How American Politics Became a Meme Theater

That would certainly be a change from how politicians originally ended up as memes. In the early 2000s, it used to be mostly mockery, a way to poke fun at gaffes, and was usually limited to sitting presidents and presidential candidates. President George W. Bush’s frequent “Bushisms” come to mind. The internet—or rather, “internets”—had a lot of fun with those. The same was true of Sarah Palin, who once compared herself to Shakespere, got dubbed “#Shakespalin,” and was, for complicated reasons, imagined to be at the center of hip-hop history in the #PalinRapFacts meme. Mitt Romney had binders full of women, and hated Big Bird.

Meme makers were somewhat kinder to President Obama (though not about his dad jeans), mostly imagining him in an ardent bromance with Vice President Joe Biden. (Gaffe-prone Biden got a more traditional meme treatment.) Obama was among the first politicians to begin regularly sharing memes himself, a move that then seemed somewhere between innovative and uncouth depending on your views. In 2016, everything changed. People started flashing memes like party affiliation cards. Then-candidate Trump’s puffery and distortions of the truth gave people who were so inclined at least a meme per day. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began courting memes herself, though somewhat less successfully. (“Pokémon go the polls!” will forever ring in my ears.) The so-called alt-right thought of the presidential campaign as part of a Great Meme War.

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In the four years since, memes have become part of the fabric of American politics. They’re news, they’re political talking points, they’re campaign strategy. They are no longer limited to young politicians vying for the youth vote. Senator Mitch McConnell—who no one would accuse of being hip—has in his 2020 reelection campaign included memes like a 404 error page featuring Justice Merrick Garland, whose appointment to the Supreme Court he successfully blocked. Politicians like Pelosi, who became a meme during the last State of the Union address for her pointed clapping, have a lot of clout and publicity to gain from keeping their meme streaks going.

The positive consequence of the political meme ecosystem is that average people at least seem to be more civically engaged. Politicians are rewarded for speaking internet, and the internet is rewarded for being informed enough to talk politics. Especially among younger generations, memes are frequently news delivery systems, a friendly gateway into larger, important topics. If you see a meme of Nancy Pelosi ripping up a speech, you might be curious about what it said. The downside of the new meme-conscious political world, of course, is that facial expressions and stunts have become as (if not more) important than substance and policy. The people wanted to go to the meme theatre. Now all the political world’s a stage.


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