The campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) promoted an endorsement from controversial comedian Joe Rogan on Thursday, igniting a debate among progressive activists: Should a candidate vying to lead the Democratic Party tout an endorsement from a man with a history of making racist and transphobic comments and elevating white nationalists?
When Sanders went on Rogan’s podcast in August, the interview quickly became one of Rogan’s most listened-to episodes. On Monday, Rogan revealed on his podcast that he’ll “probably vote for Bernie.”
“He’s been insanely consistent his entire life,” Rogan said during an interview with New York Times opinion writer Bari Weiss, who is frequently at the center of social media maelstroms. “Him as a human being when I was hanging out with him, I believe in him. I like him, I like him a lot.”
Later in the week, Sanders tweeted the video clip of Rogan’s endorsement. It too went viral, in large part because progressive activists and detractors criticized Sanders for elevating Rogan.
Politically, the move was a vindication of Sanders’ claim that he can attract support from right-leaning voters, who make up much of Rogan’s fan base, with a progressive economic platform. But several progressive activists argued it was a betrayal of people of color and the LGBTQ community, who are a core part of the Democratic party’s base.
“If your idea of movement building is welcoming bigots without accountability while simultaneously shaming other progressives who may not agree 100% with your approach on advancing progressive goals, it’s going to be very hard for many folks to overlook that blatant inconsistency,” Charlotte Clymer, a Human Rights Campaign staffer, tweeted after the Sanders campaign promoted Rogan’s endorsement. Clymer declined to speak to HuffPost on the record. HRC put out a separate statement calling on Sanders to reconsider the endorsement.
Rogan, who has 5.7 million followers on Twitter and says his podcast gets close to 200 million downloads a month (including YouTube views), is difficult to pin down ideologically. He describes himself as mostly liberal, but espouses reactionary views. He has used his show to boost fringe far-right characters including white nationalist Stefan Molyneux, anti-feminist YouTuber Sargon of Akkad, Proud Boys founder Gavin McGinnes, homophobic YouTuber Steven Crowder, and the actor Roseanne Barr, who used the platform to boost the QAnon conspiracy theory. Rogan has criticized feminists, compared a black neighborhood to “Planet of Apes,” and obsessed about “real women” getting “fucked over” by transgender athletes.
Rogan is (clearly) a staunch critic of “politically correct” culture, and has become popular within the alt-right, the fringe ideology that believes “white identity” is under attack by social justice liberals. “The Joe Rogan Experience has become one of the internet’s foremost vectors for anti-wokeness,” Justin Peters wrote in Slate last year. “With its mellow, welcoming vibe, its pretense of common sense, and its general reluctance to push back on any of its guests’ ideas save for only the battiest, the podcast has become the factory where red pills get sugarcoated.”
Sanders’ campaign said that reaching Rogan’s audience sits squarely within the senator’s idea of a political revolution and the notion that voters — regardless of political party — can unite behind basic progressive policies to fight for a more just society.
“Sharing a big tent requires including those who do not share every one of our beliefs, while always making clear that we will never compromise our values,” Briahna Joy Gray, Sanders’ spokesperson, said in a statement, saying the goal of the campaign was to build a multi-racial, multi-generational coalition to defeat Trump.
The Sanders campaign did not respond to HuffPost’s request for further comment.
“Bernie has been a big supporter of the LGBT movement all along and a big supporter of me,” Christine Hallquist, who was the first openly transgender gubernatorial nominee of a major party, told HuffPost. “Joe Rogan is of course distasteful but he has seven-plus million followers ... I’m willing to make deals with the devil in order to defeat Donald Trump.”
Hallquist, who ran for governor of Vermont in 2018 and says she plans on endorsing Sanders for president, understands concerns about the campaign promoting Rogan’s endorsement. But she sees it as a necessary compromise.
“There is a contingent of privileged white males and we need their votes,” she said. “Some purists give me a hard time, but remember folks, we are in desperate times and we are already seeing the rights of the transgender community being removed. We are at war right now. And whenever you go to war, some ugly things happen.”
Sanders has made a point of using right-wing media to sell his left-wing agenda to a broader audience. Early on in his campaign, he participated in a Fox News town hall. When he described his plan to abolish private health insurance and provide every American with government health care, many of Fox’s hand-picked audience members cheered in support. Notably, his primary progressive opponent, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), has refused to go on Fox News, a network she described as a “hate-for-profit racket.”
“Bernie has been a big supporter of the LGBT movement all along and a big supporter of me. Joe Rogan is of course distasteful but he has seven-plus million followers ... I’m willing to make deals with the devil in order to defeat Donald Trump.”
It’s a difference in strategy more than policy. Sanders’ platform includes strong protections for the LGBTQ community: ensuring federal recognition of non-binary identities, opposing “religious liberty” legislation intended to discriminate on the basis of gender and sexual identity, a universal housing program and the Equality Act. But his critics warn that welcoming someone who opposes those protections undermines his commitment to persecuted groups.
Sanders isn’t the only candidate to face an endorsement-related controversy. Last year one of Warren’s campaign surrogates, trans activist Ashlee Marie Preston, was found to have tweeted racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments. Preston apologized for her past comments.
“I do feel like there is a sense of a wink and nod going on here from the Bernie campaign. That it is okay to have these kinds of views and be part of my campaign,” progressive strategist Murshed Zaheed told HuffPost. “It is not in dispute that communities of color, LGBTQ communities have been under direct assault ... The Trump administration has used every mechanism in his disposal to suppress and hurt these communities. The question becomes as a Democrat, what do we stand for?
“Rogan can be whatever he wants. Rogan can vote for whoever he wants. But the issue is whether a Democratic campaign should be promoting him as a key endorsement,” said Zaheed, who supports Warren.
Sanders has long argued that Democrats’ focus on identity politics is not enough to win elections. After Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election, Sanders said it was “not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’ What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”
But balancing mass economic populist appeal with sensitivity to marginalized groups isn’t easy. What the Sanders campaign saw as a way to reach disaffected white men who overwhelmingly voted for Trump in 2016, others interpreted as an obstacle to justice.