We are, of course, in search of the Bernie Bro.
Online agitator. Millennial misogynist. Leftist know-it-all clothed in self-righteousness and also some sort of stupid hat. Have you seen this man?
You must remember him, at least. During the last Democratic primary, the Bernie Bro emerged as the unwanted mascot of the Sanders campaign. He represented the senator’s most strident supporters, painted in broad strokes as unwashed anti-capitalists with bad manners and a mob mentality.
Some people argued that the Bernie Bro was just a myth, or at least an overblown stereotype, but one way or another he became a figure the Sanders camp had to resist as it tried to focus a campaign on economic inequality.
It is the second day of March, and roughly 13,000 people have come out for the first Sanders rally of 2019. Bernie is back. Has the Bernie Bro returned, too?
We know what to look for — sort of. The original Bernie Bro field guide, published by the Atlantic in October 2015, informs us that the Bernie Bro is male, “very male.” That he is white, well-educated and may have worn a toga to a party in college. He is aware of NPR podcasts. Moreover, he “might loathe one NPR podcast in particular.”
A Google image search offers more clues: He will be 25, maybe 35, with meticulously ungroomed facial hair. Even in pictures, one can tell that a Bernie Bro will always smell of last night’s home brew. He’ll wear a gray pullover or a horizontally striped tank top.
It is snowing the day we arrive. What is the subfreezing equivalent of a horizontally striped tank top? A horizontally striped tank top, probably. Bernie Bro don’t care.
At 9:30 a.m., two hours before the rally’s official start time, a line of shivering supporters stretches for several blocks. Near the front we spot a bearded, bespectacled man wearing a fleece-lined cap with ear flaps.
“I fit the demographic of Bernie Bro-ness. Sure,” he says. His name is Cooper Miller. He is 36 and lives here in Brooklyn. He once had a Bernie Sanders-themed birthday party where guests could take photos with a life-size cutout of the senator.
And just like that our quest is over, because this guy is a total Bernie Bro, right?
“Do I self-identify? With irony, for sure,” Miller says as the wilderness of Brooklyn suddenly seems to close in on us.
“It was funny because my critique of Republicans at the time was that they’re all clowns, and I myself was a kind of pastiche of what Bernie Bro-dom is,” he continues. “Can you ironically make fun of the thing that ultimately is going to be a critique of the person you really support? Yes. I’ve done it.”
Oh. Um, huh. So, you’re saying you’re Faux Bro?
“Am I faking you out?” Miller says. “Totally.”
Perhaps this will be more complicated than we initially thought.
Let us pause to consider the possibility that our mission was doomed from the start.
Even before the first Democratic primary, there were questions about the veracity of the Bernie Bro. Was he real, or just a trope pumped up by Hillary Clinton backers to malign their opponent?
By then it almost didn’t matter. Like Bigfoot, the Bernie Bro loomed large in the public imagination. Except really he was more like a werewolf: a creature into which otherwise benign young men of the left were said to transform under a full moon — or in the glow of a computer screen. And because the Bernie Bro was an amalgamation of real traits, everyone seemed to know exactly who he was, even if they didn’t actually know him.
Sanders himself recently found a way to shun the Bernie Bro without saying his name. “I want to be clear that I condemn bullying and harassment of any kind and in any space,” he wrote in an email to more than 100 of his surrogates days after declaring his 2020 candidacy.
It wasn’t just the online behavior of some of his supporters that Sanders was talking about. There have been reports that female staffers faced sexual harassment by co-workers and pay inequities while working for the 2016 Sanders campaign. In recent months the senator publicly apologized to “any woman who felt that she was not treated appropriately” and held a closed-door meeting with female staffers seeking to voice their concerns, but the news seemed to support the idea that Bernieworld was beset by bro-ness.
In advance of our quest, we raised the question of the Bernie Bro with several women who’ve been with the senator since 2016.
“Sexism is real,” Winnie Wong, co-founder of the grass-roots group People for Bernie, told us. “The patriarchy is real. So we can start by framing it like that.”
Wong thinks the Bernie Bro hype overlooks the fact that, while older African American voters favored Clinton in the 2016 primaries, Bernie attracted a majority of voters under 30 of all races.
She is sure the Bernie Bro will stick around — whether in the flesh, online, or in the public imagination — for the 2020 campaign, and perhaps the best the Bernie camp can do to combat it is to set a tone from the top and keep showing up.
“You’re going to tell me that a few thousand men with facial hair are going to erase the body of work that I’ve helped create?” says Wong. “I’m an Asian American woman. So there’s something particularly hilarious about that.”
Linda Sarsour, a Sanders supporter who is also co-chair of the Women’s March, says the elevation of the Bernie Bro as a symbol has come at the expense of the many women in the Vermont senator’s base. “I think the whole conversation has been offensive,” she says. “I feel erased and unseen.”
We are sitting with Wong and Sarsour in a Brooklyn coffee shop on the eve of the kickoff rally. Between bites of avocado toast, Sarsour continues: “For me there is a criticism of the campaign from 2016 that is valid, about how do we talk about class and economic justice and racial justice in a more cohesive framing?”
Sarsour says she has seen Sanders evolve on those issues and points to the makeup of his current campaign as evidence of that evolution. Sanders picked Faiz Shakir, a Muslim American, as his new campaign manager. In addition to Ben of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, who is white, the campaign co-chairs are Ro Khanna, an Indian American congressman from California, Carmen Yulín Cruz, mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Nina Turner, an African American former state senator from Ohio.
For Turner, Bernie Bros are “nothing but a remake of the Obama Boys” — caricatures designed to make the campaigns seem more anti-feminist than they really are. She says she has been heartened in recent months to see women and people of color reclaim the term by posting photos of themselves online with the hashtag #BernieBro or #JustAnotherBernieBro.
It seems Cooper Miller, our bearded friend from the Brooklyn rally, is not the only Sanders fan with a sense of irony.
Back to the task at hand. We move on from Miller and his riddles and wade into the crowd in search of a more clear-cut example of a Bernie Bro.
Chris Dols stands in a knit cap, writing utensils in his pockets, 4-month old daughter Edie strapped to his chest. He stops us short. “I think the whole notion is intentionally misleading, like, to try to peel off women, people of color,” he says, echoing Wong and Sarsour.
“Whenever you have a campaign that involves millions of people in a country that’s really sexist, in a lot of ways, I think there are going to be sexist people in that campaign,” adds his friend Gary Lapon.
Yes, that’s what we’re looking for, the sexist people. So how do we spot them here in the crowd?
“I don’t know how many of them are going to self-identify, if they’re real,” Lapon said.
“Kevin insists he knows some,” Dols chimes in. “Our friend Kevin. He’s here somewhere.”
Alas, Kevin and his Bernie Brolodex are nowhere to be found.
Catherine Curran-Groome also says she knows some Bros. Or she did, at least, last year as a student at the University of Vermont. “They would go at you on a topic,” she explains. “Certain issues in politics we actually would agree on, but I would know not to talk about it because it would go on for a 45-minute conversation that I wasn’t in the mood for.”
That sounds right. Yet the crowd here, as they wait for their champion to speak, seems awfully subdued. Maybe they’re too cold to get belligerent. Or maybe a Bernie Bro can’t exist here, among the converted. Maybe he only emerges when someone’s wrong opinion needs correcting. Or only when stripped of inhibition, either by alcohol or online anonymity.
“I don’t believe in Bernie Bros,” says Malachy Labrie-Cleary, a 25-year-old holding a climate crisis sign. “There’s only Bernie people. Beautiful Bernie people.”
And yet, he continues, “there is one reality where I would have said, ‘I am a Bernie Bro.’ That is one reality. . . . Like, you could have been colloquial. Like, ‘Hey, Bro, are you a supporter of Bernie?’ That might technically make me a Bernie Bro. But it’s all semantics at that point.”
Semantics, right. There is one characteristic so many of these non-Bernie Bros seem to share: a willingness to talk . . . and talk . . . and talk . . . about why they’re not Bernie Bros.
And then, as if bathed in golden light from refracted healing crystals, he appears before us. Hair mussed. Converse kicks faded and wet from snow.
“I’m a Bernie Bro,” he said. “For sure.”
His name, he says, is Zander Carlman. He is 26 years-old, lives in Manhattan and would describe his profession only as “professional.”
“I’m a homosexual, I’m here with my boyfriend. His name is Darryle,” Carlman tells us.
Oh, huh. The field guide didn’t mention anything about sexual orientation, or Darryle. But please, continue.
“I’m a dirtbag,” he says. “I’m part of the dirtbag left that came into renaissance in 2016.”
Sorry — what? “All of the other candidates start from a position of compromise. And they’re not going to achieve anything. Bernard, my dear friend from Vermont, he starts from an uncompromising position. And people respond to values. I think he could win. Also, all the other candidates are women. And can you even think of a woman being president?”
He stares us dead in the eyes as we contemplate the weight of his words, the significance of the Bernie Bro and the meaning of our own unknowable existence.
“I’m being ironic,” Carlman says, breaking into laughter. “That was a joke. A joke.”
And with that, our search has ended.