“You Should be Hung in a Public Execution” How Violence and Conspiracies Define the Bernie Movement

On Wednesday, James T. Hodgkinson made his way to a baseball field in Alexandria, VA where Republican lawmakers had gathered to practice baseball and opened fire with an assault rifle, critically injuring Congressman Steve Scalise in an utterly deplorable attack on democracy and American values.

Much of the media coverage has included analysis of Hodgkinson’s obsession with Bernie Sanders. The most prominent think piece is Yamiche Alcindor’s argument that Bernie bears responsibility for the attack thanks to his near-apocalyptic anti-Trump rhetoric. I personally believe this argument is wrong. Politicians have always used the most vile terms to describe their opponents, and in this regard Bernie bears no more responsibility than any of his Democratic colleagues who have also described Trump as a treasonous threat to democracy. To be clear from the start, I do not believe Bernie Sanders is to blame for the shooting.

This is not, however, the first act of violence by a Bernie supporter. Far from it. From leading violent anti-Trump riots in Chicago, to sending death threats to superdelegates, to forcing superdelegate Jim McDermott to defend himself with a shovel against a Bernie fan threatening to cut out his tongue, violence has long been a hallmark of Bernie’s movement. And the violence pales in comparison to the endless torrent of conspiracy theories one hears in Bernie circles, from claims of a rigged primary to allegations that Hillary Clinton murdered Seth Rich. How has this sort of behavior come to be so characteristic of the Bernie movement?

To a certain extent, we can attribute this to the anger of the downtrodden fighting against a system, and the fact that Bernie had a near monopoly on the revolutionary arm of the American left. It can also be attributed to the inexperience of Bernie’s supporters, who with no prior electoral participation were more prone to turn to violence as a means to get their way. But a large part of this violence springs from feelings of desperation, helplessness, and raw anger that fermented in Bernie’s base. Bernie circles online spun the story of an election that was being rigged against them by a cabal of corporations using the Democratic Party as a puppet to defeat the choice of the people, a cabal that could only be defeated with loud, aggressive, relentless effort by the people to make their dissatisfaction known. Every minor event in the election process became a test of the will of the people — and every perceived loss another defeat in the last-chance war to save American democracy.

This is where Bernie Sanders does bear an enormous responsibility, because this sentiment and worldview was propagated, recklessly and intentionally, by Bernie and his campaign. Fully aware of the delusions of his base, Bernie used phrases, and pushed an agenda, that dovetailed with those delusions. For instance, Bernie created the image of a DNC managed by corporate puppetmasters, and his campaign worked overtime to paint this image in the minds of Bernie fans on a nearly daily basis:

When elements of the party spend decades supporting job destroying trade deals and cozying up to Wall Street and other corporate interests, it only makes sense that working people and young people’s confidence in the party as a whole has been shaken, if not shattered.

Bernie also frequently used the language of his supporters to call the primary election unfair or rigged, using the excuse of “it’s rigged because the superdelegates subvert the will of the people” to send a clear dogwhistle to online conspiracy-theorists:

When we talk about a rigged system, it’s also important to understand how the Democratic Convention works,” Sanders said Morning morning. “We have won, at this point, 45 percent of pledged delegates, but we have only earned 7 percent of superdelegates.

When WikiLeaks released tens of thousands of DNC e-mails, which contained nothing more controversial than a few frustrated insults, Bernie’s campaign manager had this to say:

We have an electoral process. The DNC, by its charter, is required to be neutral among the candidates. Clearly it was not… we had obviously pointed that out in a number of instances prior to this, and these emails just bear that out.

His deputy campaign manager and national director of surrogates was a little less subtle:

Everything our fans have been saying — and they were beaten down for and called conspiracy theorists — and now it’s in black and white.

Let’s look at a case study. At the Nevada state convention, the Sanders campaign intentionally spread false information about the rules, leading Bernie’s delegation to descend into utter chaos. Delegates for Sanders rioted on the floor, screamed over speakers, and filed endless motions to extend the convention indefinitely. The state party described the scene thusly:

The Sanders Campaign spent its time either ignoring or profiting from the chaos it did much to create and nothing to diminish or mitigate. It was clear to the NSDP that part of the approach by the Sanders Campaign was to employ these easily-incensed delegates as shock troops to sway the convention proceedings. At the very least, these delegates became a way for the Sanders Campaign to seek the advantage of disruption at any particular moment while trying to disavow any responsibility for their actions even as it was ongoing. At no time did any Sanders representative make anything more than token gestures towards peace in the hall, and at the times of most intense crisis offered little more than shrugs and smirks.
The most egregious instance of the Sanders Campaign inciting disruption — and yes, violence — came as the State Convention’s Credentials Committee completed its work. Adam Gillette, part of National Delegate Operations Team for the official Sanders Campaign, drafted and arranged for a member of that committee to attempt to deliver an incendiary, inaccurate, and wholly unauthorized “minority report” charging that the Credentials Committee had fraudulently denied 64 Sanders delegates their eligibility. The final delegate count had provided the Clinton Campaign with a 33 delegate advantage in the hall; one can imagine the rage occasioned by this inflammatory charge, tossed into the tinderbox of a tense convention hall.

After Nevada Democratic Party chairwoman Roberta Lange ended the convention, she was made the scapegoat for Bernie’s loss, subjected to an endless stream of vitriol, and began to fear for her life as she received messages from Bernie supporters such as:

Hi Roberta Lange. This is a citizen of the United States of America and I just wanted to let you know that I think people like you should be hung in a public execution to show this world that we won’t stand for this sort of corruption. I don’t know what kind of money they are paying to you, but I don’t know how you sleep at night. You are a sick, twisted piece of shit and I hope you burn for this! You can return my call at 619–838–9222. I’d love to go into further detail with you about this, though I am sure you don’t have courage to do so. You cowardless bitch, running off the stage! I hope people find you.

Bernie’s supporters later marched in the streets and vandalized the Nevada DNC headquarters. Meanwhile, Bernie refused to discuss the matter in interviews as Democratic leaders, including Harry Reid, pressured him to end his silence and condemn his supporters’ actions. What they got instead was what can only be described as a tacit endorsement of his supporters’ sentiment and behavior:

It is imperative that the Democratic leadership, both nationally and in the states, understand that the political world is changing and that millions of Americans are outraged at establishment politics and establishment economics. The people of this country want a government which represents all of us, not just the 1 percent, super PACs and wealthy campaign contributors.
The Democratic Party has a choice. It can open its doors and welcome into the party people who are prepared to fight for real economic and social change — people who are willing to take on Wall Street, corporate greed and a fossil fuel industry which is destroying this planet. Or the party can choose to maintain its status quo structure, remain dependent on big-money campaign contributions and be a party with limited participation and limited energy.
Within the last few days there have been a number of criticisms made against my campaign organization. Party leaders in Nevada, for example, claim that the Sanders campaign has a ‘penchant for violence.’ That is nonsense.

These are just the direct actions of Bernie and his campaign, but he also bears an enormous amount of indirect responsibility, through his inaction, for the behavior and perceptions of his supporters. The Sanders campaign was well-aware of the efforts by Russian intelligence and other fake news sources to help his campaign. Articles promoting all sorts of slanderous lies about Hillary Clinton, pushing fake stories about Bernie (such as endorsements by Elizabeth Warren and Pope Francis) and claiming “undeniable proof” that the DNC had rigged the election against Sanders, were propagated on a wide network of fake news sites, from well-known sources such as WorldNetDaily, RussiaToday, Observer Media and USUncut down to random sites created by trend-hopping fake news profiteers. These articles were then promoted by a massive network of sock accounts to inject their election narrative into social media. Bernie supporters fell for it hook, line and sinker, and the narrative of the Russian propaganda machine quickly became dogma in Sanders circles.

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because these exact same techniques, now proven to be a powerful anti-Clinton weapon, were used to help Donald Trump. This is also a large part of why we witnessed the phenomenon of Sanders supporters voting en masse for Trump. Having already bought into the integrity of these fake news sources, they continued to eat up their lies in the general. To return to Hodgkinson, the man’s social media was full of conspiracy theories about a rigged primary and hashtags such as #NOTwithher, and many of his friends had Seth Rich as their profile pictures. This is a fairly typical portrait of a man sucked into the anti-Clinton fake news vortex.

Make no mistake, Sanders and his campaign knew exactly how this massive campaign of weaponized disinformation was being used to aid his candidacy at the expense of Hillary Clinton. They did absolutely nothing to stop it. Members of his campaign’s social media crew stood by as fake and conspiracy news sources consistently saturated the most prominent pro-Bernie social media spaces. Bernie even appeared for an hour on one of the most viral sources of anti-Clinton fake news hysteria, Cenk Uygur’s The Young Turks show on YouTube, and made no effort to push back against their gallery of false conspiracies. At the DNC, weeks of hysteria and conspiracy-mongering reached their apex when hundreds of Bernie’s delegates, after hours of screaming over Democratic speakers, stormed out of the convention and invaded a nearby media tent, demanding more coverage of their claims that the DNC had stolen the election from Sanders. Bernie’s camp made a call for unity, but did nothing to push back on the false claims or defuse the protesters. Perhaps most deafening was Bernie’s silence late in the campaign as his supporters made a “hit list” of superdelegates and flamed them with obscene and threatening messages for their support of Clinton.

My point is this: Bernie has repeatedly and recklessly stoked the flames of anger and paranoia, while refusing to shut down, push back against, or take any responsibility for the conspiracy theories and violent rhetoric that spread like a virus in his base. While on the plus side (for Bernie) this has helped to ensure the loyalty and political strength of his supporters, it has also propagated a distorted, disturbing, violence-prone worldview. The leader of any movement has a duty to ensure that movement follows its desired course, and should be held accountable if he fails and it spirals into madness. For Bernie to claim credit for the positive attributes of his movement, he must also be accountable for its negative attributes. Violence and conspiracies are, and have always been, a fundamental characteristic of Bernie’s movement, and Bernie’s cowardly attempts to absolve himself and his reporters of responsibility must be called out loudly and repeatedly until he is forced to clean up the absolute mess he has made.