The mockery is all in fun and admiration, said 23-year-old writer Spencer Madsen, who created the parody Twitter account chronicling the supposed inner thoughts of the surging Democratic presidential candidate.
It’s “a very loving portrayal of an imaginary Bernie Sanders in some parallel universe where he has an obsession with food and animals and a sort of childlike inability to discern fiction from reality,” explained Madsen. “He’s sort of easily confused and easily frustrated.”
It’s almost as though the infamous Saturday Night Live portrayal of the Vermont senator has come to life in @berniethoughts. But there’s a big part of Madsen’s own life in the parody account too.
“You don’t start a parody Twitter account when everything’s going well in your life,” he told NPR. “For me it was a kind of grasping at straws sort of thing.”
Madsen, a writer, said he had just moved back to New York from Los Angeles when he started @berniethoughts, in November of last year. He was living with his parents while looking for a job and was just “trying to put something out there into the world.”
Madsen said the only thing that was really clicking for him was tweeting about Sanders, which he had started doing from his personal Twitter account during campaign debates. From there, @berniethoughts was born.
“I’d been kind of growing sick of hearing myself write about the same old things,” Madsen said. “So giving myself a character actually felt good and new.”
@berniethoughts may be new — already with 36,400 followers and counting — but it is also very strange. The tweets are in all caps. Most of them are about food. Some offer thoughts on his Democratic rivals for the White House, Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley. Many of them are completely nonsensical. But Madsen has a reason for it all.
“I kind of feel like Bernie speaks in all caps,” Madsen said. “Whenever you see him at a debate and his hands are kind of, you know, flailing and, you know, you can sense his frustration with everything that’s wrong in his eyes… He’s kind of an all caps kind of guy.”
As for all the food references in the @berniethoughts tweets, there’s a reason for that, too.
“I am sitting at home at my parents’ place and the TV is on all day and it just plays Food Network,” Madsen said. “I’m just watching Food Network and Travel Channel… Anthony Bourdain left and right. And all I’m thinking about is… all the free food that is in the kitchen that my parents pay for, and it just becomes my consciousness. Food and @berniethoughts is all I got right now.”
Madsen does admit he is a fan of the Vermont senator.
“I love Bernie,” he told NPR. “I do this as kind of a political way of expressing my love for him.”
The respect of mutual — a staffer from the Sanders campaign sent him a Twitter direct message, saying, “Hey, the whole team here loves you.”
Madsen followed up — he asked job with the campaign; nothing has come through yet.
In spite of all this love for @berniethoughts from Sanders supporters, Madsen points out that it wasn’t always that way.
“A lot of the early champions of this Twitter account that were kind of retweeting it and responsible for gaining a lot of followers early on were actually conservative reporters for various conservative news outlets… a lot of these people followed the account because they don’t like Bernie,” he said. “I would say that the viewership is split down the middle. It’s kind of a bipartisan portrayal of Bernie.”
“I think the right-wing Twitter followers love it because, you know, what I tweet from Bernie thoughts is outlandish,” Madsen guessed. “It’s not something that he would ever tweet. But they view Bernie as being of such an outrageous communist trying to destroy America that that level of bizarre behavior to them resonates as true.”
The love from the liberal audience comes because “they feel so comfortable with Bernie,” Madsen said. “I think they feel like he really represents them. And so they feel comfortable laughing at him in a loving way because they love Bernie.”
Still, the “parody” part has been lost on some. Madsen says there have been some “confused old white guys on Twitter who think that I’m actually Bernie Sanders.”
“[They] will kind of tweet at me with insults because I’m ‘destroying America’ and they just don’t really understand how Twitter works,” he laughed.
In that varied reception, perhaps @berniethoughts captures a lot about this presidential race — lines between mockery and adoration, humor and ridicule, love and hate, wry awareness and confusion have been blurred.