by Olivia Nuzzi

If the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa, in late January were a color, they would be a pasty beige. Nondescript strip malls, clusters of architecturally blah homes, and scarcely populated roads — all dusted with a graying heap of snow. It was amid this uninspiring backdrop in 2016 that I first met Symone Sanders, then the spokeswoman for the Bernie Sanders (no relation) presidential campaign. She emerged in their headquarters seeming very unlike your standard-issue campaign flack, which is to say she was honest and helpful and didn’t make me feel queasy — plus, she had a buzz cut and was wearing a fuzzy sweater the color of Key-lime pie. Of course, nobody knew then how the election would conclude, but anyone who came into contact with Sanders could’ve predicted that regardless of the political climate, she was headed for cable-TV stardom: She’s young (now 27) and intelligent and beautiful and manages to convey complex ideas in a cool, conversational way that translates well onscreen. After Bernie lost the nomination and Hillary lost the general, Sanders prevailed as a CNN contributor who elevates each conversation she’s a part of, sticks to the facts, and refuses to be stepped on. She is, in other words, as far away from Jeffrey Lord as one could possibly be.

When she argues her point, she does so with a clarity that’s unusual among the screeching pundit class. And when she’s disrespected on the air — as when Ken Cuccinelli, the president of the Senate Conservatives Fund, recently told her to “shut up” on CNN — she stands up for herself with a dignified roar. “Pardon me, sir!” she told him. “You don’t get to tell me to shut up on national television. I’m sorry, under no circumstances do you get to speak to me in that manner. You should exhibit some decorum and understand that you are trying to defend and excuse white supremacists on this program, and under no circumstances will I sit by while that happens — so you can shut up.” She’s a progressive operative, but she’s not dogmatic. What she says never feels like spin, it just feels like what she truly thinks in the moment. That’s probably why she’s so effective, and so popular. On Twitter, she offers history lessons about systemic racism in America to her 80,000 followers. On Instagram, where she’s as likely to share a flower crown portrait or a sun-kissed picture with a dolphin as she is to honor a victim of police brutality, she has nearly 30,000. In the Donald Trump era, Sanders’s perspective — and the way in which she delivers it on any medium — is especially urgent. I caught up with her last week, following the violence in Charlottesville and the president’s repeated failure to address it appropriately.