Earlier this year, the Bernie Sanders campaign made a few comments that earned more media coverage than most of his actual platform.
First, in late January, rapid response director Mike Casca advised in a tweet that “if you support @berniesanders, please follow the senator’s lead and be respectful when people disagree with you.”
And just a couple weeks later on CNN, Sanders himself added, “Look, anybody who is supporting me that is doing the sexist things is—we don’t want them.”
Predictably, Clinton partisans seized on both comments as evidence that the campaign was “very concerned”, not just about potential sexism, but about “trolling” and the generally “cultish behavior of his supporters”. That’s what Jamil Smith wrote – neatly echoing the campaign’s plan to insist that “Sanders supporters are flooding the internet with troubling comments about women” (a necessary line of criticism “since most of our attacks haven’t been working”). And now, of course, we know that Smith wrote this just weeks after coordinating with the campaign to roll out “Bernie hits…without [their] fingerprints”.
The so-called “Bernie Bro” controversy, it turns out, was always more complicated than it appeared. As many of us were at pains to point out, it was always an exaggerated and cynically hyped smear campaign by Clinton. But here, I want to point out that even the Sanders response has to be understood cynically – as an attempt to parry political attacks, win the Democratic nomination, and defeat Donald Trump.
In fact, today we can be fairly certain that the Sanders campaign was privately just as infuriated by Clinton as her critics, the notorious Bernie Bros. One reason we know this is that Sanders has admitted it himself:
Trust me, if they went into our emails…I’m sure there would be statements that would be less than flattering about, you know, the Clinton staff.
It’s pretty easy to understand why they would be angry: by just about every metric imaginable, Hillary Clinton led one of the worst presidential campaigns in modern history. It was a profoundly reactionary campaign, built entirely on rolling back the horizons of the politically possible, fracturing left solidarity, undermining longstanding left priorities like universal healthcare, pandering to Wall Street oligarchs, fomenting nationalism against Denmark and Russia, and rehabilitating some of history’s greatest monsters – from Bush I to Kissinger.
It was a grossly unprincipled campaign that belligerently violated FEC Super PAC coordination rules and conspired with party officials on everything from political attacks to debate questions. It was an obscenely stupid campaign that all but ignored Wisconsin during the general election, that pitched Clinton to Latino voters as their abuela, that centered an entire high-profile speech over the national menace of a few thousand anime nazis on Twitter, and that repeatedly deployed Lena Dunham as a media surrogate.
But Clinton’s campaign wasn’t just reactionary, unprincipled, and stupid; it was also doomed. Obviously doomed. Until the bitter end, the Clinton campaign and its partisans projected an absolutely triumphalist front of inevitability; even its most “pessimistic” apparatchiks, like BNR blogger Sarah Kendzior were still predicting “an ultimate HRC win” just hours before she lost. In contrast, by May, the Sanders campaign was already warning that “Hillary Clinton… [is] deeply unpopular” and questioning her ability to win “key battleground states like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania”. (She only needed two; in the end, she lost all three.)
This was a point the Bernie Bros – with increasing urgency, desperation, and yes, even anger – made time and time again. For my part, I cannot even begin to convey how horrific it was to watch pundits relentlessly hype Clinton’s electability, even to the point of implying that skeptics about this were racists:
[E]lectability is much more important to black and Latino voters than it is to whites…[Clinton] has the strong backing of those who are the most dispossessed and threatened. Why is it we hear so…little about [this]? I’ll leave you to ponder that one on your own.
As it turns out, one reason we heard little about black and Latino confidence in Clinton is that she lost 5% of the former and 6% of the latter from 2012. Even during the primaries it was clear to me that Clinton was already having trouble turning out black voters, and that this reflected a whole range of serious, underlying problems:
Black Americans…report little faith in the government in general: a majority (58%) say that “the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves” (21% report not sure); a majority (52%) say that “most of the time” special interests are “able to get what they want by contributing money to political campaigns” (22% report not sure); and a majority (57%) report that politicians “lie to get elected” (6% report not sure). Moreover, Pew reports that only 41% of black Americans believe “that voting gives people some say in how government runs things and that ordinary citizens can do a lot to influence the government in Washington”.
These were the kinds of points that Bernie Bros made time and time again: that Clinton’s strength among women and voters of color was being dramatically exaggerated; that her weakness among young people was a serious liability; that third-party attrition was a marginal problem at worst; and so on. These were points we made constantly, aggressively, and even obsessively, to anyone who would listen, and even when no one would. And when elites like Tomasky, or political operatives like Smith, smugly dismissed us as trolls and bigots, we just made these points with increasing exasperation, and yes, even belligerence – because we saw exactly what was happening and how it would end.
As Trump takes office, I simply cannot imagine the sheer infantile pettiness and conflict aversion it would take to begrudge anyone their anger about this. Just as Sanders had to issue token apologies to defang the cynical Bernie Bro smear campaign against his candidacy, so today his role as the de facto standard bearer of the American left demands a certain degree of decorum.
For the rest of us Bernie Bros, there may be nothing polite to say about what the Clinton campaign has done to our country – but god help us if we don’t raise hell.
Carl Beijer is a writer who focuses on the Left, linguistics, and international affairs.