NOTE: This is part of a longform series documenting my experiences on the 2020 Campaign Trail. Subscribe for more updates: https://christopherrex.substack.com/
Iowa City, Iowa — There is only one consensus among those commenting on the 2020 Democratic primary: Twitter is not real.
As The New York Times Upshot Blog put it: The Democratic Electorate on Twitter Is Not the Actual Democratic Electorate. What that meant from a punditry perspective was that the online clamoring from those on the left could safely be ignored.
For much of the past year I had accepted that logic. But in the last few weeks, as primary season neared, I began to wonder if maybe the consensus wasn’t dramatically, delightfully wrong. Certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
The impetus had been a threat, originating from the “Dirtbag Left” — a subversive, agitating online faction of Bernie Sanders supporters that exists somewhere between “Weird Twitter” and “Left Twitter.” The threat was this: Vote for Bernie Sanders or we won’t support your eventual nominee.
The mainstream lost its shit. It was like a collective acid flashback. 12 percent of Sanders primary voters flipped to Donald Trump in 2016, a swing, they argued, that cost Democrats the election, an argument that ignored the fact the nominee failed to campaign in Wisconsin (but let’s not re-litigate 2016).
To frame it in a metaphor: online Bernie supporters were trying to hold the Democratic Party hostage. They saw how vulnerable the Party was, how knee-quakingly afraid they were to select the wrong candidate, and so took the last, best, only option available to them:
“GIVE ME YOUR BERNIE VOTE!” his supporters demanded, hand in coat pocket and wildly swinging it around the room. Failure to comply, they warned, would result in the worst fate imaginable: Four more years of Donald Trump.
Democrats were frozen. Was that really a loaded gun, or just a Snickers bar crinkling in clammy hands of a desperate, crazed zealot?
Put another way: were the vocal supporters on Twitter representative of the larger pool of Sanders supporters nationwide, a slice that made up about a quarter of the whole Democratic coalition? Was Twitter … real?
There was only one way to find out.
The real-life manifestations of online Bernie supporters — the “Bernie Bros,” as critics derisively dubbed them — is the podcast Chapo Traphouse. The show sprang off Twitter in 2016, the result of a friendship forged between a trio of irreverent, vulgar, politically aware and totally disenfranchised millennial white males, Will Menaker, Matt Christman and Felix Biederman. Chapo Traphouse is the voice of the Dirtbag Left, and front line generals in Bernie’s online army.
That’s why I decided to stay in Iowa City for the night, rather than head back up to Cedar Rapids, where Sanders had Vampire Weekend playing an acoustic set to 3,000 supporters. I wanted to assess the Dirtbag left in person.
Chapo was broadcasting from Englert Civic Theater, a 100-year old community arts and performance center downtown on the University of Iowa campus. The line was out the door and down the street and hour before showtime.
What does the Dirtbag Left look like personified? It is young, but not college aged — I wasn’t out of place at age 37. It is openly intelligent and outwardly friendly, counterbalanced with biting commentary and dong jokes. It is a majority white male, bearded, and dressed from the laundry hamper. It reeks, not un-pleasantly, like the back room of a pot dispensary.
A struggling comedian just off an Uber shift: that is the Dirtbag Left.
I was seated next to some students from the University of Chicago, Sanders’ alma mater, who’d made the 3.5-hour drive to Iowa City to canvass, two of the 2,000-plus volunteers who’d come to knock on doors for Sanders. They were staying in the basement of a local field organizer’s home and spoke excitedly of their experience, sharing their personal story, their Bernie Journey, with prospective caucus-goers. It was a different approach than most campaigns, who focused mostly on pitching their candidates’ bona fides and personality. Both students were convinced it was working.
Conventional wisdom heading into Iowa was that Elizabeth Warren had the most organized ground game, while Pete Buttigieg had the broadest reach. Nobody knew what the hell was happening in the Sanders camp. “Closely guarded” was how one report described their operation. I’d talked with a Warren staffer who described the Sanders canvassers as if they were a guerilla army. There was clear evidence of their presence, ghostly stories from front porch steps, but nobody had ever encountered them.
“We’re everywhere” the canvassers assured me.
Chapo Traphouse is a stand-up comedy show wrapped in rage and presented as a politics podcast. The show is full of impenetrable inside jokes, excessive obscenity, and the ritualistic slaying of sacred cows. It is not for everyone. But it is for a lot of people, and those people LOVE it. The show is the highest-grossing podcast on Patreon, and The Chapo Guide to the Revolution, debuted at #№6 on The New York Times non-fiction hardback list. It could be said that Chapo Traphouse is the Bernie Sanders of podcasts.
That night’s show got off to an alarming start, when one of the hosts (“Virgil!” the crowd knowingly yelled) set off the theater smoke detectors while vaping in the basement. Once onstage and seated behind mics, with cans of beers at the ready, all went smoothly, if slightly drunkenly. This was a pre-celebration. The polls looked good, the energy on the ground felt right, and the mood on-stage among the hosts, and in the crowd of 700 fans — half of whom had come from out of state to knock doors — was that of unironic hope, beautiful and cheesy, a bizarre look for a group defined by its caustic skepticism, like seeing Sanders on the debate stage in a fruit-basket hat dancing the samba.
“This is a small window,” explained the punk-haired journalist Amber A’Lee Frost — who joined the podcast after the 2016 election — on the possibility of a socialist revolution. “But it’s the biggest window this country has ever fucking had.
The big news of the night was to have been the release of the highly anticipated CNN/Des Moines Register poll, the final and most trusted poll prior to the caucus. The results were to be broadcast live on CNN that night.
When Matt Christman announced that the poll had been scrapped, the CNN special cancelled, the crowd greeted the news with laughter, as if it were a bit. When informed that, no, seriously, the Buttigieg campaign had lodged a complaint about a single irregularity, there was stunned silence, followed by the blue glow of cell phones being whipped out and Twitter being checked.
“We have reason to be skeptical of that excuse,” A’Lee Frost deadpanned.
“Could there be some other reason they decided to cancel the big CNN TV event touting the most accurate poll leading up to the Iowa Caucus?” asked Will Menaker, a dead ringer for an adult Haley Joel Osment.
Everybody knew what Menaker was alluding to. If the most trusted poll in politics showed Sanders extending his lead in Iowa two days before the caucus, so the thinking went, it could lead to a snowball effect, whereby previously undecided Iowans, freaking out about picking a winner, latched onto the frontrunner and powered Sanders to a convincing victory in Iowa, creating a cascade of support leading to more support until the only option left was Bernie Sanders.
And from the perspective of the Dirtbag Left, that was something that the mainstream media and Democratic elites would not abide.
“I mean, I’m absolutely positive, if this were a poll that showed Bernie stumbling, they’d have the same reticence due to the complaints of a single campaign,” Christman piled on, sarcastically. “I’m sorry, but if Pete Buttigieg says, ‘eh, no, don’t release the poll’ — what is he going to do?!? Kill your dog?? Well, yeah!”
The crowd cracked up at the familiar joke — Pete Buttigieg, as seen through the Chapo prism, looks like someone who “probably kills dogs for fun.”
This is the type of joke that defines the show: mean, obscene, offensive — counterproductive maybe even. But it is not without perspective, a defined worldview, articulated from a place of true belief. To the Dirt Bag Left, liberal centrist Democrats like Buttigieg — Harvard-educated, McKinsey-trained, Wall Street-backed — are as responsible for the state of our union as those on the Republican side.
It wasn’t long before talk turned to “Boo Gate.”
Probably you’ve already forgotten this, but at the Bernie Sanders/Bon Iver rally the previous night, during a panel with “The Squad,” the moderator brought up Hillary Clinton’s comments about how “nobody likes [Bernie].” The audience had responded with a mild “boo,” prompting the moderator to shush them.
“No, I’ll boo,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib said, as the other congresswomen laughed. “You all know I can’t be quiet. That’s alright. The haters will shut up on Monday when we win.”
The clip had gone viral. Online liberals tsk-tsk-ed the congresswoman’s lack of decorum while the Left just laughed at their squeamishness.
“I saw a rando online who said: “’This is an insult to the 62.8 million of us who proudly voted for Hillary Clinton,’” commented Virgil Texas, Chapo’s sports coated senior political consultant. “And it’s like, You genuinely believe that. You don’t realize that because of the two-party system, it’s a fucking hostage situation.” The crowd clapped and nodded in agreement. “Most people voted for her with a gun to their head,” Texas’ voice rose. “And they were sick as shit after they did it! Never again!”
That’s the play, I thought. Stick up the Democratic Party, capitalize on the chaos and fear, the inability of liberals to make a principled stand around a single candidate. Then dare them not to vote for Sanders in the general. It’s a ballsy move.
The show ran nearly two hours, and along the way became less comedy show and more political rally, an extension of the Sanders event happening 25 miles north in Cedar Rapids.
“We’re not trying to jinx it,” Texas said, towards the end. “We’re not trying to spike the football before we’re in the fucking end zone. But I’ve got to say, it really feels like this is the fulfillment of something [Menaker] said in 2017: “’If there is going to be effective opposition against the white supremacist, minority right-wing, or the oligarchy in this country, it has to be led by the socialist left.’”
“And that means,” Texas continued, “when Bernie wins Iowa and he wins New Hampshire and he wins Nevada, when Elizabeth Warren has to leave the race,” the crowd began hissing, snake-like at the mention of Warren’s name, “that means that her supporters … will be the Balon Greyjoy after his failed rebellion, bending the knee to Robert Baratheon, giving Big Structural Bailey as a ward to Brooklyn.”
There were howls of appreciation at the Game of Thrones reference coupled with the gratuitous jab at Warren’s golden retriever.
“He will be returned safe and well,” Texas assured everyone. “After Bernie Sanders is inaugurated the next president of the United States, January 2021!”
And that felt like the end, everyone on their feet, a little drunk, chanting “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” But instead the hosts of Chapo Traphouse did something rare: dropped their swords and took off their armor. Sincerity Circle, they called it.
Menaker, the show’s main moderator, talked in a cracking voice about how earlier that week after canvassing he’d cried while brushing his teeth, thinking about the movement that was happening. Biederman, the type of guy who seemed unironically most comfortable in a track suit, spoke of the anger and despair he’d felt after 2016. “It’s hard to chuckle along when it’s defeat after fucking defeat,” he said. The challenge, beating back all the evil forces aligned against humanity, felt insurmountable, “like you’re staring up at skyscraper.” But the Sanders campaign had changed his outlook. “We’re not just tossing jokes and catharsis into the void,” Biederman said. “This is part of something real.”
It was Christman, however, whose words seemed to connect hardest with the crowd. A Midwesterner who grew up in a declining Rust Belt town, Christman majored in history and English in college and married an academic librarian. Like many men from his generation, he had first set about trying to fit into the professional world, an experience which took him from odd-job to odd-job, the most substantial of which was a four-year stretch working the info desk at a Barnes and Noble bookstore. “I had come to terms with the idea that I was basically unemployable and I was never going to have a job again,” he said in an interview back in 2016. “I was just going to be a fail-guy.”
Big, tall with a bushy beard and wild, thinning hair, Christman is usually loud and excitable, but now he began his portion of the Sincerity Circle solemnly. “One of the things that I’m sure you all know in your bones, is just how shitty it feels to be alive right now,” he started, as a hush fell over the crowd. “Everything feels hollow and cynical and empty, and I really do think that one of the big reasons for that is because we all know, deep down inside, that there’s something wrong. We know deep down that no humane society would be ordered this way.”
“But that knowledge sits right next to the messages we get every fucking day from our parents, from our fucking bosses, from the media, that this devil’s bargain that we’ve struck — where you get creature comforts and convenience in exchange for precarity and alienation and fucking despair and the steady erosion of the fucking living environment that we need to survive — is some sort of choice that we all made. That we all opted for this option. But we know in our heart’s that’s not fucking true.”
You could hear the creak of a seat. “But the problem,” Christman continued, “is that we’re all fucking powerless against it. As an individual, what are you supposed to do against these massive world spanning powers that determine the world that you live in?”
The ultimate result, he went on, is that people become hyper-aware of the awfulness around them, but with hyper-specific knowledge of their own inability to do anything about it.
“And what that does over time is that it starts to eat away at you. And it honestly — I mean I’m speaking for myself anyway — it makes you start to hate yourself a little bit. You hate yourself for how fucking powerless you are, and more importantly — and even worse and more insidiously than that — you start to feel complicit in your own misery. You start to feel complicit in the misery of others. You start to blame yourself because, why aren’t you doing anything? But what’s to be done?”
Christman wasn’t just speaking for himself. The silence said everything. He was describing something universal, an overwhelming, soul-crushing futility that so many in his generation feel. This was the part of Chapo and its fans that doesn’t get talked about: a heart and compassion that belies their characterization as misanthropic slackers who don’t give a shit about the plight of humanity. They’re not in this to “own the Libs” or spike a football in the face of the establishment.
Of course, those are certainly perks of the mission, and they revel in it at times. Most of the time. But the big secret behind Chapo Traphouse is this: They care. Probably more than the rest of us.
“This campaign, the Bernie Sanders campaign,” Christman laughed, as if he couldn’t believe what he was saying. “I swear to God guys, this is the first movement that any of us have seen in our living lives that has the promise of bringing a critical mass of people to the realization that they aren’t alone.”
That was the moment the crowd had been waiting for, and Christman had to raise his voice to be heard over the cheers.
“None of us by ourselves can do anything. That’s what they tell you every day to keep you where you are. But what the Bernie campaign is telling you, and what we’re all telling ourselves, what all you fucking canvassers are saying … is that all of us, together, can do anything!”
The crowd didn’t just applaud. They leapt from their seats and into a chant of “NOT ME, US! NOT ME, US!” as the Chapo hosts looked at each other in a sort of dazed amazement. A’Lee Frost, next up in the Sincerity Circle, finally brought some levity to the moment:
“I could either keep it super short,” she yelled over the roaring crowd “Or tell an antisemitic joke.”
I had booked a room at hotelVetro just around the corner from the theater, taking advantage of a steep Priceline discount on a sixth-floor king suite that would have made Ed O’Keefe sigh in approval.
I stepped off the elevator and was immediately overtaken by the pungent skunk of marijuana smoke, a sign I wasn’t the only Chapo attendee who’d spotted the discount.
It had been an exhausting day/week/month/year, and I collapsed on the big king bed and ordered a stuffed pizza from a non-chain place. I was indulging tonight.
I emptied the tiny shampoo and soap bottles into the massive tub, turned on scalding hot water, set my notebook and recorder on the ledge, took a big rip of Bernie Sanders, then another, and slid into the tub with a muffled scream.
The question I had come to answer was this: Are online Sanders supporters, spearheaded by the Dirtbag Left, representative of actual real-life Sanders supporters?
I grabbed my tape recorder and scanned back 10 months to the Sanders rally I’d attended in Davenport. At the time, I had been convinced that the primary was shaping itself around the generational divide theory. I’d spoken with wide-sampling of Sanders supporters, from all segments of the electorate: a small-town Gen Z woman — wearing a “Bernie 2020 Peace” shirt who worked in date entry; a millennial man in his mid-30s, shaved head, reeking of cigarette smoke, employed at a local blood bank; a silver-haired Boomer, technician at the University of Iowa, bobbing his head to the blue grass band that opened the event; a lone lady in her 70s, retired, with the wide-eyed look of a fanatic.
Listening back to their responses, I was now struck by how similar they all were, despite the obvious differences. For one, they were absolutley committed to Sanders. A year from the caucus, at a time when most Iowans were still thinking about which candidates’ sweaty palm to hold first, Sanders supporters weren’t considering anyone else in 2020.
Each had a different, specific reason for supporting Sanders, and none of it was based on his personality. They didn’t care how many languages he spoke, or what beer he drank, or if he had a dog and what was its name? They weren’t motivated by his ideology, either. None of the four identified as “Leftists” or even mentioned socialism. What drew them to Sanders was simple: his agenda. Medicare For All; tuition-free public college; Green New Deal; taxing the rich. That’s what they cared about. That was the main thread that rallied them around Sanders.
But that wasn’t the only thing. There was also anger.
I heard it in the way the Boomer spat out the name “Debbie Wasserman Shultz” and in the way the older lady kept repeating “Bernie Stumps Trump” while smacking her palm with the back of her hand. I’d seen it from behind the media corral, when the guy in a sleeveless denim shirt threw two middle fingers in the air at Sanders’ mention that not a single banker went to jail for their role in the financial collapse. I felt that rage reverberate in boos around the packed River Center when Bernie called out UnitedHealth CEO David Wichmann and his $83 million compensation in 2017. It was like being at a WWE wrestling event.
Real life Sanders supporters were loyal, passionate and powered by a frustrated anger that no other candidate was willing or able to fully address. In other words, they were a lot like the online supporters I’d just met, minus the memes.
Everyone talks about income inequality, and it is obscene, but more repugnant is the wealth gap, which has reached levels not seen since the Gilded Age, an era so defined by opulence and inequality that it gave birth to progressivism. The wealthiest 10 percent of Americans, those making $120,000 or more, own 93 percent of all stocks and bonds. Meanwhile, the bottom 90 percent holds three-fourths of the country’s debt.
Forget, for a moment, the One Percent, who evoke images of private jets and third homes, and consider the fact that just three men — Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, own as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent of Americans.
To put that into perspective: Bezos just recently bought a Beverly Hills mansion, the most expensive home in California, for $165 million, a purchase that cost approximately 0.13% of his net worth.
To put that into perspective: the average Amazon warehouse worker makes around $30,000. If they wanted to spend 0.13% of their wealth on a home, they would have around $39 to spend, enough to maybe buy a single-person tent from Target.
Not coincidentally, when the L.A. Times looked at individual political contributions made to presidential campaigns, they found that Amazon employees described their job as “slave” more than any other worker in the country. Also not coincidentally, those people disproportionately donated to the campaign of Bernie Sanders.
What has the federal government done to alleviate this disparity? Since President Ronald Reagan and the conservatives took power in 1980, worker compensation has risen just 24 percent while productivity has increased 134 percent — in correlation with the systematic dismantling of union rights. Meanwhile, Congress hasn’t raised the minimum wage since Justin Bieber was discovered on YouTube; the rate for restaurant servers and other tipped employees has been the same $2.12 since — I shit you not — Thelma and Louise was in theaters.
Capitalism is a bullet-train derailed in the subway tunnel of the American Dream. Back in the 1940s, following the Great Depression, class and social mobility was a real thing: 90 percent of children born in the U.S. during that decade went on to earn more than their parents. For those born in the 1980s, it was a 50–50 shot. As for Gen-Z, once they’re done worrying about student loan debt, gun violence and climate change, they can be safe in the knowledge that their financial futures are pretty well fucked (Ahh, to be young).
For those who accept this worldview, that capitalism has taken a destructive, sociopathic turn, that greed and corruption and profit-above-all-else is rotting our country from the core out, and that the only way to fix things is to dismantle and rebuild our broken systems, there really is no other option than Bernie Sanders. He is the only candidate they trust to stand up to the capitalistic pigs raping our economy into bleeding submission and the establishment media standing complicity by, grunting “AR-AR-AR” in Tim Allen-like satisfaction at the newest unemployment numbers.
Most galling to Sanders supporters is not Republicans hurling communist epitaphs, but the Democratic Party refusing to accept the reality of the situation. Or worse, those who accept it, but rather than join the fight, give a patronizing pat on the head and tell them to grow up. “Pipe dreams” is what Amy Klobuchar calls things like universal healthcare and free public college. The way of the Liberal Centrist Democrat is reform over revolution, compromise rather than agitation. It is a philosophy the Left can no longer stomach.
Consider healthcare: During the first two years of President Barack Obama’s time in office, Democrats had control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, including, for a period of eight months, a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate. And what did they do with it? Join the rest of the developed world in guaranteeing healthcare as a right, jamming a version of Medicare For All down the collective throat of the Republican Party? No. They debated, they conceded, they tried to find a compromise that would appeal to the vast center of the country, eventually adopting a plan conjured by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank that has since disowned Obamacare and advocated for the law to be totally dismantled.
The real-world manifestation of that approach is that a decade later, private-insurance premiums have jumped 28 percent, deductibles are up by $1,000, and Americans now pay twice as much as other wealthy countries for healthcare, with worse outcomes. When Sanders supporters hear Buttigieg, for instance, trying to bridge the divide by giving the American people “choice,” they smell P.R. talking points cooked up by for-profit healthcare industry executives. That’s why, in the world of Chapo, Buttigieg is a “rat-faced CIA operative.”
Those within the Democratic establishment, and those who identify with it, bristle with umbrage at the crude and profane tactics of the Dirtbag Left. And there are certain elements who take those efforts to the extreme, elements that Sanders has disavowed and may even be Russian trolls. What can’t be denied of the collective group, though, is that the anger is real — and justified. What they are saying, when they criticize Buttigieg in as offensive terms as possible, is that anyone taking money from healthcare execs and then using industry talking points to tear down Medicare For All, is not on the side good.
Yale historian Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny, has said: “If you have not taken a risk or made a principled stand, you have not experienced freedom.”
For Sanders supporters, this is a defining imperative. And so they are strident, unbending in their belief. It comes down to principles and what you are willing to risk.
Which brings us back to the Dirtbag Left and their threat to hold the Democratic Party hostage. If there really is a gun in their pocket, if they get what they want — if Sanders becomes the nominee — there is a real chance that the tactic so thoroughly alienates moderating forces in the Party that a window opens big enough for Trump to squeeze his KFC-eating ass back into the White House. And that would be terrible. To the Dirtbag Left, though, not fixing the systemic dysfunction that created the conditions that made Trump possible would be even worse.
I took another hit of Bernie and dunked my head under the water, eyes open.
Sitting in Englert Theater, surrounded by real-life volunteers, men and women (about one-third of the room) who had left the computerized world to make a physical difference — motivated in part by the co-hosts of a podcast that got its start and largely still exists online — it certainly felt like Twitter was real.
But it had just been a glimpse, the very specific and entirely anecdotal experience of an outsider. Later, I reached out to Matt Christman, via Twitter, of course, to see what he thought:
“Twitter is as real as we choose to make it. If we decide to take the beliefs and connections we develop online into the real world, then we’ve reified it,” he said. “If we just stay posting, Twitter stays imaginary.”