Bernie Sanders is running for president again, but you knew this. In one day, Sanders raised nearly $6 million, besting 2020’s previous one-day record holder Kamala Harris by almost a factor of four and giving an early victory to leftists suspicious of DNC types’ enthusiasm for her. In that same period, every conjugation of Bernard Bro was tweeted enough to circumnavigate the globe in 12-point type. One of these things will last forever, but only one of these things matters.
Forever is the online Bernie War, the most depressing addition to social media platforms whose primary utility already seemed to be rapid distribution of racism, misogyny and threat. It’s people who waited their entire lives for a social democrat to have a viable shot at the presidency, versus women who’ve waited all of theirs to finally see a president who represents the other half of the human population, and all of them are becoming their worst selves in the process.
It’s serious gender and economic issues weaponized for character assassination so gleeful that it trivializes the victims of those issues, it’s No True Democrat fallacies until your eyes bleed, it’s more bad faith than a dreamscape of Church abuse scandals written by the most avid Pizzagate masturbator, and chances are it’s making you watch people you know being so obtusely and disingenuously petty to other people you know that you want to slam all their heads together until it sounds like someone kicking a sackful of coconuts down a wooden staircase.
And the worst thing about it is that it really, most of the time, doesn’t matter—not even for the people reluctantly dragged into it, warring only because injustice or mendacity overbore their silence on an issue they believe cannot be met with it. Most of the time, it’s a rehearsal of a fencing duel in a high school play. No matter how seamless and artful, no matter how many touches, it plays to a mostly empty room scattered with nerds. The rest of the world is outside.
Dave Weigel goes there. He’s a Washington Post reporter, who, despite his paper’s name, spends most of his time out of town, and despite his Beltway credentials, he has a real fascination with ideas and figures outside the consensus. In 2010, that meant following the frothiest Tea Partier; for the last few years, that’s meant documenting the changes in the Democratic Party. From Iowa and South Carolina, he has a message familiar to people experiencing politics beyond the home:
If any theme has emerged, it's that the Democratic electorate showing up to meet its candidates is far less ideological and skeptical than the one that lives on social media. Some days, the gulf between the discussion on Twitter and the discussion at campaign events is a mile wide.
Or, in a pithier version from Gawker’s Alex Pareene, effectively summarizing the zombie 2016 Democratic Primary, which threatens to overtake both M*A*S*H and the Korean War in duration: YOUR MENTIONS ARE NOT THE ELECTION.
It’s a lesson still only impermanently learned, and we will learn and unlearn it repeatedly over the next 21 months of soul-sucking slog. But we should really probably try to make it stick this time. If nothing else, after two years of broad acceptance of Russian election interference among the Democratic coalition, maybe it’s time to accept that the most noxious elements of less favored candidates and their followers are just as easily falsifiable as the most noxious elements of yours. Maybe the forum deserves as much blame as the participants.
There will always be people overjoyed to tell you that your candidate sucks and, by the transitive property, you suck, and they will not always be wrong. But these people, when non-automated, will almost always represent the medium and not the message. That someone you don’t know is calling you an idiot for who you are or what you believe just means that you’re on the internet at the time.
Change the subject to your disappointments with recent Star Wars movies, and the person insulting you whose avatar includes swastikas in place of Hillary Clinton’s eyes will be replaced by an avatar of what someone concluded was “an extremely fuckable fox” wearing a rainbow swastika armband alongside other evidently extremely fuckable animals who have also enlisted in the Wehrmacht for some reason. The only thing that matters is that you had the temerity to enjoy something in front of other people again.
On a slightly higher level, the online take economy will only be too glad to scrape Twitter for toxic or seemingly coordinated outbursts and attempt to extrude them into some demographic/organizational significance, but we have words for these people.
The nice ones are, “These are bloggers earning $30k/year without benefits, trying to leverage any content they can find for a publishable piece, and we should probably forgive them for the fact that an editor making $250k/year at a hedge fund masquerading as a publication made them plug a hole on the front page that day.” For a lantern-headed narcissist like Bret Stephens at the New York Times, whose mentions evidently comprise an Alexandrian map of the known world, there are the other words, like asshole.
Meanwhile, in-the-tank columnists and candidate mouthpieces will always be able to find someone whose social media effrontery rises to a level of political convenience that allows them to be conflated with the candidate. The nastier the commenter and the more viable the candidate, the more important it is to fuse the two. The nasty person’s conduct in a realm of semi-reality—even that person’s reality itself—will always be secondary to their utility. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wasn’t speaking on behalf of Hillary Clinton when she famously singled out a “Bernie Bro” who was actually a fictional Republican congressman, but he was grist enough for those who were.
But, as Weigel said above, albeit more Postily, the internet doesn’t often emerge in the middle of events that require commuting and pants. There are some exceptions, granted—like people waving placards with current memes on them to make sure you know that you don’t have to take them seriously, or a GOP rally, where reality and internet fantasias converge on a point behind the podium, and there is almost always at least one subscriber per lead-brained conspiracy hashtag—but, generally, as a reporter and as a human being, you have to push someone to start sounding like they live on the internet.
Maybe it’s having nothing between their heads and the sky that makes them ashamed to shout Pokémon Go To The Polls, either sincerely or derisively, in full view of God or people who might know their parents. Maybe it’s just the collective understanding that any conversation that begins with requiring an understanding of the current state of online has already spiked to a 70 percent chance of failure. Either way, the truism we all innately understood the first time we logged onto the internet remains: people are different people behind keyboards than they are behind nothing. The thing that motivates you to show someone up online is always vastly less important than the thing that makes you show up at all in real life.
So Kamala Harris might tell Ellen DeGeneres that she has moves like Jagger and then stand up and demonstrate having moves like Jagger to a clip of “Moves Like Jagger,” and you will wonder if she actually likes that song, or if it tested well, or if everything is just going to be terminally lame from now on, even as you’re witnessing 100 different animated gifs of an event that hasn’t even concluded spill down your social media feed and making you wonder if this is what happens when The Matrix is built by the Ann Taylor Loft, and it will absolutely suck, and it will be really, really hard not to dunk on it, and even harder to tie it to criminal justice reform in a way that doesn’t seem insanely petty, and it will be almost impossible for it to be important that you do.
It won’t be real, and it won’t be why anyone’s at the rally—and it won’t be why anyone is not, any more than Bernie Sanders’ condor-like wingspan accidentally obstructing a female panelist on a talk show is the reason why there aren’t more people at his speech wearing White House/Black Market. This internet is shitty and tedious and awful, but this election, like all elections, is still outside and out loud and door-to-door and especially face-to-face, and even when the collective wisdom of the digital crowd virally declares that This Candidate Moment Is Everything, you still do not need to Be Here For It.