Bernie Sanders is facing a backlash from some Democrats after his campaign trumpeted an endorsement from comedian Joe Rogan, a popular podcast and YouTube talk show host with a history of making racist, homophobic and transphobic comments.
The Sanders campaign touted the endorsement in a tweet on Thursday afternoon, featuring a clip of Rogan’s supportive remarks.
“I think I’ll probably vote for Bernie. Him as a human being, when I was hanging out with him, I believe in him, I like him, I like him a lot,” Rogan said on an earlier episode of his show.
“What Bernie stands for is a guy – look, you could dig up dirt on every single human being that’s ever existed if you catch them in their worst moment and you magnify those moments and you cut out everything else and you only display those worst moments. That said, you can’t find very many with Bernie. He’s been insanely consistent his entire life. He’s basically been saying the same thing, been for the same thing his whole life. And that in and of itself is a very powerful structure to operate from.”
Rogan, a libertarian-leaning broadcaster with a public persona in the mold of Howard Stern, is a divisive figure who has said the N-word on his show and in 2013 questioned – using offensive language – whether a transgender MMA fighter should be able to compete against other women.
“If you want to be a woman in the bedroom and, you know, you want to play house and all of that other sh-t and you feel like you have, your body is really a woman’s body trapped inside a man’s frame and so you got a operation, that’s all good in the hood,” Rogan said. “But you can’t fight chicks.”.
The decision to highlight Rogan’s support has divided opinion among Democrats and activists, particularly online, where it has sparked a heated debate over whether Sanders should have aligned himself with Rogan in any form or context.
Sanders’ strategic targeting of young, unaffiliated and working class voters often takes him to places, and onto platforms – like Twitch – that most Democratic candidates rarely venture. But that practice, when it brings a figure like Rogan into the political spotlight, also carries the risk of alienating parts of a liberal base that, especially in the Trump era, has become increasingly cautious about the company it keeps – and what that signals to marginalized communities.
On Saturday, the progressive group MoveOn called on Sanders “to apologize and stop elevating this endorsement.”
“It’s one thing for Joe Rogan to endorse a candidate,” MoveOn said in a tweet from its official account. “It’s another for @BernieSanders’ campaign to produce a video bolstering the endorsement of someone known for promoting transphobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, racism and misogyny.”
Less than an hour later, former Vice President Joe Biden appeared to enter the fray.
“Let’s be clear: Transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time,” Biden tweeted. “There is no room for compromise when it comes to basic human rights.”
In a statement Friday afternoon, Sanders’ national press secretary Briahna Joy Gray distanced the campaign from Rogan’s views, but argued that “sharing a big tent” meant keeping it open to people with whom they disagreed.
“The goal of our campaign is to build a multi-racial, multi-generational movement that is large enough to defeat Donald Trump and the powerful special interests whose greed and corruption is the root cause of the outrageous inequality in America,” Gray said, echoing the argument made by many Sanders supporters on social media. “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. The truth is that by standing together in solidarity, we share the values of love and respect that will move us in the direction of a more humane, more equal world.”
Shortly after the campaign responded to the criticism, Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David praised Sanders for running a campaign that has been “unabashedly supportive of the rights of LGBTQ people,” but called on the Vermont senator to consider rejecting the endorsement in light of Rogan’s “vicious rhetoric.”
“We should always be willing to educate individuals who operate from a place of bias but we should not directly or indirectly validate or celebrate them,” David said. “Given Rogan’s comments, it is disappointing that the Sanders campaign has accepted and promoted the endorsement. The Sanders campaign must reconsider this endorsement and the decision to publicize the views of someone who has consistently attacked and dehumanized marginalized people.”
Others on the left have defended Sanders’ efforts to reach an audience which is mostly young, male and potentially vulnerable to right wing populist appeals and Trumpism. Liberal opinion writer Michelle Goldberg does not support Sanders, but she summed up many of his allies’ view of the campaign’s decision.
“Bernie is not my candidate but it seems obvious to me that he was right to take the Joe Rogan endorsement,” Goldberg tweeted. “One premise of his campaign is that he can win some number of alienated men with reactionary social views to the left, and this is proof of concept.”
In December, Sanders rescinded his endorsement of another controversial talk show host – The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur, who is running for a House seat in California – after Uygur’s past derogatory comments about women, for which he has since apologized, began to make headlines.
“(Uygur) has been a longtime fighter against corruption. However, our movement is bigger than any one person. I hear my supporters who were frustrated and understand their concerns. Cenk today said he is rejecting all endorsements for his campaign and I retract my endorsement,” Sanders tweeted.
“The Joe Rogan Experience” routinely ranks among the most listened-to podcasts in the US and attracts an audience outside the liberal mainstream, a population that Sanders has sought to reach as part of his broader effort to expand the electorate in 2020.
Rogan has interviewed Sanders, Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard during the run-up to the 2020 primary. Yang’s campaign manager, in an interview with The Daily Beast last year, described the candidate’s February 2019 appearance on Rogan’s show – which currently has nearly 5 million YouTube views – as a pivotal early moment in the businessman’s unlikely rise.
Sanders on the campaign trail has repeatedly denounced President Donald Trump as “a racist, a homophobe, a sexist and a xenophobe,” and criticized Trump for “dividing people up” based on their sexual orientation, religion and gender.
Rogan during an episode earlier this month claimed that representatives from other Democratic presidential campaigns had pushed for their candidates to be invited on for an interview.
“They all keep asking to be on my show,” Rogan said. “I have requests from all of them: (Joe) Biden, (Elizabeth) Warren, Mayor Pete (Buttigieg).”
A spokesperson for the Biden campaign denied that the former vice president had sought an appearance on Rogan’s show. A Warren campaign aide didn’t know of any attempts to get her on the show. Buttigieg’s campaign has not responded to request for comment.
This story has been updated with comments from MoveOn and Joe Biden.