The Bernie Sanders Mittens Meme is a Tiny Slice of Authenticity in an Inauthentic World
It went far beyond the fashion statement of the moment, as a photo of former Democratic front-runner for the Presidency, Bernie Sanders, took the internet by storm. There he sat, bundled up in his tan jacket and brown speckled mittens, overseeing the inauguration of his former rival, President Joe Biden. The world was chaos. Everyone was searching for meaning and none of us were finding it.
We feel lost. We feel confused. And most of all, we’ve felt lied to for years.
The United States was reeling in from a turbulent election that was almost stolen by the former President and then-incumbent, Donald J. Trump. Once Biden finally clinched the presidency, the mud-slinging had begun, culminating, for a time being, in the January 6th uprising, riot, and subsequently, the attempted coup d’etat — the first-ever on American soil.
The world watched on in horror as our representatives remained pinned down inside the Capitol building. I remember clearly thinking that day, “I hope the Capitol police can fend them off.” I remember wondering if our Democratic Republic would survive the assault. What would have happened had the furious mob been able to storm deep enough into our nation’s Capitol to capture and kill our representatives?
We’d have an unthinkable crisis on our hands at a moment when we’re the most ill-prepared to deal with such a crisis.
It grips you with fear to wonder about the fate of your own nation. The insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol that day rolled the dice and took a gamble with everything that every single one of us has built our lives on. From our social customs to our stock investments, to our savings to our places of employment, and even on to the comfort and security of our marriages and families, all of our lives as Americans depend on America continuing to exist.
And that was threatened in a game of chance.
By the time of the inauguration, the dust was finally beginning to settle a bit, and the emotions that had been so violently bestirred within us began to temper down. Nonetheless, we still felt trapped. Many of us realized how flimsy our false security really is and how many others out there would like to try to take it away from us in order to force upon us their ideologies that are entirely built on lies.
Once I saw Biden safely being inaugurated, I felt like I could finally take my first full breath in five years, ever since Trump announced his candidacy and began to make headway toward clinching the Republican nomination. But there was still much more work to be done. We almost ended up with a QAnon dictatorship run by none other than Trump himself.
As a Bernie Sanders voter in both 2016 and 2020, the moment was an omega moment that completed the alpha moment four and a half years prior. I remember posting on Facebook in June of 2016, once Bernie Sanders lost the state of California, “This is it. Trump just won the presidency.”
Nobody took me seriously then. Everyone thought Hillary Clinton was going to steamroll Trump and we’d coast through an uncomfortable four years of moderate Democratic policies before coming up to bat again in 2020. But we ended up with Trump instead.
Trump and Bernie couldn’t possibly signify more opposite ideals.
It’s as if lawful good and chaotic evil clashed over the past five years, with Bernie symbolically representing the lawful good, the honest politician who actually cares about people and the working class, with Trump, who signed away trillions of dollars in tax breaks for the pornographically rich, while fighting against anything that helped almost all Americans, and simultaneously passing legislation and enacted executive orders that destroyed the very environments we depend on.
You’ll be forgiven if you have trauma or PTSD from this experience and I’m not even kidding. We watched, at least virtually, as our nation was torn to shreds, as all of the progress we’d made over the years was ripped up like pieces of paper get eaten by a paper shredder in the back office of a banker trying to cover up his tax evasion schemes.
The thing about Bernie Sanders is, love him or hate him, he’s authentic. And that photograph that the world fell in love with managed to capture him in all of his authentic glory.
He never tried to tell us that wearing masks don’t work against respiratory viruses. He never tried to tell us that the obscene rent prices and low wages were all our faults. He never tried to hoodwink us with lies cloaked in the illusion of the unquestionable “common sense.” He even scarcely resorted to attacks upon his democratic rivals, always running a “fair and clean” campaign against both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.
Meanwhile, you take a step outside of the moment that photograph encapsulated, and you see Instagram influencers trying to hustle you out of your hard-earned cash, YouTube scammers selling you bunk information about diet and health that will only lead to sickness in the long run. You’ll see non-doctors making fake claims for people who can’t afford to purchase health insurance, which isn’t even the product it claims to be.
Simply having health insurance is no guarantee they’ll pick up the tab when you get sick, or that you’ll be able to afford the rather large out-of-pocket deductible, or that the hospital you’ll be rushed to or doctor you’ll be referred to will be “in-network” and thus the insurance will help pay for it.
All of these things are things are made intentionally confusing, chaotic, and difficult, as if the companies and the politicians they’ve funded designed them that way in order to confuse us, paralyze us in our confusion, and make us part with our hard-earned livelihoods.
Trump, in all of his chaotic and inglorious crudeness, personified the inauthenticity of the world and our consumerist, market-worshipping ways. And he lied every single day of his presidency accordingly.
Bernie Sanders, in his staunch and unwavering defense of human rights, including the right to not have to be seduced into a predator-prey relationship where we constantly await, stalked by the next economic predator that’s always right around the corner, represents the exact opposite. And the meme we’ve made of him speaks to this part of ourselves.
A friend of mine recently said of the meme that’s been done a thousand times, “Bernie Sanders memes are not funny. I don’t know why you’re sharing them.”
But what if the Bernie meme isn’t supposed to be funny? What if they’re a symbol of his authenticity instead? What if they’re a faint light of honesty in the dark and chaotic world of lies and surrounds us?
After all, he told us the uncomfortable truths about our society that we all knew and he repeated them for years, even when he was treated like a laughing stock by his colleagues and was assailed by the far-right as “crazy Bernie” for having the audacity (and authenticity) to speak to the experiences that everyday Americans were suffering through.
And beyond the fun and silly memes of Bernie, there was a sorrow that we all felt. It’s the flavor of sorrow that reminds us that, in a saner society, the presidency would’ve been his. It’s a moment that reminds us how wrong it is that 70% of the Republicans disbelieve the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency, even with zero proof — all because our biggest “news” network has become nothing more than a propaganda arm for one of our major political parties, a party that’s becoming increasingly comfortable slipping on its fascist emblems and gearing up to fight the war on whatever remains of our dignity.
Bernie is much more than just a man in this present moment of uncertainty. He’s an icon. He’s a symbol of authenticity in an inauthentic world. And the photo of him simply sitting in a rickety chair, with a drab jacket and speckled brown mittens on, absent any luxury, prestige, or pretentiousness, crystallized that rugged honesty that defines Sanders’ character. It’s what we all want but no one is giving us.
There’s a market for honesty, but in the markets we’ve built, honesty doesn’t pay quite as well as lies do. Just a guy in a chair. No pretense. Keeping warm and observing the transfer of power that defines democratic life.
It’s just like the way the Internet erupted in a firestorm of joy in learning that Bernie often flew coach on the campaign trail instead of first class. Or God forbid private jets like Trump.
Instances like these render impotent the falsehoods that the inauthentic of the world have tried to smear him with. The political right has painted him as a rich millionaire stealing money from campaign donations (without evidence, of course), even though the practice is illegal and highly regulated by federal law enforcement.
And you know what?
Even if we’ve memed him into oblivion, transposing that now-iconic photo of Bernie Sanders into a thousand conceivable contexts, what we haven’t done is deify him.
We may have memed the man and created a symbol out of him, but the symbol isn’t the representation it’s purported to symbolize. We haven’t jacked up our trucks on huge tires so we can fly the banner of the Bernie brand everywhere we go. We haven’t made Bernie Sanders, a man who merely conveys our national plight, a man who encapsulates the authenticity that we yearn for in our politicians. To do so, would be inauthentic.
I’ll close with this question. Why is it so hard for society to deliver honesty, integrity, and authenticity when it’s in such high demand? I thought the whole point of capitalism was to deliver the supply to the demand? But at this, it’s failing in all important aspects of our lives.
Perhaps it's because capitalism is so focused on commodities that it has a difficult time grasping the intangible things in our lives. When you focus on tangible goods, the intangible human element is lost.
Porn pretends to be a substitute for sex. Social media pretends to be a substitute for community. Media metrics and TV ratings pretend to be a substitute for journalistic integrity. Insurance and other healthcare finance products pretend to be a substitute for actual healthcare and medical treatment. Wallstreetbets pretends to be a substitute for the wages we’ve been cheated out of for far too long. This list goes on ad infinitum.
Maybe it’s time we injected a little reality, a little honesty, and a little authenticity into our culture. And even though Bernie Sanders lost in the democratic primaries, it doesn’t mean that his principles can’t serve as a guiding light for how we can all be a little bit more authentic and demand authenticity from those who’d rather lie, cheat, and steal everything we value — including our democracy.