Gaslighting Bernie and His Supporters

I have to preface this by saying it’s personal for me. I spent years of my early adulthood having ferocious fights about politics with my father. The more animated I became, the cooler he got. He had a lawyer’s knack for flipping an argument on its head. By the end I felt not only defeated but exposed and dirty, as if whatever I believed was just emotion-fueled nonsense. Not until I turned 50 was I able to hold my feelings in check and parry back with equal aplomb. It’s taken me another 12 years to realize that I was being gaslighted.

When people I encounter, mainly on social media, don’t like Senator Bernie Sanders – I’m talking mainly about Democratic voters who support one of the other candidates – almost invariably they’re gaslighting me, and Bernie. His rivals do it, too, as when they label him divisive or misogynist or socialist or intolerant of others’ views. These tactics are many and ingenious. They assume that if they’ve been “attacked” on social media by a Bernie supporter – although why these supposed victims are suddenly oh-so-vulnerable is never clear – every supporter is a “Bernie Bro.” Every expression of passion and partisanship is an attack.

Because Bernie’s supporters believe that his policies and proposals are far more progressive than most and represent something like a challenge to the status quo – though the most realistic of us know that he could be so much more, and that to a not inconsiderable extent he is as much a creature of American Exceptionalism as the others – we point out the weaknesses of the other candidates’ platforms. Elizabeth Warren is closest, perhaps, but has declared herself a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist, which makes her progressive bona fides somewhat questionable. I hardly need to point out here that Pete Buttigieg is the current darling of Wall Street and Amy Klobuchar has horrible environmental and prosecutorial records. As for “Mike” Bloomberg, if the Democrats really want a racist, classist billionaire in office, they might as well just stand down. Maybe that’s the point?

One of my Pete or Amy friends is reading that last sentence and getting ready to tell me that I’m a conspiracy theorist. Speaking of which, try asking politely how it is that, more than two weeks out from the Iowa caucuses, we still don’t know how Buttigieg ended up getting 14 delegates and Bernie 12, when the last figures made public showed them tied 11-11, based on a virtual tie (less than .1% difference) in “state delegate equivalents” and Bernie’s leading in individual “popular votes,” and you’re whining and complaining just like Bernie does. Don’t even bother pointing out the factual links between the app developer “Shadow, Inc.,” the DNC, and the Buttigieg campaign. You’re deep into tin-foil hat territory.

Line up a dozen stories in the New York Times – in just the last two weeks! – that blatantly or subtly make Bernie look bad, or relegate him to a footnote, and you’ll be told you’re becoming paranoid.

Do you gag when you hear the ever-loving trope that Bernie can’t get elected? You’d think that the fact he leads in national polling both against his rivals and head-to-head against Trump might be persuasive. But you’d be wrong. In that case, polls aren’t very reliable. Or else they’re just ignored. Every Tom, Dick and Harry knows that Bernie is just not “electable” because, well, that’s what every Tom, Dick and Harry says.

To believe in Bernie, his platform and his deep and broad support is cast as “unrealistic.” “That’s not the real world,” people say. “In the real world, not enough people like Bernie. He’ll turn off too many voters.” Polls? Results so far? Turn on the white noise machine.

Some of my combatants concede that Bernie could win, but they won’t support him anyway. Why not? Because “he won’t be able to get anything done; he’ll try to ram his extreme policies down Congress’s throat and they’ll defeat his proposals.” These people’s solution, I guess, is to elect someone who will concede everything to the lawless, unbending Republican right without a fight.

There’s a common thread through all this gaslighting. Virtually every argument focuses on a supposed inherent flaw in Bernie or his supporters. His “unelectability,” his “divisiveness,” his “Bros,” etc. What’s missing? A single word about policy. People I know who support Pete talk about his “gravitas” and cool demeanor, never about his “Medicare for all who want it.” What is there to defend? A policy that nearly all experts agree is bogus and would drive up costs? And beyond that, crickets about foreign policy or the economy or social justice or anything else. Besides, now that we have the new Yale study out, the argument that true Medicare for All would cost Americans more has no more legs under it.

Of course, a lot of people I know vote simply on the basis of gut feeling: “I like that person. I could imagine being their friend.” I think that might be one of the traits that does distinguish Sanders supporters. We’re not interested in a popularity pageant, we’re interested in changing and improving this country and the world. (Honestly, if Bernie was my uncle, I’d probably be annoyed as hell.)

So in place of offering any kind of cogent arguments in favor of their candidates, the Un-Bernie crowd just picks away at every nit they can find, big and small. Their ultimate go-to is the tired old trope that it was Bernie cost Hilary the election. They’ll never get over that. “But,” I say, “he campaigned hard for her!” La-la-la-la-la-la. And it’s not just what they say, it’s how they say it. So cool. With that smug, “Why get so hot and bothered? We’re only saying that nothing you believe is true in the ‘real world.’ You just need to face facts!” Gaslighting.

I want to say this again: Bernie is not ideal. Not even close. Like a lot of his supporters, I was angry four years ago when he caved to pressure and didn’t go third-party. But if you listen to what he’s saying – and stop imagining he’s yelling angrily at you – you will hear a candidate, as I did at a New Hampshire rally, who is laying out a platform, plank by plank. Other than saying “We’re taking on the whole Republican establishment, and the Democratic establishment, too” (which, you know, is kind of true), I heard exactly zero attacks or even mentions of his opponents. Instead, I heard the word “justice.” And that one word alone, unheard from any other candidate, is a bolt of lightning that tells me this man can win and fight for real change (however degraded that last word).

As for his vaunted “Bernie Bros”? Poof. A mirage. Listen, I know lots and lots of Sanders supporters, online and in real life. Women and men, black and white, young and old. A radio host, a massage therapist, an environmentalist and former Occupy activist. At the rally I met a candy maker, two college students, and a therapist. All of these people are gentle souls. Not one of them would raise a cross word on Twitter or anywhere.

Which is not to say I won’t. You gaslight me and I’m going to fight back. Enough is enough.

Fred Baumgarten is a writer living in western Massachusetts.