When Hillary Clinton’s divine entitlement to the U.S. presidency began to look imperiled in 2016 — first due to the irreverent and unkempt (but surprisingly formidable) Democratic Party primary challenge from Bernie Sanders, the independent socialist Senator from Vermont — her campaign and its media allies invented and unveiled a deeply moving morality tale. A faceless horde of unnamed, uncredentialed, unmannered, violent, abusive and deeply misogynistic online Sanders supporters — dubbed with the gender-emphasizing name “Bernie Bros” even though many were women — were berating, insulting and brutalizing Hillary, her top campaign surrogates (U.S. Senators, former cabinet members, corporate executives), and especially pro-Hillary corporate journalists with a vast artillery of traumatizing words and violent tweets.
This storyline — and especially the way it cleverly inverted the David v. Goliath framework of the 2016 campaign so that it was now Hillary and her band of monied and Ivy-League-educated political and media elites who were the real victims — was irresistible to Harvard-and-Yale-trained journalists at NBC, CNN, The New York Times and Washington Post op-ed pages who really believe they are the truly marginalized peoples. This narrative scheme enabled them — the most powerful and influential media and political elites in the world, with access to the most potent platforms and megaphones — to somehow credibly lay claim to that most valued of all currencies in American political life: victimhood.
With this power matrix in place, what mattered was no longer the pain and anger of people whose towns had their industries stripped by the Clintons’ NAFTA robbery, or who worked at low-wage jobs with no benefits due to the 2008 financial crisis caused by Clintonite finance geniuses, or who were drowning in student debt with no job prospects after that crisis, or who suffered from PTSD, drug and alcohol addiction and shabby to no health care after fighting in the Clintons’ wars. Now, such ordinary people were not the victims but the perpetrators. Their anger toward elites was not valid or righteous but dangerous, abusive and toxic. The real victims were multi-millionaire hosts of MSNBC programs and U.S. Senators and New York Times columnists who were abused and brutalized by those people’s angry tweets for the crime of supporting a pioneer and avatar for marginalized people: the Wellesley-and-Yale-Law-graduate, former First Lady, Senator from New York, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The genius of the Bernie Bro rhetorical scheme was two-fold. First, it prioritized and centered elite discomfort over the far more important and real anger and deprivation of ordinary people. Secondly, and even better from the perspective of elite interests, it implicitly imposed a ban on any meaningful critiques of powerful political and media elites by insisting that the online abuse and resultant trauma they endured was the fault of those who criticized them. According to this elite-protecting script, this crisis of online abuse and trauma did not materialize out of nowhere. It was triggered by, and was the fault of, anyone who voiced criticism of those elites. By speaking ill of these media and political figures, such critics were “targeting” them and signaling that they should be attacked.
Thus, the only way to be a responsible and respectful member of society was to refrain from criticizing Hillary and her media allies. As I wrote in January, 2016 when the “Bernie Bro” manipulation was first unleashed as the Democratic primary voting cycle began:
The concoction of the “Bernie Bro” narrative by pro-Clinton journalists has been a potent political tactic — and a journalistic disgrace. It’s intended to imply two equally false claims: (1) a refusal to march enthusiastically behind the Wall Street-enriched, multiple-war-advocating, despot-embracing Hillary Clinton is explainable not by ideology or political conviction, but largely if not exclusively by sexism: demonstrated by the fact that men, not women, support Sanders (his supporters are “bros”); and (2) Sanders supporters are uniquely abusive and misogynistic in their online behavior. Needless to say, a crucial tactical prong of this innuendo is that any attempt to refute it is itself proof of insensitivity to sexism if not sexism itself (as the accusatory reactions to this article will instantly illustrate)….
But truth doesn’t matter here — at all. Instead, the goal is to inherently delegitimize all critics of Hillary Clinton by accusing them of, or at least associating them with, sexism, thus distracting attention away from Clinton’s policy views, funding, and political history and directing it toward the online behavior of anonymous, random, isolated people on the internet claiming to be Sanders supporters. It’s an effective weapon when wielded by Clinton operatives.
Thanks in part to Sanders himself — who repeatedly gave fuel to this storyline by apologizing for his supporters’ supposedly unique misconduct and chiding them for bad behavior, rather than mocking the inherently moronic idea that Sanders supporters were somehow uniquely abusive in their online conduct — this spectacle was a smashing success. Thereafter, it was thus repurposed against any and all movements dedicated to challenging establishment power. Each time, the real victims — the ones who merited your sympathy, compassion and protection — were somehow the very political and media elites who wield the greatest power and enjoy the deepest wealth and privilege.