Sen. Bernie Sanders has called their behavior “disgusting.” Would-be supporters of the Vermont independent have cited them as the reason they can’t endorse him. His campaign has even privately apologized to rivals for online pile-ons that crossed the line into open harassment.
And still, the Bernie Bro army marches on.
The internet has been perhaps the Sanders campaign’s most useful tool for organizing the candidate’s most fervent fans, whose ride-or-die loyalty to Sanders has long outlasted his first campaign for president.
But like Star Wars, Rick and Morty, and Taylor Swift before him, Sanders is grappling with how to channel the best parts of that support—the engine behind his massive rally crowds and commensurate fundraising numbers, and as he is sequestered on Capitol Hill for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump—while discouraging a toxic wedge of fandom that threatens to distract from his campaign and turn off potential supporters.
The intensity of the largely social-media-driven attacks by Sanders’ fans has risen sharply in recent weeks, as polling in early states has tightened among the top tier of Democratic candidates and just as Sanders himself has pointedly avoided engaging with even the most direct attacks on his candidacy.
When Sen. Elizabeth Warren accused Sanders of telling her in a private meeting that he didn’t believe that a woman could defeat President Donald Trump in 2020, the Massachusetts senator’s Twitter feed was deluged with a plague of snake emojis even as Sanders called for a de-escalation in hostilities. After former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton doubled down on comments in an upcoming documentary that “nobody” in Congress likes Sanders, the number of tweets calling her a “bitch” skyrocketed to new highs, according to an analysis by The Daily Beast.
That same outsize reaction to hits against Sanders has itself become a hit against Sanders.
“It’s not only him, it’s the culture around him,” Clinton told The Hollywood Reporter. “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.”
Last week, performer John Legend cited “Bernie Bros”—who, though branded with the pejorative “Bernie Bros,” are in no way limited to just his male fans—as doing “quite the disservice” to Sanders as a reason that he was backing Warren’s candidacy.
“Try not to drive people away with your nastiness,” Legend tweeted. “I will happily vote for him if he wins the primary. Chill.”
In response, some users replied with the poop-face emoji.
The “Bernie Bro” question has plagued Sanders’ campaign since he last ran for president in 2016, when top campaign officials felt obligated to reach out to rival campaigns to apologize for the behavior of some of Sanders’ more rabid fans. Sanders’ condemnation of his most aggressive online supporters has been unequivocal for years—he called their behavior “disgusting” in a 2017 interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper—and his response to Clinton’s remarks on Tuesday morning were so conciliatory that Republicans dragged him for being a wimp.
“On a good day, my wife likes me, so let’s clear the air on that one,” Sanders told an NBC News reporter outside his Senate office on Tuesday morning, echoing the spirit of a more formal statement in response to Clinton’s comments that his focus was on the impeachment trial.
“Together, we are going to go forward and defeat the most dangerous president in American history,” Sanders said.
Progressives often say that pleas for “civility” are less about maintaining decorum than they are about maintaining the status quo—a rhetorical cudgel used to dampen calls for the kind of radical structural change that they feel Sanders embodies. But recently, those calls for radical change have come hand in hand with misogyny, abuse, and more frequently, poor taste.
Sanders has gone so far as to rescind his highly influential endorsement for politicians whose online behavior has stepped out of bounds, as he did in December, when past misogynistic remarks made by longtime backer and congressional candidate Cenk Uygur resurfaced (although the decision only came after Uygur, hoping to head off the blowback, declared that he would un-accept the endorsement).
The senator’s campaign told The Daily Beast that there is no daylight between Sanders’ comments and the feelings of his top staff.
“Senator Sanders and our senior campaign team have a clear and unambiguous message for all our supporters. We believe in having a dialogue based on respect for all participants and strongly condemn any speech that is demeaning or derogatory,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a national co-chairman of Sanders’ presidential campaign, told The Daily Beast. “What our party and nation need now is less division and polarization and more healing. I implore all of Senator Sanders’ supporters to live up to the high principles by which Senator Sanders has conducted his life in public service.”
A campaign official also noted that Sanders was the first candidate to sign a pledge vowing to “support the ultimate Democratic nominee, whomever it is—period.”
At least some Sanders fans appeared to follow his example Tuesday, responding to Clinton’s broadsides with an online lovefest for the candidate by turning Clinton’s assertion that “nobody likes” the Vermont senator into a popular hashtag: #ILikeBernie. (The hashtag was a marked departure from the post-debate digital discourse, the vitriol of which crested with the widespread use of the hashtags #NeverWarren and #WarrenIsASnake.)
But not all of his supporters—or staff—have taken that message to heart. On Monday night, Sanders apologized to former Vice President Joe Biden after speechwriter David Sirota shared an opinion piece penned by campaign surrogate and Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout accusing Biden of having a “big corruption problem.”
The day before, Sanders had told reporters on the campaign trail that recent hits on Biden’s record on Social Security benefits did not mean that Biden wasn’t “a decent person.”
“We’re not going to make personal attacks on Joe Biden,” Sanders said.
Biden’s campaign responded to the op-ed with a fundraising email accusing Sanders’ campaign of unleashing “a barrage of negative attacks lying about and distorting my record” and pushing “a deceptively edited video” showing him agreeing with former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan about making cuts to Social Security, calling the attacks “smears.”
“As Democrats I thought we all knew this election was too important to attack other Democrats,” the campaign’s email blast said. “But Bernie Sanders and his campaign don’t care about that.”
No representatives for any rival presidential campaigns would discuss the issue of “Bernie Bro” hostility on the record—at least in part, one official working for another Democratic presidential hopeful said, because they didn’t want to be on the receiving end of an online Walk of Atonement.
“Remember Cersei’s walk of shame?” the official texted The Daily Beast, using a Game of Thrones reference by way of explanation. “That’s what my mentions would look like.”