In one of the most famous moments of the 2008 campaign, Republican nominee John McCain calmly rebuked a woman who called Barack Obama “an Arab,” by saying he was “a decent family man…who I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” It remains remarkable not just for McCain’s grace under pressure, but because it is impossible to imagine the current Republican occupant of the White House ever doing such a thing:
Less remembered is that in the weeks leading up to this, McCain’s campaign had become hyper-aggressive in its attacks on Obama. Republicans who showed up at McCain rallies would call his opponent a “terrorist” and question where he was born. All this came to a head when, at a Florida rally, one of them shouted “Kill him!” at the mention of his name. The press took McCain and his campaign to task, and Congressman John Lewis accused him and Sarah Palin of “Playing with fire,” comparing them to segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace. None of this takes away from how McCain handled the “Arab” moment, but it’s fair to ask whether or not it would have happened without pressure from the media and other politicians.
Senator Bernie Sanders now faces a similar dilemma. At the beginning of his presidential campaign last February, he sent an email to his supporters asking that they “engage respectfully with our Democratic opponents,” and not get bogged down in talking about “personalities [and] past grievances.” Apparently, they have not gotten the message, since yesterday, at a rally in Michigan, organizer Mark Craig shouted expletives about Hillary Clinton during Sanders’s stump speech:
Washington Post reporters Dave Weigel and Sean Sullivan, who were on hand to cover the event, offer different explanations to what words Craig used. Weigel claimed on Twitter that he didn’t hear the C-word, but that his recorder picked up Craig’s cries of “F*ck Hillary!” Sullivan was less specific, claiming in his article that he only heard “expletives.”
Whatever he said, it is easy to believe that Mark Craig is the kind of person who would make such remarks about Hillary Clinton — who, once again for those in the back row, is not a candidate in 2020. A quick glance at his Facebook page portrays a man consumed by rage towards Hillary Clinton in the last primary. He shared anti-Hillary cartoons and memes, posted H.A. Goodman articles, and even made death threats against her, telling her on March 2nd, 2016 to “drop off the long end of a very short pier.”
Craig’s behavior would be more disturbing if it wasn’t so embarrassingly typical. Since Sanders entered the race, his supporters have been equally, if not more vicious than in 2016, whether they’re doxxing the women who asked him questions at his CNN town hall, or writing biased hit pieces against other Democrats in the pages of Jacobin and Current Affairs. Last time, they didn’t become this bad until it became clear he could not mathematically win the nomination: this time, they’re going full speed ahead in their determination to clear the field so their chosen one can be coronated. They act as though the 2018 midterms never even happened: in their mind, it is still 2016 and the establishment, which has bent over backwards to accommodate many of his electoral reforms and policy proposals, still wants to destroy him and his movement.
Those of us who have been observing and covering Sanders since he became a national figure in 2015 have received constant condescension, harassment, and abuse from his fans whenever we question his dogma. He may have told them to knock it off two months ago, but he has done nothing since to repudiate their actions. Even worse, his recent decision to bring journalists Briahna Joy Gray and David Sirota onto his campaign, both of whom use social media to attack and slander their enemies, proves that he not only condones this behavior, he welcomes it. And as long as his fans continue acting this way, they are speaking with his consent.
Sanders should look to 2008 as an example for how to separate himself from his “bad fans” (as they’re referred to in TV criticism), and not just to John McCain. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had to rise to this challenge: Clinton when former vice presidential nominee and campaign associate Geraldine Ferraro said that “if Obama were a white man, he would not be in this position,” and Obama when he had to distance himself from his pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Obama responded with one of the most lauded speeches of his career; Clinton by dismissing Ferraro from her campaign. While neither of these responses completely solved the problem (Rev. Wright became an issue again a month after Obama’s speech, and Clinton was criticized for not firing Ferraro as quickly as she could have), they were still better than if they had done nothing at all.
Going forward into 2020, the Democratic Party must stress a positive vision for a post-Trump America, and that means detaching ourselves from the people who, to paraphrase Hillary Clinton in 2008, are in it just for Sanders and no one else. His inability to do so last time is one of the many reasons Donald Trump is in power. If he wants to do what is good for the country and the party, he must reject and denounce Mark Craig and all who attempt to poison the waters in his name, and both the press and the Democratic Party must hold him to account until he does. Otherwise, he is no better than the Republicans he runs against.