Trying to Extinguish a Fire with a Lit Match

Fascism from an unexpected source.

Anna quietly grabs a chair and goes to her window. It’s dark in her apartment but she doesn’t dare turn on the lights. Standing on the stool and balancing carefully to ensure she’s not at eye-level with anyone who might be lurking outside she slowly gingerly moves the curtains aside just enough to peek out in the darkness. Across the street she can make out the figures of about a dozen men. They would be just silhouettes in the darkness but there’s just enough light that it bounces of their white skin. She can’t quite make out their expressions but she imagines them smirking in self-satisfaction. She recognises the jackets of one or two of them. They’ve been here before. And she knows that in a few minutes or so they’ll start up again.

She’s low on supplies and getting seriously hungry, but she’s afraid of what they’ll do to her if she goes out. While they’re there no one can come in our out of her building without them harassing them and since her door is just visible from the front entrance she can’t put her neighbors at risk by asking any of them to buy groceries for her. Besides, if they know she’s there, they might make good on any one of their threats. She doesn’t know for sure who scrawled the racial slur across the outside of her unit or exactly which one of them threatened to hang her or which one threatened to guillotine her. She can’t herself even prove that the men outside are the same people sending the threats. But groceries aren’t worth the risk.

She’s called the police despite the danger involved but it seems to only make the nightly harassment worse. The police won’t arrest the young men and the moment the police leave the men return even more belligerent than before. Anna snuck out three days ago to take her two-year-old daughter to her mother’s apartment. These men know she has a daughter and have sent graphic threats about her as well. She’s willing to risk her own life, but not her child’s.

In the darkness her clock ticks to 11pm and right on schedule, it starts. The men turn into a mob banging trash cans, throwing bottles, and calling Anna out by name. One of them has brought a bullhorn this time and is shouting racist and sexist slurs at her. They’ve already circulated her address and phone number but now they’re calling out to the entire neighbourhood her building and apartment number. Anna trusts her community. Her neighbours have helped her avoid detection. When they can they bring her food. But realistically, how much of this will they take?

The reason for this, or more accurately, the excuse for this is that about a month ago Anna expressed support for a Democratic candidate for President and said she was going to go vote for him. Ever since she’s endured endless harassment, threats of violence, stalking, and a mob of white men outside her window screaming nightly for her execution. Worse, these are not Trump supporters. These are supporters of Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Anna is a fictional character that I’ve based on several women of color recently doxed, harassed, and threatened by Bernie Sanders supporters. Hers is a story of targeted harassment where victims are chosen due to their minority status and inability to effectively fight back. Anna, like the majority of women she is based on is black, but I named her for my Grandmother who escaped Soviet controlled Hungary with her two-year-old son by bicycling over a minefield and for Anna Smoleńska who died in Auschwitz within days of her mother, sister-in-law, and sister. Because of Trump we’ve been at about a nine of ten for full blown fascism for some time now. And Trump’s supporters have committed atrocious acts of violence with at several specifically and explicitly aimed at Jews.

But Bernie Sanders supporters are also committing acts of violence. They’ve committed fewer obvious hate crimes than Trump supporters, but their rhetoric is becoming increasingly violent and it is predominantly aimed at women and people of color. I could not find any reliable reports of Bernie Sanders supporters attacking Trump supporters or Republicans, but there are troves of threats against minority individuals and groups and specifically Democrats.

At this point we do have to consider the demographics of the two major Parties and the demographics of the campaigns. This graph from the Pew Research Center helpfully shows not just the racial composition of the Democratic and Republican Parties relative to the total number of voters, but shows it over time. It’s pretty clear based on this that especially of late the Democratic Party is considerably more diverse.

There’s a lot of factors which contribute to how that happened but an especially notable one would be ideological shift over time. And I’m not just talking about Overton’s window or about the nation as a whole becoming more liberal; what I’m talking about is what voters consider important has changed over time. A Republican or conservative respondent will tell you that their most important consideration when voting is the economy. A Democratic or liberal respondent will likely answer that it’s healthcare or climate change. But Democratic voters are also far more interested in general in things like social justice and racial equality. For obvious reasons, that has attracted a lot more people of color to the Democratic Party than to the Republican Party.

So then let’s have a look at the demographic distribution for the supporters of 2020 Democratic candidates. No one really has a demographic at present that really reflects the Democratic Party as a whole, but what is notable is Joe Biden’s share of black voters. This link I’ve provided is interactive so you can break it down by race and gender as well as a few other factors. Black voters really are the heart and soul of the Democratic Party.

I would caution against treating black voters as a monolith — your one black friend who agrees with you is not necessarily representative of all black voters past, present, or future — but black voters tend to be strategic, cognisant of shifting political realities, and amazingly good at turning out the vote for the Democratic Party and voting for the Democratic Party. In some of the more recent contests, black voters in general have gone for the Democratic candidate at rates of about 90% and black women in particular often surpass 95% support for the Democratic option. In contrast, well at least 47% of white women voted for Donald Trump and white men were predictably worse.

So with this kind of record it’s a bit strange that predominantly white men are claiming ideological superiority and ownership of black women’s votes.

The typical threat is that white men will refuse to vote for anyone but Bernie Sanders so we better all do as we’re told. And don’t get me wrong, white men do get a lot of advantages in American society. A super majority of elected representatives at all levels of government are white men and have historically always been white men. White men occupy all but a few positions on the Forbes 500 list. White men are paid considerably more than any other group except Asian men, and white men have fewer social responsibilities. But what these threats of violence and stalking incidents amount to is white men believing that they are not only entitled to their massive privilege but believing they are within their rights to destroy the lives of others with less privilege. It would be paternalistic if not for the violent edge.

The excuse I have seen from them is that those they are targeting are either public figures or Democratic officials. In some cases this may even be true but even ignoring the pain and monetary losses inflicted on the victims of these encounters there’s no benefit to Bernie Sanders or his followers. I’m easily drawing a parallel between the violence of the Brownshirts and BernieBros and while Bernie supporters might object to it there frankly is not much which distinguishes them. Bernie supporters are justifying othering and dehumanisation of a group on people on the false assumption that these people are hording money and power. Anyone who does not buy into the more fascist beliefs of the BernieBros — basically anyone who is not themselves engaging in acts of racially motivated violence with the BernieBros — will find the bigotry at least unpalatable.

But let’s take it even further than that. Let’s assume that not only does the victim not matter but that this sort of bigotry can be dismissed and excused by potential voters. I hope you have a hard time imagining that because this is the sort of thing white supremacy is based on, but let’s just pretend for a moment. EVEN in that situation the best case outcome for Bernie Sanders and the BernieBros from this behaviour is that voters stay home from the polls. Sanders doesn’t gain support as a result of this behaviour. He might enjoy it, but it won’t help him in an election.

Let’s go back to that assertion that the victims of these threats and harassment are working for the Democratic Party. Again, in some cases they are. But their jobs are typically things like compiling Democratic opinion and constructing policy based on that, or compiling votes. And the Democratic Party has a lot of fail-safes to ensure that it’s really hard to rig an election. BernieBros got mad at that when they couldn’t steal the Nevada primary in 2016. But whatever the supposed justification, harassing a Democratic official, elected or otherwise, is completely pointless. They’re not even in a position where they could go, “oh, I’m scared, better rig the vote.”

When BernieBros do this, their point is just to inflict harm on someone who can’t fight back. As we’ve said so many times in regards to Trump’s actions: Cruelty is the point.

Now, let’s lift those assumptions from before. The victims absolutely do matter. They’re people and regardless of their race or gender or sexuality or job and they do not deserve to be threatened with death or rape or lose their job simply because a bunch of white guys want to play-act a revolution.

And the final issue in all of this is fascism gets worse, not better, when the fascist gains power. We’ve seen this countless times in history, we’ve seen it with Trump, and we’ve seen it every time Bernie Sanders does well in a primary. The violence increases when the fascist wins. Now, yeah. We saw a lot of racist statements from BernieBros after Sanders lost South Carolina but, at the risk of being contradicted in a few hours, most of the racism was just nasty posts on reddit and twitter. That’s bad and unacceptable in a democracy which includes people of color, and I will get into it in another post, but it’s not as alarming as it might have been.

Fascists will fascist no matter what you do but a fascist movement out of power is considerably less dangerous than one in power. At the moment, Trump is worse than Bernie Sanders. But this is only because he’s in power. This is probably also reflected in the relative violence seen from Sanders and Trump supporters. Both engage in hate crimes or at minimum intolerant rhetoric, but Trump’s supporters are currently worse. Given the pattern we’ve seen after Sanders’ wins in the primaries, it is likely that further wins for him will embolden his supporters to commit more and more violent hate crimes.

We are at a dangerous inflection point in US history. We’ve elected a white nationalist to power and let him start the work of dismantling out institutions. We need to get him out. But it isn’t enough to simply replace him with another old white man willing to use white supremacy as a means to an end. There are countless reasons why Bernie Sanders is a bad choice. Some of them are rather serious and some are just issues of policy. But the culture of suppression and racism Bernie Sanders has cultivated in his movement should be a deal-breaker for any American who cares for democracy and progressive values.

Doctor of Palaeopathology, rage-prone optimist, stealth berserker, opera enthusiast, and insatiable consumer of academic journals.

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