Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) has his fair share of critics within the Democratic Party. Many lament his tendency to surround himself with unsavory characters and the vile antics of his devoted internet trolls—the "Bernie Bros." Some, including Sanders's 2016 rival Hillary Clinton, have even accused Sanders of supporting a noxious "culture" of sexism and bullying among his supporters.
For once, Clinton has a point. The fish rots from the head, as they say, and Sanders has a long history of waging nasty attacks on his opponents. He's been especially aggressive when those opponents are members of the Democratic Party, to which—his critics are quick to point out—Sanders does not technically belong.
Clinton decried Sanders's hostility to Democrats in What Happened, her memoir about the 2016 campaign. "He didn't get into the race to make sure a Democrat won the White House, he got in to disrupt the Democratic Party," she wrote of her former primary opponent. The former secretary of state recently doubled down on the criticism, saying "nobody likes him," and refused to commit to endorsing Sanders if he wins the Democratic nomination.
"I'm not going to go there yet," Clinton said when asked about a potential endorsement. "It's his online Bernie Bros and their relentless attacks on lots of his competitors, particularly the women. And I really hope people are paying attention to that because it should be worrisome that he has permitted this culture—not only permitted, [he] seems to really be very much supporting it."
Clinton is far from the only liberal to accuse rabid Sanders fans of bullying. The New York Times on Monday published an extensive report on Sanders's "internet army" and the "culture" to which Clinton referred. For some of Sanders's critics, failing to publicly embrace the socialist senator can have serious consequences:
Some progressive activists who declined to back Mr. Sanders have begun traveling with private security after incurring online harassment. Several well-known feminist writers said they had received death threats. A state party chairwoman changed her phone number. A Portland lawyer saw her business rating tumble on an online review site after tussling with Sanders supporters on Twitter.
Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state legislator who served as a campaign surrogate for Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.), told the Times that criticizing Bernie online almost inevitably resulted in "blowback" of a "sexist, racist, and vile" nature.
Sanders's critics also argue that the senator's consistent failure to rein in these virulent fans amounts to acquiescence.
"There are always people who say things that are problematic. It's not that that is unique to Bernie's campaign," added Jess Morales Rocketto, a Democratic strategist who worked for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. "What's unique is it is a consistent problem in the universe of Bernie Sanders."
In a tweet responding to the Times article, Center for American Progress president Neera Tanden seconded the criticism of Sanders. "I've received death threats, rape threats, people have talked about me hanging from a meat hook," she said. "All stuff that never happened before 2015. And doesn't even happen with MAGA."
All these critics may be on to something. Despite Sanders's attempts to condemn "bullying and harassment of any kind and in any space," disavowing the supposedly rogue sentiments of zealous supporters has become something of a habit for the senator. Sanders was recently forced to apologize after one of his surrogates—progressive lawyer Zephyr Teachout—wrote an op-ed accusing former vice president Joe Biden of representing "the transactional, grossly corrupt culture in Washington that long precedes Trump." Sanders apologized, but only after his campaign's newsletter, "Bern Notice," had already circulated the op-ed.
It doesn't help that Sanders tends to surround himself with controversial figures. His campaign surrogates include Linda Sarsour, who in 2019 was ousted from the Women's March organization over her repeated forays into anti-Semitic commentary.
Left-wing activist Shaun King, who recently appeared at a Sanders campaign event in California, is another example. King has been roundly criticized for his online antics, which include accusing an innocent man of murder and praising a domestic terrorist who attacked a federal immigration facility.
Maybe that's just Bernie's style of politics. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat who served as governor in Sanders's home state of Vermont from 2011 to 2017, suggested as much during a recent interview with Politico. Discussing the campaign spat between Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), whose campaign accused Sanders of suggesting a woman couldn't become president, Shumlin warned fellow Democrats that Sanders "will play dirty" to advance his own interests.
"What I've seen in Bernie's politics is he and his team feel they're holier than the rest. In the end, they will play dirty because they think that they pass a purity test that Republicans and most Democrats don't pass," Shumlin said. "What you're seeing now is, in the end, even if he considers you a friend, like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie will come first. That's the pattern we've seen over the years in Vermont, and that's what we are seeing now nationally."
As far back as the 1980s, Sanders was waging bizarre attacks against Democratic politicians. While running for governor of Vermont in 1986, then-Burlington mayor Sanders took shots at the state's first (and only) female governor, Madeleine Kunin, a Democrat running for reelection. "He claimed to be a better feminist than I was," Kunin said of Sanders during a recent interview. "It shocked me at the time."
Throughout the campaign, Sanders sought to portray Kunin as a lightweight who hadn't done enough to improve the lives of women in Vermont. "Many people are excited because she's the first woman governor," Sanders said at the time. "But after that, there ain't much."
During Sanders's first run for the House of Representatives in 1988, which resulted in a narrow loss to a Republican, the campaign issued a press release criticizing both major parties for nominating millionaires for president (George H.W. Bush, Michael Dukakis) and vice president (Dan Quayle, Lloyd Bentsen).
"It is incredible, but an indication of the times, that all of the Democratic and Republican candidates for President and Vice-President are millionaires," Sanders, running as an independent, said in the press release. "Never before in the modern history of this country has this nation been so dominated by Big Money."
Sanders went on to boast about being "the only Independent Mayor in the United States who has defeated Democratic and Republican opponents." He also accused the "millionaire leadership of the Republican and Democratic parties" of failing to understand the needs of "ordinary income people."
Since then, Sanders has amassed a fortune worth an estimated $2.5 million, which includes at least three houses. "I wrote a best-selling book," Sanders said during a testy exchange with the New York Times in 2019. "If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too."
Sanders's net worth may have changed since the 1980s, but his penchant for dirty politics has not.