Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire. (Photo: Lucian Perkins/Getty Images)
As Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton prepare to face off in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, one thing is already very clear. No matter who won Iowa or what happens tonight, the Internet has already decided Sanders is the cool one.
That’s not just because most young voters — a demographic that Sanders has cornered and wooed with the likes of Vampire Weekend and the Red Hot Chili Peppers — voted for him during the Iowa caucuses. The 74-year-old’s unpolished appearance and perpetually irked demeanor have also made him an unlikely pop culture icon — especially online, where you can find everything from trendy T-shirts to indie pop ballads inspired by the Vermont senator. And just as celebrities like Drake and Ryan Gosling have legions of admirers who create clever fan art in their names, Sanders is now the star of countless weird, funny, heavily Photoshopped Internet memes, many of which originate on sites such as Reddit and filter up to Facebook. On the latter, Sanders has more than 18 large groups dedicated to him. Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash is the second most popular, with over 160,000 members.
Memes via Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash
An endless flow of original content produced by a candidate’s loyal supporters should be a campaign’s dream — the virtual equivalent of millions of homemade Bernie signs dotting the lawns of American voters. Recently, however, those same supporters have drawn criticism for the tone and direction of their fandom, which both Clinton’s campaign and the media have characterized as sexist. In her endorsement of Clinton, columnist Joan Walsh described this vitriolic subculture as “the Berniebot keyboard warriors.” But the rest of the Internet knows them better as Bernie Bros.
The Bernie Bros have become enough of an issue that Sanders himself addressed them during a Sunday interview on CNN’s “State of the Union. “It’s disgusting,” he said. “Anybody who is supporting me and who is doing sexist things, we don’t want them. I don’t want them. That is not what this campaign is about.”
However passionately Sanders hopes to distance himself from the group, its presence in the national conversation is enough to demonstrate the power of a small but prolific band of online supporters. If Sanders has somehow won the Internet, as the saying goes, it may partly be because he has appealed to its de facto gatekeepers. According to Limor Shifman, author of “Memes in Digital Culture,” the Bernie Bro phenomenon is an outgrowth of underground forums such as Reddit and 4chan.
“On one hand, they have this self-image of being anarchists and being antiestablishment,” she told Yahoo News. “On the other hand, they’re pretty much white and male.”
Shifman cited a recent meme started by the comedian Jeff Wysaski, which depicts side-by-side comparisons of Sanders’ and Clinton’s opinions on ridiculous issues like wolves or caves. The conceit is that Sanders’ answers are true to his actual persona (an elderly white man) while Clinton’s reflect her robotic tendency to pander. But other topics, and altered versions of the meme after it went viral, devolved into the more familiar trend of shaming women for their supposed lack of pop culture expertise when it comes to topics like “Star Wars,” Radiohead, or “Harry Potter.”
Photo: Obvious Plant
“A lot of commentators said that in fact this resonates with the same anti-female discourse within fandom,” Shifman said. “Female fans are considered less sophisticated. There’s a strong gendered structure built into it.”
Not all Bernie memes are inherently sexist. Many simply offer insight into the generational interests of his supporters. Sanders, for instance, is sometimes Photoshopped into “Star Wars” scenes in which he is the good Jedi facing off against an evil Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton — a meme meant to reinforce the notion that he presents a stark moral contrast to most other politicians while also positioning him to sci-fi lovers as the ultimate hero. In another image, his head is Photoshopped onto what looks like a 1980s-era photo of a man in an ugly sweater, holding an adorable cat. Aside from a general appreciation for retro aesthetic among hip young people, there’s also the subtext that Sanders is a caring human being. He likes kitties! Who doesn’t like a good kitty?
Some memes even position Sanders as if he were just another tech-savvy college student. Take the way his supporters inserted him into the common “ Bae come over” meme, which depicts a text message conversation between a young couple that typically ends with an exaggerated image of one person rushing to go see their significant other. “Bernie come over,” it begins. “I can’t I’m at a debate,” he replies. “I’m being overcharged for a college education,” the other voice retorts. The image concludes with a real-life screengrab of the Vermont senator running to catch a train. The message is that he is hip enough to be worked into a meme about hookups but morally committed to the earnest, unironic issue of college costs. No campaign speech could better communicate his message about free tuition to the generation for which it matters most. (It’s no wonder why young women have taken to Tinder to campaign for him.)
“It’s quite clear that there’s this chicness that is somehow associated with him that fits very well with how meme culture sees itself,” Shifman said. “There’s this resonance between him as a political figure and this culture.”
With his legion of online supporters, Sanders has had to grapple with the same sexist rhetoric that has poisoned online communities and sullied online comment threads for decades. But if his campaign is able to overcome and somehow mute those few unsavory voices, he will possess political gold: a huge, ongoing presence in the online conversations of young Internet dwellers. It’s hard to think of a better way to position a candidate to young voters than as the subject of inside jokes about text message booty calls.