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Essential Politics: From ‘covfefe’ to ‘malarkey,’ memes reveal how we view our presidents and politics

President Biden, left, and former President Trump.
President Biden, left, and former President Trump. During Trump’s time in office, you couldn’t log on without encountering new memes and quirky phrases. In contrast, Biden’s presence on the internet isn’t as strong.
(Associated Press)

This is the July 14, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

Like many people in the media industry, I spend too much time online.

And because I spend too much time online, I noticed a subtle shift on social media platforms this year. It’s not that a new president is in office, or that he doesn’t really tweet, or that the news cycle has slowed, though all of those things are true. In May, an optical illusion that made former President Carter and his wife look exceptionally tiny next to the Bidens went viral, and I finally identified the absence I’d felt: Where did all the presidential memes go?

During former President Trump’s time in office, you couldn’t log on without encountering new images and quirky phrases, repurposed and repeated thousands of posts over. Some made fun of the president and his allies; some ridiculed his rivals. Trump himself engaged, retweeting and liking his followers’ memes for better or worse. In stark contrast, President Biden isn’t as strong a presence on the internet (more on that later).

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Meme impact isn’t high on any voter’s list of presidential qualities, nor does it have much to do with their policy priorities. But memes matter — how we engage with politics online is tied to how we engage offline, and if there’s a social media lingua franca, it’s memes. The last decade has taught us a lot about how that relationship works.

Far-right groups used memes to rally support for Trump, notably seizing Pepe the Frog as a symbol of their causes. Now they recruit members via meme, as my colleagues Molly Hennessey-Fiske and Richard Read reported earlier this year. Through the pandemic, supporters of the loose and baseless collection of conspiracy theories known as QAnon leveraged the aesthetics of viral Facebook memes and Instagram infographics to spread their beliefs.

And there’s not just clout but also money in memes: A growing sector of the marketing industry specializes in selling via meme. As for Pepe? His creator is making the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars by selling versions of the character on the NFT market.

So perhaps the question isn’t just where the memes went. It’s what does it mean for our leaders to be memes?

What do we mean by political memes?

There have always been memes, we just lacked a succinct word for them.

The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is credited with coining “meme” in 1976 — as genes replicate, evolve and shape human biology, memes mimic the process in our culture, he argued. A less charitable framing of the concept: an “infectious” or “contagious” idea.

They’re the phrases, jokes, songs and concepts we pass along. They’re relatable, riff-able and can be used as shorthand for larger ideas and messages. They’re knock-knock jokes, symbols in classic art and the “Kilroy was here” graffiti of the World War II era.

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The introduction of the internet gave us an engine to create memes and track their progression. It also helped narrow the definition of what we consider a meme today: They’re most often visual — photos, GIFs, graphics, videos — and they’re most often fueled by humor.

It makes sense that memes convey our politics, too. One notable meme of the Trump era: the right-wing phrase “the left can’t meme,” a meta comment that sums up all the complexities and hard lines that define modern political affiliation.

“In political spaces online, [memes] can have that community building function: ‘I’m not trying to convince someone who thinks differently, I’m trying to establish a connection with like-minded people,’” said Tom de Haven Roberts, a doctoral candidate in linguistics who is teaching a class on online communication at UC Santa Cruz.

Today’s memes are like a democratized version of political cartooning.

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“In pre-internet times, political cartoons and jokes were a way of expressing political opinions,” Roberts said. “Cartoons weren’t created by regular people, but now we have the capability. Anyone can be a political cartoonist. Anyone can easily spread a meme around and it’s easy to edit photos.”

Can we measure the effect of a president’s meme?

I reached out to the folks at Know Your Meme for help on this one. The site is dedicated to tracking, documenting and explaining memes. Like Wikipedia, users submit new memes, which are then backed up or invalidated by the site’s researchers and moderators.

There are two ways to judge how many memes a president has generated.

The first is the number of memes directly linked to the president. Know Your Meme has categorized 235 subentries for Trump, including the way he pronounces the word “huge,” his misfired “covfefe” tweet from 2017 and an awkward photo taken as he watched a young Trump fan mow the White House lawn, also in 2017. Many of the entries are tied to Trump tweets, highlighting uniquely Trumpian turns of phrase or surreal interactions, like a 2018 tweet thanking Kanye West for his support.

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Meanwhile, Biden has 43 subentries that include a joke referencing the broad definition he has used in promoting his infrastructure goals; the photo with the Carters; video clips of him tripping on the stairs from earlier this year; and the “No Malarkey” bus he used during the primaries.

The second is how many results come up by searching the database for the president’s name — this includes all entries that reference the person, including those in which Trump or Biden may not be the main focus of the meme. “Donald Trump” brings up 1,166 results, “Joe Biden” draws 206.

On both counts, Trump has Biden beat.

It may be that Trump’s online supporter community is more prolific in the memeosphere. But Roberts suspects it has a lot to do with Trump’s personal brand and communication style. Whereas Biden emphasizes his ability to appeal to all, Trump has a strong viewpoint with unique catchphrases and a distinct-if-polarizing communication style — important meme elements.

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“One thing you want a meme to be is easy to understand. Someone should be able to look at the meme and get what it’s about,” Roberts said.

Does it matter if politicians are meme-able?

On the one hand, internet spaces represent a small segment of the voting population, one that skews younger, Roberts said. And a meme is not the same as casting a vote.

Look no further than the 2020 Democratic primary. Biden drew criticism early in the race for his lack of internet savvy, as my colleague Evan Halper wrote. But his rivals heavily invested in online engagement: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has become one of the most meme-ed political figures since 2016. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign set up an elaborate selfie line, the results of which became a meme and earned the Massachusetts Democrat significant attention. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg paid popular Instagram accounts to create meme campaign ads and had his staff create memes (with mixed success.)

In the end, it was Biden who won in 2020, though Sanders and his mittens did inspire a meme just by showing up to the inauguration.

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Still, memes are as complicated as the rest of our communication. They can be vectors for criticism or they can be used to show adoration, as fans of Vice President Kamala Harris have used them. They can amplify existing inequalities surrounding race, gender and class. They can shape entire news cycles. In other words, memes are not without consequence.

The “Dean scream” is considered the first viral online political event, foreshadowing how the media and voters would treat political gaffes. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was at one point the front-runner for the 2004 Democratic nomination for president — then he came in third at the Iowa caucus. During an enthusiastic speech to rally his supporters after the loss, a quirk in the sound recording made it sound as if Dean uttered an odd, guttural “scream.”

Cue the late-night TV jokes, cable segments, internet video mashups with Ozzy Osbourne and Lil Jon songs — and a rumor that the scream ended Dean’s campaign a month later. Dean and those involved with the campaign say he dropped out due to low voter support, though Dean maintains a sense of humor about the scream.

“It is fun to have a trademark like that,” he told NBC on the 15th anniversary of the scream. “It has become iconic because it went viral.”

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Like the “Dean scream,” it’s possible we won’t know exactly how memes — and which ones — affect our political system until years later.

“When we’re studying memes, we’re always playing catch-up,” Roberts said. “By the time you figure out what happened, it’s already over. Maybe we won’t fully understand how it changes the political landscape until it’s in hindsight.”

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The view from Washington

— The latest on infrastructure: Senate Democrats announced Tuesday that they have reached a budget agreement among themselves that would cost $3.5 trillion over the coming decade. The fiscal plan paves the way for Democrats’ drive to fund climate, healthcare and family-service programs.

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— Biden decried new Republican-backed state laws restricting voting rights, calling them “unconscionable” attempts to “deny the will of the people,” Eli Stokols writes. But while he vowed to “vigorously” challenge any efforts to disenfranchise voters, he was blunt about the dim prospects in a deeply polarized Congress.

— Meanwhile, Texas Democrats have become outlaws, fleeing the state as Republican colleagues and Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to arrest and confine them in a dramatic battle over voting rights, reports Hennessy-Fiske.

— As polls show that voters are increasingly concerned about crime, Biden is trying to keep the conversation squarely focused on gun control and violence prevention, Chris Megerian reports.

— And speaking of gun control: Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) will be key in getting any legislation through the Senate. Melanie Mason writes that a 2013 Sandy Hook gun bill offers clues to how he might approach the issue.

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— Harris is making history again — as Republicans’ prime campaign target, writes columnist Mark Z. Barabak.

— U.S. officials Monday pledged to “stand firmly” with Cubans who have unleashed a rare, robust wave of protest. However, they avoided accepting any responsibility for the dire conditions that plague Cuba and deflected criticism for slow progress in the defrosting of the U.S. relationship with Cuba, writes Tracy Wilkinson.

The view from California

— Phil Willon reports that Gov. Gavin Newsom cannot identify himself as a Democrat on the September recall ballot because he missed the deadline to designate his party affiliation, a Superior Court judge in Sacramento ruled Monday.

— As California emerges from the pandemic, state leaders have approved a $100-billion plan to spur the recovery, with checks going out for rent relief, state stimulus payments and grants to businesses, Patrick McGreevy writes.

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— The Supreme Court’s favorite target again this year was the California-based U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which saw 15 of its 16 rulings overturned on review, report David G. Savage and Maura Dolan.

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