Red, white and meme: Exploring the thorny intersection of memes and politics
It’s no secret that social media is a volatile virtual battleground where both ends of the political spectrum clash and converge on hot-button topics. But amid the mucky mess of heated Twitter threads and essay-length Facebook posts, people seem to have found comfort and stability through arguably the greatest postmodern art form produced on the internet: memes.
Like most general memes, a political meme can be a source of humor, a comedic avenue that connects and familiarizes us with political figures and social issues that, in a real-world context, aren’t nearly as engaging. They shape the way we understand those who govern our country, either by poking fun at their out-of-touch personalities or championing their ability to identify with the American public.
The “meme-ing” of President Obama, in particular, was impactful in how the internet and American society at large perceived him during his time in office. The relatability of his cool, friendly demeanor translated well online, whether through his goofy facial expressions, his interactions with celebrities or his endearing bromance with former Vice President Joe Biden. His supporters would re-contextualize photos and videos of him as humorous and silly, while his critics would depict him in an offensive and oftentimes racist light.
“Thanks Obama,” a common sarcastic critique meant to ridicule Obama’s mistakes, was reclaimed as a satirical, self-deprecating meme by liberals and even Obama himself. Former First Lady Michelle also garnered quite a bit of internet exposure. Originally used in a video promoting healthy eating, Michelle’s anecdote about her favorite fall vegetable (a sweet potato) and her quip about turnips (“Turnip for What”) quickly circulated on Vine and across the Web. Even after Barack’s second term ended, he and Michelle remain internet icons; their laid-back post-presidency vacation photos and lavish presidential portraits provoked a series of memes on Twitter, many of which praised the couple for relishing their time away from the chaos of the White House.
While political memes like these can be innocuous, they also have the capacity to be simplistic, ruthless and even sinister. In the age of Trump especially, they’ve become weaponized by liberals and conservatives alike to combat one another online, manifesting in the form of tongue-in-cheek and trenchant jabs at Democrats and Republicans, senators and political commentators and, perhaps most of all, the President himself. Because of his political incompetence, frequent factual blunders and general ineptitude at being a normal human person, Trump is an easy target for a lot of negative memes that, though amusing at face value, aren’t very effective long-term takedowns.
While meme-ing Trumpian buzzwords like “nasty woman,” “bad hombre,” “covfefe” and his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” is meant to be an act of reclamation, the execution leaves something to be desired. In fact, many of these ridiculous soundbites have become commodified into t-shirts, hats and other forms of apparel. When these words are converted into vehicles for corporate exploitation, the value of retaliating against Trump’s malicious words is essentially neutralized and lost. The same goes for Trump supporters trying to reclaim critiques of Trump; during the 2016 presidential race, Hillary Clinton’s comment about Trump supporters being a “basket of deplorables” was reclaimed as a positive label and a literal symbol of pride among Trump’s most loyal advocates.
Today’s political memes operate as a frustrating paradox: In one sense, they capture the absurdity of the current administration and American politics as a whole, but simultaneously, they can normalize and enable problematic discourse, granting Trump and other like-minded bigots more exposure and attention. It’s an accessible, yet counterproductive and lazy tactic that only amplifies these dangerous platforms. Political memes may be uplifting as rallying cries at protests, and in some cases, their impact could enlighten and inspire people to get more involved in political discussions. But considering the wider effect modern-day political memes engender, they really do nothing but satisfy and reinforce the political self-interest of the person making the meme and the people they share it with.
Despite the smugness underlying today’s political memes, they still have the potential to influence political conversation for the better. Vic Berger, a video editor for the now-defunct Super Deluxe and an outspoken critic of Trump, juxtaposes real-life interviews and mishaps made by Trump and other members of the GOP with uncomfortable zoom-ins on their faces and jarring sound effects (most notably the sound of an air horn). The result is surreal, strange, hilarious and sometimes harrowing. Instead of merely using Trump’s words against him, Berger brilliantly conveys that American politics is as farcical as it is terrifying. Other online users have capitalized on fabricating celebrity clickbait as a way to get people to vote, a strategy that, while certainly manipulative, deserves some recognition for its cleverness.
If memes reflect and dictate the conversation surrounding trends in pop culture, political memes should find a way to do the same with the conversation surrounding trends in politics. And if political memes have the power to change the way we understand politics, then they should at least have the courtesy to communicate an incentive that’s both entertaining and compelling.
In other words: meme responsibly.