re just going to alienate more people. I was sort of debriefing back then and spoke with people who voted for Trump, for third parties. People gave their candid reasons. People said they voted for Trump because the DNC cheated, and the liberals were shaming them. ‘Well, I answered in the voting booth,’ they said.”
She clearly doesn’t begrudge them that. “I voted for Jill Stein. I was very open and vocal about it,” Destine says. “I voted with my conscience, for my values. Not because, oh, you don’t want one candidate to win. I can sleep at night. I tried to stop Trump in my own way. I voted for health care, erasing student debt, climate action — Jill’s platform was identical to Bernie’s. He threw in the towel in 2016, I jumped on the Jill wagon.”
For this primary, she’s waiting till closer to when New Jersey votes, in June, to “really weigh in on who’s left.” Registered as an independent since Trump won, she has to switch her affiliation if she wants to vote with the Democrats. “Independents are only about 50 percent of the voting population, but whatever,” she says. “If Bernie is still in the roster, I may, I may consider voting for him, just to solidify him. I don’t feel hope, because I know Trump is going to win again. I haven’t been wrong yet, unfortunately. Sometimes you get tired of being right about shit. There is no pleasure in being right about the catastrophe. I want to be optimistic! I will be pleasantly surprised if Trump is outed in 2020. I will be so happy that I’m wrong.”
I still found it wild that Destine, a Bernie Bro of the old school (if you’re as flexible with the term as most are today) was no longer online to share her views and scrap with those who disagree. But her time off the grid will be finite. She’s almost ready to end her social media hiatus — as soon as this week, she says. Whatever’s in store, she wants to be present. “God help us,” she says, laughing again.
* * * * *
Destine’s story brought me to a realization — a word she likes, and one that strongly conveys the leftist awakening she took part in — that had lurked throughout my reporting. Robinson Meyer voiced it way back in 2016, when he lamented the ugly stereotype his mostly harmless “Berniebro” had snowballed into: “The internet is impoverished of vocabulary,” he wrote. “People want to describe the emerging Sanders coalition, yet when they reach their hands behind the veil of language, they come out grasping only ‘Berniebro.’” Already, he said, it was an inadequate bit of slang, and so overworked in such a short period, it had quickly succumbed to “category collapse.”
When I tell Destine that the “Bernie Bro” schism is alive and well, if not resurgent, she’s half-surprised. “Oh, that, really?” she asks. It’s the tone of someone who has learned to expect the worst but remains impressed by how stupid the worst can be. If the phrase had outlived its usefulness by the first 2016 primaries, it certainly didn’t apply to Destine and her fellow activists that summer, and its purchase in 2020 is virtually nil, even for those made miserable by belligerent Bernie supporters. As everyone I spoke to pointed out, this election isn’t the previous election. It’s not the same movement. Any blanket condemnation of the “Bernie Bros” coming after you can be seized upon as a sign that you’re stuck in the past, holding a grudge, ignoring the climate we face today.
There is a distinction between calling someone a dumbass and threatening or dehumanizing them — between being “disagreeable” and being “toxic.” A segment of Bernie supporters like to step over that line, generating a moral panic that blurs the narrative around who wants a Bernie presidency, and why. Here and there, I can admit, I’m alarmed at what the Bernie boys (and girls, and non-binary folks, et al) are saying. How quick they are to fry anyone, and sometimes my friends who back someone else. I have to check myself, too, before joining in on a random pyre.
That’s bad enough as intra-party psychodrama, but like most fractures of the sort, it ultimately benefits common enemies. Now Meghan McCain taunts “Bernie Bros” as unhinged, and Bloomberg has cut an ad composed of rude tweets meant to prove the Bernie camp is out for literal blood.
If Sanders takes the nomination, you can bet Republicans will continue to inflate the number and influence of harassers on his side. Trump, whose digital warriors are in fact the angrier bunch, enjoys nothing more than thunderous hypocrisy, and this won’t be an exception. You can hear him now, can’t you, asking a MAGA crowd if they’ve heard of Bernie Bros, some very sick people, living in their parents’ basements, is that why they’re so mad all the time, I don’t know, it’s sad. But they hate us, they hate America, and they are dangerous.
When we meet that horizon, we’ll see what resentment among leftist trolls and tone-policing liberals has cost us: a viable path for righteous fury. What a disaster it would be to spend this election on shorthand, hostage to a cliché that long ago ceased to have any pertinent meaning.