This week is Trump Week at The Intersect: a five-day examination of Donald Trump’s consistently fascinating and occasionally unsettling Internet presence. From the murky depths of 4chan to the viral heights of YouTube, we’ll be looking at the people who have made Trump not only a political phenomenon but also a digital one. Keep up with the series here.
Few things can carry anecdotal power in politics like a good conversion story. And online, the conversion stories that Donald Trump’s supporters are looking for are those of former Bernie Sanders fans.
“AfterBerners (Former BernieBots)MUST Assimilate,” reads a months-old rule on the Reddit board r/The_Donald. The subreddit is one of the more active hubs of Trump support on the Internet, a volatile but still popular forum that has banned all dissent — lest any disagreements sap some of the energy its members hope to channel toward electing Trump in November.
The r/The_Donald board communicates in memes and inside jokes. Its members write like Trump himself — many would make good ghostwriters for Trump’s Twitter account. After the Vermont senator endorsed Hillary Clinton earlier this month, the memes about “Sellout Sanders” blossomed on the subreddit, just as similar ones started to appear among Sanders supporters.
The “Sellout” memes mixed with the forum’s typically vicious Clinton memes, the latter being common ground for some Sanders backers. If angry Sanders supporters were looking for a place to be furious about the endorsement, r/The_Donald was there, waiting (so long as certain conditions were met). Over on 4chan’s /pol/, memers occasionally paused their mockery of Sanders and his supporters to discuss attempts to “redpill,” (in 4chan terms, “redpilling” means enlightening, like in “The Matrix”) Sanders supporters.
Meanwhile on r/SandersForPresident, Sanders supporters have resisted allowing the forum to become anything other than a place to discuss supporting Sanders. But it’s clear that the forum’s members disagreed on how to proceed immediately after the Clinton endorsement. Among the discussions arguing that Sanders supporters should continue to support him, and discussions of other third-party candidates, there are lengthy threads discussing whether it might be better to vote for Trump over Clinton — including this comment thread under a supportive post from a Trump voter.
Rather than bothering with a recruitment mission, the moderators of r/The_Donald were content to just wait for ex-Sanders supporters to come to them. “If they choose to assimilate, denounce Sanders and socialism, and abide by our rules they are welcome at /r/the_donald,” said subreddit moderator TehDonald in an email on Monday. “We’ve had hundreds of former Bernie supporters do so.”
To fully convert, Sanders supporters have to “disavow,” publicly, in a thread on the subreddit. The stories have become like testimonies, evidence to the board’s members that Trump really might open up his covenant (“Make America Great Again”) to everyone who hates the “establishment.”
“Today proved that he doesn’t give a damn about corruption or money in politics, and by proxy nothing rose out of his mouth can be taken seriously. YOU BET I DISAVOW,” wrote one user who posted what he said was an image of his nearly $500 in donations to the Sanders campaign. Other popular disavowals were more to the point (and contain more potentially offensive language, if you’re keen on avoiding that sort of thing).
The idea of a mass Sanders conversion has become a talking point for some of Trump’s better-known supporters on the Internet.
“I can’t even count how many left libertarian fans I’ve heard from (they love me even though they hate half of my opinions) who supported Bernie Sanders all the way until he announced his support of crooked Hillary that have now sworn to support Trump,” Milo Yiannopoulos, a Trump-supporting writer from Breitbart Tech, said in a recent email to The Intersect. “They call it coming over to the dark side, I call it good sense.”
“Some “After Berners” as we call them, have become really great posters on the_donald, they kept their passion but have moved over to our side,” TehDonald said.
Sanders-to-Trump conversions are really a thing, courted to some extent by Trump’s Internet diaspora — and the Trump campaign itself — for months. But polling suggests that the phenomenon is not nearly as large as the anecdotal evidence might lead some to believe.
The most recent polling from The Washington Post was conducted from July 11 to 14. Sanders endorsed Clinton on July 12. That polling found little change in the share of Sanders supporters supporting Trump. In fact, if anything, that support appears to be declining.
According to the latest poll, 10 percent of Democratic-leaning registered voters who wanted Sanders to win the nomination say they support Trump against Clinton; 79 percent back Clinton, while 11 percent are undecided. In May, 20 percent of Sanders supporters said they would support Trump.
But there are a couple of big issues that make the Trump fight for a substantial piece of Sanders’s voting base seem, well, pretty tough. First, he fares a lot worse when polling includes other third-party candidates. In the current poll, when Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein are also included in the question, Trump pulled just 7 percent of the vote among Sanders Democrats, while Johnson and Stein attracted 12 percent, each.
And while it’s true that 44 percent of Sanders voters have an unfavorable opinion of Clinton, 90 percent have an unfavorable view of Trump.
But it is also clear that the mission to bring Sanders supporters over will persist, its success defined not by the numbers, but by the anticipation of the Trump Internet being proven right. Besides, once something becomes part of the Trump mythos, it has a way of sticking.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.