Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a surrogate for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, last week led a crowd in booing former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. It was a real-world manifestation of what Sanders’ followers have been doing on Twitter and other social media for years now: lashing out at fellow progressives, shouting down any legitimate criticism of their candidate, flinging ideological intolerance at any figure they see as insufficiently liberal — and generally employing the kinds of gutter tactics more commonly associated with hard-core supporters of President Donald Trump.
Emulating the incivility that Trump personifies is no way for Democrats to defeat him in November. Sanders should be loudly and clearly leading his followers to a more elevated place, or he deserves to pay a price in the primaries.
All but Trump’s most frenzied followers understand that a core concern of his critics — left, right and center — isn’t about policy or even his myriad constitutional transgressions, but about his gleeful degradation of America’s political and societal norms. While politics is always a rough business, Trump’s incessant name-calling, bullying and lying about political opponents has lowered the bar to ground level. Just ask “Pencil Neck” Adam Schiff, “Little Marco” Rubio or Carly “Look at that face” Fiorina.
Among Trumpism’s worst legacies is the phrase “Lock her up!,” chanted at rallies in reference to Clinton, who lost the 2016 election to Trump (despite garnering 2.8 million more votes). Calling for the jailing of political opponents is as banana-republic as it gets.
Tlaib didn’t go quite that far at an Iowa political forum last Friday, but far enough. The Democratic Michigan congresswoman led the crowd in booing Clinton in response to Clinton’s comment in an interview that “nobody likes” Sanders in the Senate and that it has prevented him from getting things done — which may not be nice but is arguably true. Tlaib later apologized on Twitter.
Tlaib’s stunt is distinguished from the usual tactics of too many Sanders supporters only by its venue. They tend to stick to online bullying. That doesn’t make it less damaging to the Democratic Party and American political norms in general. Most recently, Sanders’ legions swarmed against Sen. Elizabeth Warren online for her disputed claim that Sanders told her in private that a woman couldn’t win the presidency. It’s one thing to debate who was telling the truth, but the name-calling and intimidation aren’t part of any legitimate debate.
Reversing the tone of ugliness that Trump and his base have brought to the presidency is going to be a crucial task for his eventual successor. Unless Sanders speaks more forcefully than he so far has to quell the ugliness in his own ranks, Democratic primary voters would be wise to conclude that he’s not the elevated leader America needs in this moment.
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