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Bemittened Bernie: The meme that resonated around the world

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at the Capitol before President-elect Joe Biden was sworn in on Wednesday. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

The presidential inauguration commanded the world’s attention after the most chaotic transition of power in the United States in living memory. So did a pair of homemade mittens on a bespectacled man huddled in a chair.

The image of former Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, bundled up, bemittened, slightly slouching and socially distanced with his legs and arms crossed and eyes downcast spiraled into a breakout viral phenomenon after President Biden took office outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

From the United States to Argentina to Iran, the image proliferated through the far corners of the Internet in an ever-expanding array of jokes.

Washington-based photographer Brendan Smialowski snapped the now-iconic shot. It stood in stark contrast with the other visuals of the day: a parade of U.S. politicians and celebrities dressed up in designer monochrome outfits, reaffirming the virtues of U.S. democracy after a tumultuous four years.

But it was the Sanders image that found a global resonance transcending nationality, politics and context.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his mittens were a thing at the inauguration of President Biden on Jan. 20. (Video: The Washington Post)

Perhaps Sanders’s seemingly grumpy appearance reflected peoples’ own annoyance with politicians and political systems at a time when the world is reeling from a pandemic that has exacerbated economic and social divides. Or maybe the democratic socialist, whose liberal foreign policies have made him popular abroad, at least in some corners, was the most relatable part of a day meant to display America’s democratic process. Or it could be that people just really needed something to laugh about together.

Whatever it was, in a time of travel bans, the Sanders image easily made its way to Russia:

And the streets of Kenya:

As well as Paris Fashion Week:

And the bookstands of Tehran.

He was compared to leaders of the past:

And family members of the present:

He became “uncle” Bernie, as he’s often called in Arabic, working at the local corner store:

And reflected that universal annoyance of arriving early or being the single one at a wedding:

Somehow Sanders’s demeanor even captured the essence of BTS, the widely beloved Korean band:

He was envisioned hanging out with politicians in Canada:

And Mexico:

And regulars at the mosque:

Other takes were more overtly political:

Here, Sanders is pictured in what could be the hookah bar in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s alleged gigantic palace, recently detailed in an investigation by jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny:

The memes keep coming, and the shot of Sanders seen around the world has come to epitomize the strangeness of the Internet — and of politics in the digital age.

This report has been updated.


The image from Mexico was originally labeled as being from Uruguay.