Biden operative Lindy Li (7,800 followers) tweeted out a video of Bernie Sanders praising the Soviet Union. Bill Kristol (591,000 followers) retweeted, Glenn Greenwald (1.4 million followers) fired back. Li didn’t survive the resulting conflagration with her job.
Lindy Li, who helped lead Joe Biden’s Asian American outreach and will be a delegate at this year’s Democratic National Convention, was tutoring several Chinese American students at the Immanuel Lutheran Church in Philadelphia when she tweeted a video of Bernie Sanders waxing poetic about the Moscow metro. “#BernieSanders lavishes praise on Communist Russia, preferring the Soviet Union to the American way of life,” Li tweeted to her 4,500-plus (at the time) followers. Not 100% accurate, but not totally off base—and in keeping with other things Sanders had said not only about the Russians but the Sandinistas and the Cubans.
Li’s tweet went out at 11:27 a.m., and, almost immediately, she started taking flack. “Basically, it was like, ‘You have brain worms,’ or stuff like that—stuff I can handle,” said Li, who is 29 and lives in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. “It’s not, ‘Go die.’ It’s not, ‘You’re a cunt.’ It’s not death threats.”
Then, at 11:48 p.m., #NeverTrump pundit Bill Kristol retweeted Li’s tweet to his more than 591,000 followers. (“I was so excited, I called my Dad,” Li said.) That opened the floodgates: CNN contributor Ana Navarro-Cárdenas, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, Meghan McCain, and George Conway, husband of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, also retweeted Li. By Sunday evening, Glenn Greenwald, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and left-wing provocateur who has praised, if not endorsed, Sanders, weighed in. “The Joe Biden delegate who spread the manipulatively edited Sanders video and lied about what he said, causing this fraud to go viral due to high-profile media people—mostly #NeverTrump operatives—spreading it,” Greenwald wrote, adding, “Democratic Party politics in 2020.”
Sanders supporters piled on, claiming that the video—which was recorded in 1988, after Sanders, then mayor of Burlington, visited the Soviet Union on an official delegation—had been disseminated to boost Biden. In fact, the two-minute-and-17-second clip was extracted from a 52-minute press conference. In it, both Sanders and his wife Jane, seem oblivious to the dog-and-pony show they’d been treated to, just three years before the communist regime imploded. Moreover, the video Li tweeted has been floating around for years; it was tweeted by former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt in February 2019, two months before Biden entered the race.
But there was no stopping “Rose Twitter”—many Sanders supporters sport rose emojis on their Twitter profiles—which Li says “was outraged,” pummeling her with tweets. On her Facebook page, commenters called her a “piece of shit racist” and a “shitty bitch.” She was also being called an anti-Semite, which she was especially upset about. (Li is very close with a woman, Tereza Solomon, who is Jewish, and who she met a few years ago.) The charge stemmed from another Twitter incident, in early January, when she retweeted one of Solomon’s tweets calling Sanders a “self-hating Jew,” upsetting those who felt that only a Jew could call another Jew self-hating. Li apologized and deleted the tweet and the controversy died down, but the Berners dredged up the accusation in light of the video.
On Sunday evening, she said she turned off her Twitter notifications. Then, on Monday, she stepped down from her role as treasurer of the Pennsylvania Young Democrats. She told me she didn’t go out much the rest of the week. Every time we spoke, she sounded shell-shocked, then angry. She said her boyfriend lived in San Francisco, and they hadn’t spoken in a few days—“we probably play these stupid fucking mind games, and I don’t want to capitulate first.” Late Thursday, she texted me: “I work so hard day and night to make a difference. I live such a disciplined life. No alcohol, obviously no sex. Nothing. Just work and the gym. To hear people en masse say that you’re all of a sudden canceled because of a video you didn’t even make is shattering.”
Whether Sanders inspires an unusual level of vitriol among his supporters is a hot topic in the Democratic primary. Back in January, a New York Times story sought to capture the ethos of Sanders’s online following—“envied and caricatured by rivals who covet such loyalty, feared by Democrats who have faced harassment from his followers, and alternately cherished and gently scolded by the candidate himself.” Pete Buttigieg brought up Sandernistas’ online harassment of the Nevada culinary union members during Wednesday night’s debate, telling Sanders, “I think you have to accept some responsibility and ask yourself what it is about your campaign in particular that seems to be motivating this behavior more than others.” (Sanders holds that his supporters are no more vicious than those of any other candidate.)
Li said that a friend in California who supports Bloomberg had set up the call. “It was so brief,” Li said. “I think it was just a show of good will, very surface level. After a minute, he passed me off to Mitch.” Li said she’s thinking of jumping from Biden to Bloomberg. She “loves” Biden, but she really wants to beat Trump—and, most of all, she wants Sanders crushed. “I am determined to make sure he’s not the nominee,” Li said. “There is no chance in hell I’d vote for him, even against Trump. And I voted for him in 2016. It’s his supporters who did this.”
The Democratic bundler agreed. “Just like Trump has a cult, Bernie has a cult,” he said, adding that there is a fear—among many Democrats, the money people and the rank and file, campaign volunteers, phone bankers, canvassers, activists, organizers—that the same bacteriophage that invaded the Republican organism in 2016 was now worming its way into the Democratic bloodstream. Just as Republican voters, four years ago, gave the nomination to a man who was only nominally Republican, Democrats are now deciding between two outsiders: a Democratic socialist and a billionaire who spoke at the GOP convention in 2004.