Meme Politics

If the six-second video gives any indication, it’s a handsome July day in Cedar Rapids. It’s 2015 and it’s caucus season in Iowa, the polls still 7 months away from opening. Amidst the robocalls and canvassers, the politicians are here—in the flesh!— rubbing shoulders with the Hawkeyes. The Clinton campaign has stopped along the banks of the Iowa River. Somebody brandishes a phone. Who knows who it is, really. I imagine a dutiful young staffer, but maybe it’s HRC herself. Surely there’s a digital marketing team, social media specialists, an oblique hierarchy. Nevertheless, the impulse is clear: handsome moments in Iowa don’t go unseen. Not now.

The video they record is short. It opens on a bottled iced tea, snug in an aquamarine koozie. This view lasts for three seconds, just long enough for us to read the koozie’s white lettering: “More like Chillary Clinton amirite?” Flip to the front-facing camera revealing Clinton’s smiling face at that uncomfortably close distance that is as sure a sign of age as there is in contemporary life, of the technologically uninitiated who haven’t spent hours of their young life snapping themselves, scrutinizing their angles on their screen. She is kissed by this Iowa sun and trying to look happy, and maybe she is. Through a smile, she tells herself on the screen: “I’m just chillin’ in Cedar Rapids.”

From here it’s a matter of tracing the dissemination. The video was posted to the HRC Snapchat Story. A Snapchat follower downloaded the clip and posted it to their Vine account, username “its moi,” with the caption “I love politics.” From then to midway through August, the Vine clip was played over 17 million times—shared relentlessly across a whole variety of Internet channels, remixed, inserted, and expanded by users across the country.

There was something about the clip that made it resonate with people. It seemed like a microcosm of the Clinton campaign’s failure to connect, the sort of square-peg- in-round-hole stiltedness of their branding efforts. The thought process was painfully 

transparent. People immediately saw it as an attempt to seize on something they might call “appealing to millennial tastes” in a boardroom. This transparency became genuinely funny when the attempt fell at on its face. The smiling seemed overcooked, the delivery stiff, the word chillin’ alien, like maybe it was the rst time it had come out of her mouth. And this is all cherry-topped by the mention of Cedar Rapids, which, to any Midwestern-illiterate millennial across the country, could only be spectrally project- ed as an unlikely site of chillin’. All this amounted to something deeply recognizable, such that it could become an effective vector of expressing some discomfort that young people felt about Clinton’s campaign. It could say something big and difficult to say, implicitly in the course of six seconds. That is, I’m just chillin’ in Cedar Rapids had become a meme in an election cycle in which the meme reached its political maturity.

Richard Dawkins coined the term meme in 1976 in his The Selsh Gene. Everyone’s favorite grumpy atheist Darwinian posited that the human evolutionary path had veered in a different direction because something they had that the other species didn’t: culture. Human survival wasn’t predicated on the same rules of genetic evolution as animals because they had externalized the means to survival. Tools, language, governments —any constituent of culture—made progress that allowed people to keep on adapting without any genomic variation. The onus of evolution began to fall on culture itself. Dawkins made a strong argument that, further, we can do a sort of Darwinian reading of culture, suggesting that it too evolves in the way that species do. The validity of the par- ticulars of such a claim are surely up for debate, but its structure is compelling. The potentially suspect fundamental assumption is that units of culture, like units of hereditary information, seem to display an instinct for conservation and preservation. Their goal is to survive. In biogenetics, the grand structure of evolution snowballs from the rst fact that genes are compelled to survive. Dawkins proposes that culture has a similarly complicated grand structure that too snowballs from the rst fact that units of cultural information have a survival impulse. Dawkins decided to call this unit the “meme” in reference to the Greek root mimeme, its similarity to the word gene, and its relationship to the word memory. He emphasized, “it should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream.’”

Dawkins argued that, again like the gene, the only real criterion for success in the meme is its relative survival value in the meme pool. Fitness is end all be all. And fit memes carry the same qualities that he outlines for fit genes: they have longevity, they’re fecund, and have high copying-delity. In his account, memes have no normative goodness. There is no agenda other than to be recognizable, to infiltrate, to sustain.

As a proper wing of culture, politics’ essential meme orientation should come as no surprise to us. If a politician, a party, or an ideology is able to introduce a fit meme into the culture, one that people are compelled to share and recapitulate, then they’ve done their job. In this sense, it’s easy to argue that the meme has had longstanding indispensi- ble political import. The Free Silver movement of the late 1800s, and what bimetallism culturally transmitted to embattled people in the United States, was a meme powerful enough to catapult William Jennings Bryan to a presidential nomination. The meme has always been connected to our politics because it and democracy both operate under the same logic. Fitness is tantamount. The number of people that relate to a message is the most important factor.

If there’s anything historically unique about our period of political memes, it’s that the omnipotence of the Internet has changed the channels of information distribution, which has managed to expand the number of memes made and accelerate their dissemination. This informational flood has engendered serious demands on our attention and the discursive speed warp has dictated that our units of political conversation become ever smaller. Our period of politics is the period of the meme because its conditions have realized the meme’s ideal function as informational vector. There is a sincere necessity to communicate unwieldy ideas in a slogan, a hashtag, a photo, or a brief clip. The meme’s communicative power lies in a moment of recognition. There is some unarticulated soup of a thought or feeling that oats around in your mind, a situation that you endlessly find yourself in, a seemingly inexpressible, but all-too-knowable something that sits on the tip of your tongue, but you cannot find the words for it until you see the meme. You recognize it and it recognizes you. You cannot help but share it because that thing is finally there to be said. And in our political moment, rich in complexity, poor in reflection, this function of the meme is crucial.

One of the groups on the vanguard of understanding the political efcacy of the meme was Kalle Lasn’s Adbusters magazine, which rose to prominence in the 1990s by championing “culture jamming” as a means of political resistance. The magazine was, and still is, a sort of anti-capitalist rag with a spirit of pranksterism that published spoofs of advertisements, casting them in strange lights with different slogans. It was cultural cannibalism, an attempt to subvert capital messages with their own material. Recently, the magazine has come to see their politics in terms of memes. In 2012, they wrote that the world was engaged in a “meme war... in which the decisive battles are being fought not in the sky, nor in the streets, nor in the forests, nor on the high seas, nor even on the battleelds of the Middle East, but rather in the mediums of the mental environment: newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and the Internet.”1 In the meme war, all global citizens are belligerents. Political efficacy is founded on our ability to produce fit memes, to inject units of culture that stick and manage to subvert other memes in their fitness. They argue further in the line of a classic Marxian critique that the landscape of the meme war must be viewed through the dynamics of capital. “Right now,” they say, “corporations control much of the means of meme production and propagation. They wield that power to devastating effect, foisting a few thousand ads, logos, marketing concepts and political slivers into our brains each day.” This is an important move, to see advertising, marketing, and branding, as the wing of meme making supported by capital interest. There too, the goal is to produce bits of culture that stick, all in the name of consumption.2 The financial power that backs these memes makes them even more intransigent. Adbusters concluded that the challenge in “reimagining activism” was to see its job as creating an “insurgent meme factory” that could introduce t memes into the culture that carried a more full-bodied political expression, some valence outside of consumption.

Again, if the idea of building an insurgent meme factory sounds silly and self-serious, Adbusters’ own success in doing so should convince us otherwise. Adbusters was the organization responsible for starting Occupy Wall Street, which we should read as one of the most effective political meme campaigns of our time. Among all of the movement’s successes and failures, it managed to introduce the slogan “We are the 99%,” which quickly became its rallying cry, ideological kernel, and essential contribution to the global political culture. It served the essential purpose of a political meme: to capture this big idea and distill it into a shareable, digestible unit. People could express their dissatisfaction with the complexities of the increasing nancialization of global economies and wealth inequality in succinct, recognizable terms. In creating the 99% meme, Adbusters had arguably done more for the global political process than it had in the history of its magazine. It’s hard to imagine the occurrence of a whole host of events—from Piketty’s appearance on the top of the New York Times’ bestseller list, to the outcropping of support for Bernie Sanders’ campaign, without the meme’s legwork.

As we sort through the wreckage of the 2016 presidential election, the inuence of the political meme has been criminally underexplored. Throughout the year, memes that grew up in communities across the Internet took lurid political twists. For instance, there was Pepe the Frog, a popular “reaction image” of a cartoon frog that’s appended to posts that engender especially strong, often melancholic, “feels” was appropriated by white nationalist segments of the “alt-right” Internet community. In months, the cartoon became a nihilistic hate symbol. The Anti-Defamation League was compelled to add the meme to its Hate Symbols Database. In September, the Clinton campaign posted their own “explainer” of the meme in question and answer format to their official website, criticizing Trump for posting images of the frog on his Twitter account. One exchange read:

“Let me get this straight: Trump’s presidential campaign is posting memes associated with white supremacy online?”


There’s a way to read the unfolding of the whole election as a meme war, of the Trump campaign’s great success in meme making and Clinton campaign’s repeated failures. The election’s contours even followed many of the patterns that we recognize in Internet meme making communities. Trump launched his political career from Twitter, playing one of the quintessential online archetypes: the troll. The troll is inflammatory for inammation’s sake. He normally lurks anonymously, taking potshots at whomever just because he can. But Trump was identiable, already a celebrity on his veried account, and before the 2016 election was even something we could have conceived, he was questioning President Obama’s citizenship, demanding to see a birth certicate and stoking a hypernationalist re, all by acting like some of the people who run rampant around Reddit and 4Chan. Throughout the 2016 election cycle, Trump’s Twitter account would remain an essential part of his campaign. It was a constant stream of publicity and its content seemingly didn’t matter as long as it could drum up some fervor. There was some sort of irreverence and confidence that spoke the language of the Internet that Clinton could not.3 Trump didn’t flinch to say he was chillin’ in Cedar Rapids. Instead, on Cinco de Mayo he sat in his office in Trump Tower and posed for a photo to be posted to his Twitter, sitting behind a taco bowl, giving something that can be scarcely described as anything other than a devilish grin, putting one thumbs up. The tweet came with caption “Happy #CincoDeMayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!” The tweet prompted outrage from detractors and laughs from his supporters. But it really didn’t matter: the message was on brand and, by the time of this writing, it has been retweeted over 85,000 times and liked another 120,000 more.

The Clinton campaign was furiously trying to keep up with memes that had grown organically on the Internet, but the attempts reeked of the same cloyingness of the Brands Saying Bae phenomenon. There were her multiple Ellen appearances, each time coaxed into doing the popular Internet dance craze du jour with DeGeneres. And there is something so distinctly painful about watching these segments now. Clinton tries her best to perform these dances, the Nae Nae, the Dab, popularized originally by a vein of Internet hip hop meme culture, and she is embarrassingly bad at them. But this is the conceit of the segment. We know she is going to be embarrassingly bad at them, her campaign knows, the Ellen producers know, even (or, especially) HRC knows, but she goes forth with it perhaps because that’s the joke, perhaps because they all don’t know how else to make a meme. It might be best distilled in Clinton’s appearance as a guest on a popular New York hip hop radio station talk show called “The Breakfast Club.” Toward the end of the segment, one of the hosts asks Clinton if there’s something that she always carries with her. Without missing a beat, she replies “hot sauce.” The hosts look truly shocked, wondering if she’s making a reference to Beyoncé’s recent popular song “Formation,” with the line “I got hot sauce in my bag, swag.” One pipes up: “Now listen. I want you to know that people are gonna see this and say ‘Ok, she’s pandering to black people.” The room laughs and Clinton labors to joke along with him, “Is it workin’?” The Clinton camp’s last attempt to jump on a viral meme trend happened just days before the election. They lmed their version of the “mannequin challenge,” a meme that was just exploding in which groups of people stood still, as if mannequins, to the tune of hip hop duo Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles.” The Clinton challenge takes place on the campaign plane and, as the camera makes its way down the aisle, we see Clinton standing frozen at the back of the crowd as Sremmurd’s Swae Lee croons, “That girl is a real crowd pleaser.”

Throughout the Clinton campaign’s oundering Chillin’-In-Cedar-Rapids-attempts, the Trump campaign was paving a road to the White House with effective meme making. “Build the wall!” was a meme that was able to capture the resentments of an appar- ently sizable group of people and express their political fervor in a sharable clip. The logistics and funding (Mexico will pay for it), the intricacies of migration policy, the effectiveness of the wall-as-border, none of it mattered – it was all fuddled and in flux. The Trump campaign’s watershed meme moment, their “We Are The 99%,” was undoubtedly “Make America Great Again.” Its terms weren’t novel. Surely the sentiment has been the nub of American conservatism at least since Reagan. But the branding was impeccable. Hundreds of thousands of people roamed the country with hats bearing the phrase. It could be worn, tweeted, shouted. What mattered was its athleticism: the speed with which it could be shared, the imposing strength of its claim, its ability to make an agile impression. It suggested nothing specific so it could be applied to anything. Yet, it was just specific enough to tap into the necessary demographic. It was the vague frustration of a certain type of American, distilled into its essential ethos. It provided millions with that moment of recognition. And it worked. The memes didn’t win it all, but they didn’t hurt. 

Even beyond the election, there’s early indication that Trump will run the presidency as meme maker, or at least it’s become clear that inammatory tweets won’t remain just a tactic to draw attention as a vote-seeker. In the month’s since his election, Trump has continued to tweet furiously in his classic style and has already used the platform to comment on minor crises of international affairs. He’s given us the meme take on the Russian hacking imbroglio and following diplomatic response from Putin (33k retweets): “Great move on delay (by V. Putin)—I always knew he was very smart!” The Iran Deal (34k retweets): “The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!” Military strategy meeting (13k retweets): “I met some really great Air Force GENERALS and Navy ADMIRALS today, talking about airplane capability and pricing. Very impressive people!” All such posts have been covered in the press as official presidential statements of the past and the Trump administration intends for this to be the status quo. Incoming press secretary, Sean Spicer, has stated in interview that the Trump administration will “absolutely” use Twitter to make official statements on policy. He even went on the offensive: “I think it freaks the mainstream media out that he has this following of over 45-plus million people that follow him on social media, that he can have a direct conversation. He doesn’t have to have it funnel through the media...The fact of the matter is when he tweets, he gets results.” Perhaps we’re even to be subject to meme governance, four years of our world affairs encapsulated and disseminated in 140 characters or less.

So where do we stand on the left? Perhaps to make our own memes with the boldness of the Trump campaign. We are compelled to no longer flail behind pop culture, to think that our endorsement from celebrity and corporate media will be enough to translate into fit memes. We turn to that process of recognition, to understand what we demand from our politics and to know how to share it such that others recognize themselves in our demands. Memes need to be a vector to transmit the pathos of a true left ideology. If we actually believe that left politics are more benecial for the embattled people of postindustrial America—not taking for granted here that the tepid ailing of Dem’s approach might suggest that many establishment liberals haven’t bothered to build this conviction—who Trump swung with memes, then we are compelled to meme back. The question is: can the left nd its memes? Will we uncover our Drain the Swamp, our Build the Wall, our Make America Great Again in the next four years? The future of our politics might depend on it. 



1 If this sounds potentially naïve or high-minded, that’s because it is. It’s hard for me to imagine explaining to people engaged in warfare in the Middle East, from any side, that the true battles are only being fought in the mind. That said, their point is well taken. Our politics do seem to be engaged intensely in this cultural war, the currency of which is memes. 

2 It bears noting that, in our period of meme acceleration, marketing strategists are also engaged in a race to co- opt memes that develop organically within Internet communities and use them in advertising campaigns. This too is a relatively omnipotent trend around which an important body of criticism has already developed. Doreen St. Felix’ s “Black Teens Are Breaking The Internet And Seeing None Of The Profits” from The Fader is essential reading here. A great Twitter account called, @BrandsSayingBae catalogues these instances. 

Another important aside is required here before diving too deep into this. It’s important to consider the role that implicit gender politics might have contributed to the candidate’s diverging success as meme makers. The same sort of coded gender dynamics that assailed Clinton’s ability to be seen as “charismatic,” for example, were at play here. This irreverence and confidence that it seems to take to be an effective meme maker carry strike me as carrying a masculine cultural weight that Clinton was doomed to be unable to project. Not to mention, we know that many influential communities on the Internet that dictate lots of sharing and remixing of memes are infamously inhospitable to women.