On the eve of the South Carolina Democratic debate, a reporter named Scott Bixby exposed the private Twitter account of a Bernie Sanders staffer that was littered with sexist and homophobic attacks on politicians, journalists, and celebrities. The Sanders campaign promptly fired the staffer, issued a condemnation of his behavior, and turned its attention to Charleston. All the while, Bixby, a writer from The Daily Beast, watched as hundreds of messages, seemingly from incensed Bernie supporters, flooded his phone.
When reached by e-mail two days later, Bixby declined an interview.
“I’ve gotten some pretty specific threats to my safety and that of my husband (also, my freaking dog) so I’m just trying not to give the horde any more oxygen for the time being,” he wrote.
That horde may be better known as the Bernie Bros. When it was first coined, in a humor piece by the Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer in October 2015, the term “Berniebro” was meant to satirize a particular Sanders-supporting demographic: young white males who passionately defended and supported the presidential candidate online. Five years later, polls show that the Sanders coalition has broadened significantly. In Nevada, he led the Democratic primary field across a variety of voter categories: men and women, white and Latino, union and non-union, college and non-college. But the combustible mentality that “Berniebro” was meant to caricature still burns among a subset of his supporters.
For people like Bixby, on the receiving end of their ire, the attacks can feel like a swarm of locusts. Masses of social media users post angry messages, flood inboxes, rattle off personal attacks, make vague threats, and then move on to their next victim. On occasion, the wrath trickles outside the online world, inciting late-night bullhorn protests outside public officials’ homes on the eve of the Nevada caucuses last month and “Lock her up” chants outside the Democratic National Convention in 2016. Some justify their behavior as the battle cry of warriors for the Bernie cause: They’re fighting online and in real life, they say, on behalf of those most hurt by rising income inequality, lack of access to health care, and crushing debt.
Sanders and many of his less combative supporters depict the Bernie Bros as outliers within a larger coalition. In the Democratic debate in Las Vegas on Feb. 19, Sanders referred to “a few people who make ugly remarks" among his online followers. He also suggested that foreign trolls could be responsible for stoking toxicity online, alluding to the Russian disinformation campaign in the lead-up to the 2016 election.
Just how many Bernie Bros are there — and who are they? That remains tough to pin down. Most of the attacks take place on Twitter, which is used by just 22 percent of Americans. Meanwhile, just a 10th of Twitter users are responsible for 80 percent of all tweets, according to the Pew Research Center. So while pro-Sanders spite on the platform can seem widespread, it seems unlikely to reflect the broader attitudes of his supporters.
Regardless of numbers, the Bernie Bros mentality does spill offline and can have a damning impact on a Sanders campaign.
Take Robert Camacho of Concord, Calif. The 48-year-old, who is gay, recalls being called a homophobic slur and spat on by some Sanders supporters at the Democratic National Convention where he served as a delegate for Clinton.
“I had never experienced anything like it in the 30 years that I’ve been into politics. Just so much hate,” said Camacho. “Bernie should have done more to calm down a lot of his supporters, but he didn’t or couldn’t. And it was chaos."
The 2016 Democratic convention instilled a sense of cynicism and anger within certain Sanders’ supporters emboldened by the WikiLeaks e-mails that suggested the 2016 Democratic primary was tilted in Clinton’s favor. Today, his most ardent online advocates appear perpetually on the defensive, condemning any article or comment that criticizes Sanders or promotes a rival candidate.
Some Sanders supporters, like 43-year-old Jessica Vandett, believe that online belligerence can do more harm than good. As a single mother and former nurse, Vandett said affordable health care is her number one issue. She spends her free time as one of the sole Sanders volunteers knocking on doors in the Appalachian region of North Carolina, rather than picking fights online.
“It’s pointless and it damages the campaign,” she said of the trolling and harassment. “It’s horrible that people have a perception that Bernie supporters are like these few rotten apples."
But some of those behind the keyboards believe the stakes justify the intensity of their tactics.
Sean Carey, a 33-year-old Bernie supporter from Iowa, wasn’t very political until he saw people lose homes overnight as an employee of a mortgage company during the 2008 financial crash.
“I don’t embody the Bernie Bro firebrand. It’s not my mode of being, maybe because of how I was raised or my being from Iowa,” Carey said. He is active on Twitter but refrains from pointed and profane attacks. His feed consists of retweeted pro-Sanders arguments and replies that begin with a first-name greeting.
“But I do think it has value," Carey said of online trolling. "To me, making some affluent suburban voter comfortable on Twitter is less important than making the people affected by racism, classism, and entrenched policy feel protected and seen.”
Riann Ponti, meanwhile, readily admits to being aggressive online. The 32-year-old drifted in and out of homelessness throughout his youth in southern California with his drug-addicted father.
Today, he calls Sanders “the only person in my life who’s ever told the truth.” He has been banned on social media countless times and admits he projects a much more belligerent persona online than in daily life. “Social interactions online are battlefields," he said, "especially during political primaries.”
Ponti directs roughly 80 percent of his venom at people on the far right. But occasionally, he’ll turn on Democrats.
“I want to shine the bright light of truth so brightly that it might hurt," he said. "I want the party to have to look. I want people to stop hurting, but sometimes that requires cutting out a cancer. Chemotherapy hurts, but cancer kills. I consider myself social chemotherapy. Yeah, I’m a little toxic, but right now someone has to be.”
The Sanders campaign has maintained that the conduct of its most aggressive proponents does not represent the broader approach of his supporters.
“I’m not going to tell you we don’t have some jerks out there,” Sanders said in a CNN town hall on Feb. 24. “I do want to say to those folks: We do not want your support if you think that what our campaign is about is making ugly attacks on other candidates. We don’t want you.”
But the Bernie Bros could prove to be a thorn in Sanders’ side as the primary season barrels ahead and the stakes heighten. In the Las Vegas debate, Pete Buttigieg, who has since dropped out, tried to draw a connection between Sanders’ message and the angry sentiment of his online supporters: “I think you have to accept some responsibility and ask yourself what it is about your campaign, in particular, that seems to be motivating this behavior more than others.”
Michael Bloomberg’s campaign used the Bernie Bro to paint the Sanders campaign as divisive and radical.
“They feel entitled to be thugs because they are self-righteous and they think their cause validates any type of dangerous or threatening behavior that they engage in,” said Tim O’Brien, a senior adviser to the Bloomberg campaign, which suspended its run Wednesday.
O’Brien, who previously served as executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion, suggested the Bernie Bros are taking a page from Trump’s playbook in 2016.
“Both aim to be censorious. They like to clamp down on anyone who doesn’t share their point of view. Naysayers are threatened. And what they’re doing helps the candidate go unvetted," he said.
The tit-for-tat between the campaigns set up pundits for a Super Tuesday showdown. Ultimately, Bloomberg performed abysmally. But former vice president Joe Biden resurrected his campaign and exposed holes in the Sanders coalition by shining in states with large majorities of African-Americans and among college-educated white voters.
Whoever secures the Democratic nomination come July will need the support of those outside his diehard base. Mark Longabaugh, a media consultant who advised Sanders during his insurgent 2016 campaign, suspects the Bernie Bros debate will snowball into a greater skepticism of the senator’s ability to unify and lead.
“There are myriad ways that Senator Sanders has to step up if he’s going to seize control and be the front-runner. He has to lead the entire party, not just part of the party,” said Longabaugh, who parted ways with the campaign in February 2019. “His nomination cannot be a hostile takeover.”