column

Digital bullies are a problem. But they’re not the Third Reich

Comparing the thuggish online “Bernie Bros” to “brownshirts” is wrong. But so are the same kinds of comparisons regarding Trump supporters.

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for president in 2016. Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr.
Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for president in 2016. Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Some important liberal journalists have recently started talking about an ugly fact. Running afoul of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s online supporters isn’t fun. That was the upshot of a recent conversation on MSNBC when “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd read aloud a passage from an article by writer Jonathan Last that was published in The Bulwark, where he wrote about the behavior of Sanders’ backers, popularly known as the “Bernie Bros.”

Last accurately described fans of Sanders as an online mob that bullies the Vermont senator’s critics, “hounding opponents, enforcing discipline, quashing any sort of dissent—and trying to preempt anyone else from taking sides against the Dear Leader.” The point of the piece was to compare them to supporters of President Donald Trump, but in doing so, Last went a step further by saying that both Sanders and Trump each had a “digital brownshirt brigade.”

Predictably, that sent up howls of protest from supporters of Sanders, who said it was offensive to compare a Jewish candidate’s backers to Nazis. And, in the manner of online mobs, Todd’s sin in merely quoting the article brought down on his head an avalanche of criticism, including a trending #firechucktodd hashtag. By calling attention to the bullying the press gets from the Socialists’ posse, Todd (who is also Jewish) was “canceled” by the political correctness police of the left.

The context for this kerfuffle is not one of the usual left-right, pro-Trump/con-Trump variety that seems to characterize all of our political arguments these days.

Todd is a liberal journalist notorious for his disgust of the president. And Last is a #NeverTrump conservative writing in an anti-Trump publication. Yet the tsunami of abuse thrown at Todd proved his point about the way the Sanders’s mob swarms anyone who speaks up against the current Democratic presidential frontrunner.

But there are two separate points to be made here.

One is that Sanders’s supporters are right that Last was wrong to call them Brownshirts. Todd was equally wrong for quoting the passage on air without pointing out the huge difference between even the most obnoxious of the Bernie Bros and Adolf Hitler’s Storm Troopers, who were known for their brown uniforms.

Sanders’s Jewish background does not earn him a pass for anything, especially since he is both utterly indifferent to the security of Israeli Jews, as well as an enabler of leftist anti-Semites and Israel-haters like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, all of whom are supporting his presidential campaign.

Moreover, the online mob that Last and Todd discussed is real and doesn’t flinch from employing anti-Semitic imagery and insults, as I’ve learned anytime I write about Sanders’s attitude towards Israel.

The point they raise about the way online mobs in the service of a political candidate have become a feature of mainstream American politics is a good one. It’s a product of social media, a bifurcated press corps split in the service of political ideologies, and the way leaders seek to rile up their supporters and demonize their opponents.

Yet even those of us who have experienced the bile thrown at us by the Bernie Bros need to understand that getting trolled by online critics is not the same thing as a rerun of the Third Reich. Bullying may be bad, and the willingness of Sanders’s fans to mobilize to attack anyone in his path is awful. But that doesn’t justify comparisons to historical figures who were responsible for mass murder and the Holocaust.

Part of the reason why Todd and other Trump critics were so quick to apply the “anyone I don’t like is Hitler” rule to the Bernie Bros is that they’ve been employing the same unfair smears against supporters of the president.

That’s not to say that many of Trump’s backers aren’t as obnoxious as those of Sanders. On Twitter, there’s little difference between the left and the right when it comes to torching and trolling opponents. The whole point of discourse online is not reasoned argument, but furious denunciation and abuse aimed at dismissing, if not altogether silencing, differing points of view.

That’s deeply unfortunate, and those politicians who encourage it (as is the case with Trump, who models bad behavior on his own Twitter account) or fail to stop it (as is the case with Sanders, who is happy to accept support from extremists but then pretends their conduct has nothing to do with him) are equally responsible. We’d all be better off if politics were played like lawn tennis rather than rugby.

But let’s also not pretend that the desire of elite supporters of party establishments—whether the Republican or the Democratic variety—to treat dissent from their diktats as either treason or incipient fascism isn’t also part of the problem.

The MAGA-hat-wearing “deplorable” Trump supporters fling awful insults at their targets, but that doesn’t make them Nazis any more than the Bernie Bros’ attempts to bully their opponents. And those journalists who can’t stand the heat need to, as President Harry S. Truman would have said, “Get out of the kitchen.”

It ought to be unnecessary to say this after so many examples of outrageous comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis, but seemingly sober and sane people keep on doing it. Just because we disagree with the Bernie Bros or Trump’s supporters, and don’t like the way they speak, that doesn’t give us the right to link them to mass murder or attacks on democracy. To the contrary, efforts to shut down both the populist right and the populist left only feed extremism and undermine faith in a system that should allow all of us—even those whose behavior is far from perfect—to use our constitutional right to free speech to voice opinions on the issues of the day. Ours is an era of obnoxious political speech. But such speech is an expression of democracy, not its end.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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