This week, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign released a Twitter ad touting a sort-of endorsement from popular podcast host Joe Rogan. It’s an effective ad. Rogan is arguably the most influential podcaster today, or at least has one of the widest reaches. Rogan, in the ad, makes the case for Sanders’ consistency. In it, he says: “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.”
Rogan’s comments might prompt some Sanders skeptics to think twice, so it’s not hard to understand why the campaign seized on it. But ever since the ad dropped, I’ve wondered if the campaign has any idea whose opinion it’s celebrating.
I understand Rogan’s appeal. I was once a regular listener. Although not all of my colleagues would agree, I found him to be a genuinely funny, engaging host who welcomes his guests to try to prove him wrong. But the more I tuned in, the more uncomfortable I got. Under the albeit honorable guise of giving every end of the political spectrum a fair shake, he’s introduced his mega-audience to guests with unquestionably racist and sexist views, which go largely unchallenged. In one episode, his guest Gad Saad floated the debunked myth that the term Islamophobia only exists as a political ploy to give cover to dangerous foreign Islamist groups. In another, Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys, a violent far-right gang, uses bogus statistics to argue that the Muslim world, where my family immigrated from, is too inbred for the West. Rogan also makes a game of having white people say the N-word and dabbles in transphobia and sexism, all nonchalantly mixed in with sometimes genuinely nuanced conversations about foreign policy, media, and sports. That these views are smuggled in between seemingly thoughtful conversations makes the unchecked bigotry all the more dangerous.
This is, needless to say, not a person whom Sanders should be excited to have in his camp. And after backlash on social media, the campaign responded disappointingly. “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,” Sanders’ press secretary said in a statement. “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 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.”
We share the values of love and respect that will move us in the direction of a more humane, more equal world. I would ask if Sanders had ever heard Rogan’s show, but I’m reminded he went on himself in 2019. This was not a one-time, off-the-cuff mistake.
Am I expecting too much from Sanders not to welcome a potential campaign boost at a moment when he may be ascendant? Perhaps. But while I support Sanders’ politics, ads like these put me and many others in the uncomfortable position of wondering about our place in his coalition. The new ad is not just Rogan speaking out for Bernie—it’s also Bernie legitimizing Rogan, whose podcast trades in dangerous myths about already marginalized people. Do I have to make myself comfortable with arguments about whether my DNA is inferior? Should I think twice about voting for someone who will embrace people who entertain those arguments too?
I don’t know the answers, but to be honest, I didn’t expect to have to ask these questions either. I agree with Rogan that Sanders has been especially consistent on civil rights. But I also believe it’s essential to condemn pundits for their proximity to racism. Sam Harris and Bill Maher are other popular podcasters I’ve had to quit because they’ve dabbled with xenophobia. Sanders’ acceptance of Rogan feels like an affront to my religious dignity, and the dignity of a lot of other people he hopes will vote for him. And I’m not quite sure what to do.
Every election, when I get excited about a presidential campaign, my father reminds me that as Muslims in this democracy, we aren’t privileged enough to vote for someone who will speak for us—we can only ever vote for the candidate who’ll hurt us the least. In the last primary, I voted for Sanders. My father wouldn’t tell me whom he voted for. Right now, seeing someone like Rogan proudly touted on my candidate’s Twitter feed, I’m finding myself sitting on the fence.