Bernie Sanders meme: who is the US Senator and why has a picture of him on a chair wearing mittens gone viral?

The meme originated when Sanders was photographed at Joe Biden’s inauguration

As Joe Biden was sworn in to become the 46th President of the United States, all eyes were on one man.

Senator Bernie Sanders arrived at the inauguration on Wednesday 20 January and appeared to snub the tradition of formal occasion wear.

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Instead, the Vermont politician wore a grey, oversized parka jacket and some eye-catching, hand-knitted wool mittens.

As he slumped on a fold-down chair, socially-distanced from other guests at the ceremony, Sanders was blissfully unaware that he’d just become the biggest internet meme of 2021 so far.

So, who is Bernie Sanders, why has that iconic picture of him gone viral - and how has he reacted to internet fame?

Here is everything you need to know.

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Senator Bernie Sanders was caught on camera looking cosy in his mittens at the inauguration (Getty Images)

Who is Bernie Sanders?

Bernie Sanders, 79, is a US Senator from Vermont and a prominent name in American politics.

He has been a senator since 2006, and is currently serving his third term after being re-elected in 2018.

Before that, he spent 16 years as Vermont’s only congressman in the House of Representatives.

Where did he grow up?

Sanders was born in Brooklyn, New York, where he went to James Madison High School.

His family struggled financially, and many have speculated that that was the reason income inequality became one of his key political issues.

He then attended Brooklyn College, before studying political science at the University of Chicago.

When he graduated, he moved to Vermont, holding down first jobs as a carpenter and a documentary filmmaker.

When did he begin his political career?

Sanders became active in the anti-Vietnam War movement, which sparked his interest in electoral politics.

In 1981, he was elected as mayor of Burlington, which is the state’s largest city.

The city underwent key changes under Sanders’ eight-year leadership when it came to affordable housing, progressive taxes, environmental policies, women’s rights and youth programmes.

In 1991, he became a member of the US House of Representatives.

When did he run for president?

Sanders entered the presidential election race in 2016, and his progressive policies proved popular with voters and especially younger Democrats.

Key issues he supported were universal health care, tax increases on the wealthy, and free tuition at public universities and colleges.

However, Hillary Clinton proved the most popular Democratic candidate and went on to claim the party’s nomination before losing the election to Donald Trump.

Then, in February 2019, Sanders announced that he would run for president in the 2020 elections, quickly becoming a frontrunner.

Yet Joe Biden, who had less progressive policies than Sanders, became the more favoured candidate for the Democratic nomination and Sanders formally suspended his campaign before endorsing Biden shortly after.

Why has Bernie Sanders become a meme?

After Bernie Sanders turned up to Joe Biden’s inauguration in what some social media users called a “dad outfit”, he, unsurprisingly, took the internet by storm.

Twitter users went wild for his casual appearance, with some saying it looked like he didn’t have time to be there and was just stopping by before going on to run some errands.

One user, noticing Sanders’ bored expression, posted alongside the picture of him in the fold-down chair: “This could have been an email”.

This image of Sanders wearing his mittens quickly went viral, with savvy social media users photoshopping the politician into various places like the throne from Game of Thrones, as part of the Friends and Sex and The City cast, on the beach, at festivals and in famous works of art.

Someone even made a dedicated website for dropping Sanders on his chair anywhere in the world using Google Maps.

#BerniesMittens soon became one of the top trending hashtags of the day’s celebrations.

The picture in question was taken by Brendan Smialowski, who works at the news agency Agence France-Presse.

Asked in an interview with Rolling Stone about the famous image, he said: “The picture itself is not that nice. It’s not a great composition. I’m not going to be putting this in a portfolio.”

As it turned out, the mittens that sparked worldwide hilarity were made from repurposed jumpers and recycled plastic by a second-grade teacher from Vermont.

Jen Ellis, 42, had gifted the politician a pair in 2016 after long admiring his policies on education.

She has since been inundated with order requests, but she told the Jewish Insider: “I don’t have any mittens to sell. I don’t really do it a lot any more.

“I’m flattered that they want them, but there are lots of people on Etsy who sell them and hopefully people will get some business from them. But I’m not going to quit my day job.”

How has Sanders reacted?

The senator seems to be unbothered by his newfound meme fame, simply putting his unorthodox outfit choice down to wrapping up for the cold weather.

When asked about his outfit on CBS News after Joe Biden’s ceremony, he said: “In Vermont, we dress warm – we know something about the cold.

“We’re not so concerned about good fashion. We want to keep warm. And that’s what I did today.”

And when it came down to the famous mittens, he told a CNN reporter: “It makes people aware that we make good mittens in Vermont. We have some good coats as well.”