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The doubt of a ‘Bernie Bro’: A hard-charging Sanders supporter questions whether his tactics help or hurt

Zach McDowell canvasses a residential street in Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 27. McDowell, a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), used to defend the candidate in impulsive tweets, but now he was questioning his rules of online engagement. (Luke Sharrett/for The Washington Post)
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ATHENS, Ga. — Just after waking up, Zach McDowell powered on his tablet and searched through Reddit. He picked up his cellphone and checked Twitter. Scanning through the rants of strangers praising and maligning his preferred presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), he asked himself a question: To tweet or not to tweet?

The question itself was new for McDowell, whose tweets defending Sanders used to be impulsive and unthinking. But as Sanders picked up momentum in the Democratic primaries, his critics continued to harp on the aggressive, online swarm of predominantly white male supporters that had rallied around the democratic socialist from Vermont. They called them the “Bernie Bros.”

“I prefer the term Bernard Brother,” McDowell said, because it seemed more respectable. As a white, mustachioed 23-year-old just out of college and working a $15-an-hour tutoring job, he fit the description. He acted the part too, occasionally joining in online pile-ons.

Now, McDowell was questioning his rules of online engagement. What if, for once, the pundits were right? The wrong tweet might feed into the stereotype and alienate potential supporters. Meanwhile, moderate Democrats were coalescing around former vice president Joe Biden, who was campaigning on restoring a sense of American civility.

The criticism of Sanders’s online attack squad has been harsh. As she ended her campaign Thursday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) decried the “organized nastiness” of some of his supporters, saying he did not do enough to rein them in.

Sanders has disavowed the most abusive voices while defending the majority of his backers.

“We have over 10.6 million people on Twitter, and 99.9 percent of them are decent human beings,” Sanders said at a recent debate. “And if there are a few people who make ugly remarks, who attack trade union leaders, I disown those people. They are not part of our movement.”

McDowell applauded Sanders’s statement, but he also worried the criticism was overblown. He was just playing politics in the way he knew how.

His generation had grown up absorbing the news through “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” which intimately intertwined politics and absurdity. And political punditry on 24-hour news channels can seem as aggressive as any battle royal.

The gaming of American politics didn’t seem much different from sports or the games he played online. And if that was the way politics was being played, should it not come with the trash-talking, irreverent hyperbole that comes with any other fan base on the Internet?

“I’ve seen people be just as vicious if you have a fight between Star Wars versus Star Trek,” McDowell said.

Using a pseudonym and a private Twitter account closed to the general public, McDowell had added to a chorus of Sanders supporters who compared former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg to a rat and joked that Biden’s campaign was “elder abuse.”

When he saw a video with Warren, he searched his keyboard for the snake emoji — a common trope applied to Warren after she alleged Sanders told her that a woman couldn’t beat President Trump. “Hiss,” McDowell had typed.

On this February morning, he was scrolling through Twitter again. Up came an ad for former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, featuring a montage of the “Bernie Bros” supposedly going too far.

The ad included examples of Sanders supporters threatening to “come after” fans of other candidates. But those instances were lumped in with a picture of Sanders photoshopped to make it seem like he was aiming a cartoonish gun at the viewer. “I am no longer asking for your vote. #Bernieorbust,” it said.

McDowell laughed so uncontrollably his eyes started to water. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to be threatened by this,” he said. “It’s clearly fake, unless you’re so old, and you have no glasses.”

Then came a tweet from an African American political analyst, Jason Johnson, who had referred to some Sanders supporters as “racist liberal whites” and “misfit black girls” after they attacked him for disputing the idea that Bloomberg is an oligarch.

“This guy has a PhD, and he doesn’t understand what an oligarch is?” McDowell said of Johnson.

McDowell tried to respond to Johnson. But the pundit had already blocked him.

That’s when McDowell remembered that, months ago, he had tweeted at Johnson, who complained Sanders’s supporters were taking his words out of context.

McDowell replied: “shut up nerd.”

“I was just trying to be funny,” he said. “Maybe it is a failed attempt. Twitter is not real life.”

A movement unto itself

In real life, McDowell was driving to a house on a sunny Saturday in this college town where he was meeting with a group of Sanders supporters.

“What up?” yelled a black woman with a large Afro named Mariah Parker standing on the porch.

“What up!” McDowell replied. He stepped inside a living room filled with about 15 Sanders supporters, all under 40. Two-thirds of the group were women; one-third was black.

“The Bernie Bro stuff is an erasure of the stories of people like me,” said Parker, who is 28. Sanders’s unlikely political ascent had inspired Parker to run for office herself. In 2018, she became the first black LGBTQ woman to sit on the local county commission, and now she was organizing door-knocking campaigns to drum up support for Sanders in South Carolina.

“Are you all ready to elect the first Jewish, democratic socialist president?” she asked the group to cheers.

McDowell jumped back into his Hyundai. Joining him were two friends he met in the library while he was a student at the University of Georgia.

“Would you like to sit in the front?” Lydian Brambila, a 27-year-old student, asked Ryan ­Vogel, 36.

“No way,” Vogel said. “I don’t want to be a Bernie Bro.”

The three laughed. When others used the term, it stung like a slur. But when fellow Bernie fans used it, it felt like an inside joke.

Vogel, who is white and grew up wealthy, resented the lack of empathy some of his conservative relatives had for working people. Brambila was born to Mexican immigrants who worked long hours for little pay and taught their child to believe that the American Dream could be achieved by working hard and doing well in college.

“The system didn’t work for me,” said Brambila, now a graduate student working a $15-an-hour job and sinking into debt getting treatment for debilitating migraines.

McDowell grew up upper-middle-class, the son of a commercial real estate agent and a stay-at-home mom. He was around 11 years old during the financial crisis of 2008. His father’s company went bankrupt, and his parents began to cut back.

“My dad would come home, as a shell of a person, and his friends all hated their jobs,” McDowell said. “I was terrified in college that was the only way to live, and I was just trying to figure how to mitigate that suffering. And then came Bernie.”

Sanders’s 2016 campaign gave the three a sense of relief that their family shame, their parents’ exhaustion, their inability to attain the American ideal was not their fault. They believed Sanders when he said the struggles of working people were baked into a system reliant on greedy corporations and reckless lawmakers.

As McDowell’s love for Sanders grew during the last presidential election, he became more suspicious of the Democratic establishment.

Problems counting votes during the 2016 primaries led him to believe that the Democratic National Committee and the system were working against Sanders.

“I felt like I was going insane in 2015 and 2016,” McDowell said. “All these things were happening, and we couldn’t prove it. I just internalized a lot of it, thinking something was going on. Maybe that was the point of it, to make us feel powerless.”

So he began following Sanders supporters sleuthing online for clues that the fix was in. Soon he was reading “Das Kapital” and picking up jokes about Karl Marx. He found kindred spirits in a podcast called “Chapo Trap House,” a profane political comedy show whose hosts were unabashed Sanders supporters.

They joked that Buttigieg was in the CIA (hence, the rat imagery), mocked the sexual prowess of Bloomberg and became a cultural touchstone on the Reddit pages that McDowell perused.

“It’s amazing how as crass and profane as the Chapos are, they are just as easy to show how heartfelt and sincere they are about the politics they espouse,” McDowell said. “To write that off as them being ‘Bernie Bros’ is just an oversimplification.”

This wave of young, radical support online was a movement unto itself, with a lexicon that borrowed from Chomsky and Lenin, potty humor and kink: “Chud” was the word they used for an obnoxious Trump supporter, and the “Neolibs” were the new generation of establishment Democrats. The art of applying theory to the real world was referred to as “praxis,” and to extricate oneself from the struggle was to ingest the “black pill.”

Generations of young socialists had longed for the revolution in American politics, and McDowell and his friends were eager to be a part of it, even if they worried it wouldn’t succeed.

“Sometimes, I guess I worry that just, like, I’m going to die and not see anything change,” Brambila said, as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” played in the car. “Do you think they will truly form solidarity with working people? I fear that I’ll be alone. Just me and my advanced opinions.”

“You can’t black pill yourself,” McDowell said. “You have to also take action. That’s why we’re going out today.”

Taking the conversation offline

They arrived in a working-class, majority-black area in Greenville, S.C. It was a hilly neighborhood with no sidewalks and decrepit single-family homes surrounded by oak trees.

The campaign had assigned them to knock on 31 doors, which were all highlighted on a phone app.

“Hi, I’m a volunteer with the Bernie Sanders campaign,” McDowell said when a resident answered the door. “Bernie is a candidate who believes in economic justice for all. Do you know about the primary coming up?”

The first woman who answered was a 30-year-old single mother working two jobs. She said she supported Sanders’s policies to raise the minimum wage and legalize marijuana. At another home, a medical lab technician in his 40s told them he was between tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Sanders, which McDowell said would make the decision easy because Yang had dropped out of the presidential race. “I didn’t know that,” the man said.

They continued walking along the street when a Suburu stopped in front of them. There were three older people inside.

“Can you give us some directions?” the driver said. “We keep on running into dead ends.”

The driver peered over the car window, squinting through her glasses.

“Y’all are Bernie?” the driver said.

The Sanders trio nodded.

“We are out for Biden,” the driver said. She seethed: “We goin’ beat you.”

Then, the car sped off.

“OK boomer,” Vogel joked. Political confrontation was more awkward in person.

The neighborhood was now in the rear-view mirror, and McDowell was back in his car, heading back to Georgia.

The political landscape in South Carolina was different from what they had seen online. Over the course of the afternoon, not one voter had asked about Sanders being socialist or about their tweets. Many just wanted to have a conversation.

“They wanted to be treated with dignity,” said Vogel from the back seat. “We need to talk to people like they have dignity.”

Vogel’s online presence did not always reflect that sentiment. After 2016, he stopped posting serious messages about politics on Facebook. It was ruining too many friendships, particularly when he noted sarcastically on Election Day, “Who could have anticipated that the least popular Democratic candidate ever could lose to Trump?” He didn’t cast a ballot for president that year, abstaining from choosing between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

“I remember being so mad at you,” Brambila said. “How dare you, with the privilege of not being scared, choose not to vote? I was angry and wanted you to feel shamed.”

“I feel bad about it,” Vogel said. “A lot of people still aren’t talking to me.”

This time around, Vogel tried to keep his political commentary lighter. The soft sell did not seem to work, either. After he posted a meme using a Star Trek character to criticize Warren as a faux liberal, he found himself getting into an online argument with someone who condemned him as a “cultist” for Sanders and a “Bernie Bro.”

Brambila argued that perhaps it was time to take the conversation offline. More success could be found talking in person, like they did while door-knocking. What was there to be gained by piling onto celebrities’ feeds, mocking supporters of other candidates with cheeky memes and threatening violence?

“It’s just, now that we might win, maybe we should find ways to be more welcoming,” Brambila said. “Maybe it changes our approach, to help find solidarity with more people.”

“I’ll be honest,” Vogel said. “With all this Bernie Bro stuff, I’m more hyper aware of things I do online. I just am.”

McDowell wasn’t so sure he was ready to give up social media just yet. He thought Brambila had a point and that threatening violence went too far. But he found camaraderie online. And he felt some of the criticism directed at Sanders’s supporters was not in good faith — designed more to undermine the movement than anything else.

Vogel glanced at his phone. On the Twitter feed: A New York Post headline that Judge Judy vowed to “fight the Bernie Sanders revolution to the death.” A friend of Vogel’s in Hollywood compared Sanders’s movement to Trump’s. Chris Matthews, then still an MSNBC host, likened Sanders’s victory in Nevada to the fall of France to the Nazis in World War II.

“How is saying that okay?” McDowell asked of Matthews, who had later apologized for the comments. “That boy ain’t right. He needs some milk.”

Brambila apologized to Vogel for trying to shame him for not voting in 2016.

“I’m no longer ‘vote blue no matter who,’ ” Brambila said. “These people don’t support my interests.”

“We live in Georgia,” Vogel said. “It’s not like a Democrat is going to win here anyway.”

“If our boy doesn’t win, then it probably means the DNC cheated again,” McDowell said. “I think he’s going to win. This country is going to see the bigger picture.”

It was dark by the time they returned to Georgia. After dropping off Vogel and Brambila, McDowell wrestled with himself about what to do if Sanders lost the nomination. He considered Trump to be more dangerous than Biden and worried about how a second term might affect immigrants and minorities in this country.

Twitter might not be real life, but politics was, and dogma had its limitations. Sitting out of the election was a black pill he did not want to take.