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Why They Hate Bernie

Remember the frenzied, paranoid style of right-wing anti-Clintonism? The lies, the conspiracy theories, the deeply personal disgust? Well, it’s back — only this time it’s migrated to the Democratic Party and its unhinged attacks on Bernie Sanders.

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders speaks during the AARP and The Des Moines Register Iowa Presidential Candidate Forum on July 20, 2019 in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

There’s shocking news out of MSNBC: its ever-more-conservative team of analysts aren’t fans of Bernie Sanders.

“Just as a woman, probably considered a somewhat moderate Democrat, I — Bernie Sanders makes my skin crawl,” former New York prosecutor and MSNBC legal analyst Mimi Rocah told the panelists of last weekend’s Up with David Gura. “I can’t even identify for you what exactly it is, but I see him as sort of a not pro-woman candidate . . . I don’t understand young women who support him.”

Cue smiling and nodding from fellow panelist Zerlina Maxwell.

“We’ll leave it there,” concluded host Gura.

The fact that MSNBC — a network, owned by union-buster and habitual labor rights violator Comcast, that one of its own journalists has criticized for turning into a propaganda arm of the national security state — is hostile to Sanders is not a surprise. If you’d tuned in to the second Democratic debate in June, you would’ve been treated to a pre-show featuring Claire McCaskill (fresh off losing her Senate seat by turning sharply right and alienating and ignoring traditional Democratic voters) running Sanders down and, together with Chris Matthews, making excuses in advance for why Joe Biden would perform poorly (credit where credit’s due: Biden did indeed do horribly). And, if you watched it to the end, you would’ve seen someone at the network audibly scoffing as Sanders made his closing statement.

So MSNBC’s dislike of Sanders is nothing new. What’s significant about Rocah’s statement is that it perfectly sums up the attitude of much of the centrist Democratic establishment when it comes to Sanders.

While in the real world, Bernie Sanders — a politician with a 100-percent Planned Parenthood lifetime rating who’s spent a career speaking out and fighting for the rights of women and other working people — has been preparing this presidential run since 2016, shadowing him has been another Bernie Sanders. Unlike the real Sanders, who was once dubbed an “honorary woman” by feminist Gloria Steinem, this shadow Sanders is an unreconstructed misogynist, and an egomaniac to boot. He’s also a dangerous, authoritarian demagogue, the mirror image of Trump, and just as beholden to Vladimir Putin. Oh, and he’s deeply racist, too.

For the most part, this alternate reality exists solely on Twitter, where self-identified Democrat, liberal, and centrist users routinely vent their rage at the antics of the sinister, online-only Sanders they’ve willed into existence like a cyber Candyman. From time to time, however, it bleeds into the real world.

Just consider some of the idiotic Sanders-related “controversies” we’ve already had to sit through during this election cycle. In February, online outraged erupted because Sanders, for the third year in a row, delivered a rebuttal to Trump’s State of the Union address, this time after the official Democratic rebuttal by Stacey Abrams. This was construed by the anti-Sanders online space as a way for him to “upstage” and silence a black woman.

That outrage was fanned by former Clinton campaign alum Zerlina Maxwell — the same Zerlina Maxwell smiling and nodding as a former prosecutor declared her evidence-free claim that Sanders didn’t care about women. When Kamala Harris — whose actually unsavory record as a prosecutor Maxwell, speaking on MSNBC in 2017, declared off-limits for criticism because “we need to give her a chance to shine or not shine” — turned out to be doing her State of the Union rebuttal before Abrams, Maxwell helpfully clarified: “Pre speech is fine. Post speech or after Abrams is not.” Maxwell would later issue a drearily predictable criticism of Sanders’s announcement, claiming he didn’t mention race or gender until twenty-three minutes into his speech, which turned out to be an easily disprovable lie. She later clarified that “talking about criminal justice is not the same thing as talking about race and gender.” (In fact, Sanders did both).

This was just one element of a constant parade of dishonest, sometimes mutually contradictory attacks on Sanders. Former Clinton campaign staffers complained to Politico about “his Royal Majesty King Bernie Sanders” using a private jet during 2016 . . . to campaign in as many places as possible for their candidate. Others complained he didn’t campaign for Clinton enough — a widespread belief in online anti-Sanders fantasyland.

When a woman accused Joe Biden of inappropriate touching, some speculated the accusation was orchestrated by Sanders. Commentators would habitually parse his words in the most uncharitable way possible to suggest he was a bigot. He was said to have hired an “attack dog” and a “bully” — aka an award-winning journalist — as his speechwriter, with one Atlantic piece suggesting a secret arrangement blending campaign work and reporting that had gone on for months, a story that quickly fell apart. The list could go on and on. All the while, Democrats and their boosters demanded party unity and ferociously objected to even the softest critiques of other candidates’ actual voting records.

“I’m not necessarily an anti-Bernie guy, especially not when it comes to his policies,” one ex–Clinton staffer told Vox. “But he has this self-righteous attitude to himself.”

These have been only marginally less desperate than the bog of innuendo, half-truths, and lies anti-Sanders zealots wallow in in extremely online spaces like Twitter. One user edited a video of Sanders telling schoolkids about the history of bigotry in the United States to make it seem like he was uncritically feeding them racist stereotypes. His quoting abolitionist Frederick Douglass was “cultural appropriation,” and offensive because he (i.e., Douglass) didn’t explicitly mention race. And did you know Sanders once used the word “niggardly,” a Middle English word that has nothing to do with the racial slur? Let’s not forget, he’s also a Russian agent.

Something curious has happened here. In their visceral dislike of Sanders, whose record and words they cherry-pick and distort, whom they imbue with sinister motives and conspiracies, and whom some can’t even fully explain what it is about him that sets them off, liberals and centrists are, ironically, aping the very same hatred the Right has long held for a different set of politicians: the Clintons.

Throughout the Clinton years and beyond, conservatives were driven into a frenzy by the occupants of the White House. The Right associated them with all manner of outlandish conspiracies, such as the supposed “murder” of Vince Foster. Just as Sanders’s “honeymoon” in the Soviet Union — actually an official mayoral trip as part of a sister city program Sanders had set up with a Russian city — is constantly trotted out today to attack him, the Right tried to make hay of the fact that Clinton once traveled to the country in the 1960s. Right-wing columnist George Will opined that Clinton wasn’t “the worst president we ever had, just the worst person who was ever president.”

“I openly admit that I just don’t like the man, and my disgust is both personal and political,” wrote Trent Lott, one of Clinton’s congressional nemeses.

This rage and delusion was particularly aimed at Clinton’s first lady, later senator from New York. Conservatives distorted and took out of context her academic writing to claim she wanted kids to be able to sue their parents and that she hated the American family. They projected a variety of negative traits onto her personality: that she was angry, aggressive, a Lady Macbeth figure. Her comments that she “could have stayed home and baked cookies” were construed as anti-homemaker, even as Barbara Bush got a pass for saying pretty much the same thing. One right-wing columnist called her the Democratic equivalent of Mikhail Suslov, the Soviet Communist Party’s secretary of ideology. A New Republic writer who later became a Trump supporter declared her a “false feminist.” It was all part of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” Clinton complained was out to get her and her husband.

It’s hard not to read evaluations from the first lady’s 1990s detractors without getting a hint of déjà vu.

“A lot of Americans are uncomfortable with her self-righteousness,” complained Arianna Huffington, then a fervent Clinton administration critic.

“There’s just something about her that pisses people off,” said Sally Quinn, another longtime critic. “You don’t even know why you hate her.”

“People can’t really articulate what it is that they can’t trust,” Clinton-enemy-turned-ally David Brock complained in 2016. “Unfortunately, it’s a mythology that’s part of the culture now.”

The Right’s hatred for the Clintons was rooted, sometimes consciously but often not, in their perception of the couple as the embodiment of 1960s counterculture liberalism — the decade, in the eyes of conservatives, where everything went wrong. Of course, in reality, the Clintons were anything but: Hillary had been a Goldwater girl, they crossed a picket line on their first date, and, as president, Bill was a “wild, drunken Republican dream,” as Time magazine memorably put it. Clinton desired many of the same things the Right did, but they felt a deep, internalized hatred for him and his wife anyway, which they sometimes openly acknowledged they couldn’t explain. It’s a striking parallel with Sanders, who has fought and continues to fight lonely battles for virtually everything Democrats and liberals say they want, yet is now the target of never-ending hatred from those same quarters.

It wasn’t always like this. Sanders used to be beloved by many liberals and Democrats, even establishment ones. MSNBC’s Joy Reid was once a fan of Sanders, calling him “the great clarion voice in the Democratic Party,” before transitioning to attacking him full time, even claiming in 2017 that he mistreated his wife. In fact, the network loved having him on during the Obama years to serve as the voice of ordinary progressives, offering him unqualified praise as late as 2014 for being a “bipartisan dealmaker” and securing “genuine progressive victories” as a senator.

What happened? One answer is that many prominent Democrats and liberals don’t actually want the things they say they want — whether it’s because it might alienate their donors, hamper their future money-making prospects, or both. Another answer is that, until 2016, Sanders wasn’t considered a threat to Democratic politics as usual.

The Democratic establishment was fine with Sanders when he was just a lonely voice fighting for progressive values, as long as the gravy train for consultants, lobbyists, donors, and former politicians kept on running. But once he went from just a voice in the wilderness to the head of a movement that threatened to upend this arrangement, something had to be done. This was why the prevailing media narrative around Sanders swiftly changed as his chances increased over the course of 2016. Where he was at first a rumpled wonk whose support consisted of “aging Grateful Dead hipsters, environmentalists and professors,” he quickly became a charismatic yet empty demagogue who lacks understanding of policy and is backed by an army of naive, misguided youth.

It seems that Democrats in the age of Trump haven’t just adopted the playbook of the Right to attack the Left. They’ve also taken on the conspiratorial, frenzied style of antagonism that drove conservative hatred of the Clintons, too. Establishment Democrats may not be able to put their finger on what they don’t like about Sanders, but it’s pretty clear to the rest of us.