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Please keep clapping: Online, the Jeb! campaign is forever

Republican presidential candidate former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida throws a snowball in February 2016 in Nashua, N.H.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush throws a snowball in New Hampshire in February 2016. Four years after his campaign ended, he’s become an internet meme.
( Steven Senne / Associated Press)

Spend enough time online, and eventually you’ll see his face.

Cackling in front of an electoral map where he’s won every state. Begging a lukewarm audience for applause. Licking his lips nervously, air-horns blasting, as an edited Donald Trump calls him a “mess.”

More than four years after he dropped out of the 2016 presidential race, John Ellis Bush — Jeb for short, but Jeb! by the branding of his ill-fated campaign — haunts the weirder corners of the internet, immortalized in memes and jokes that reveal Americans’ mixed feelings toward the pre-Trump GOP.

Some of Trump’s biggest fans view Bush as a vanquished foe; many on the left think there was never much of a difference between the two. Stranded between those poles is the memory of a softer-spoken, more cautious conservatism — an ethos both sides say has less and less to offer voters in an increasingly polarized America.

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Although its content can be brutal, the scale of Bush’s online stardom is something most politicians would kill for. During the current election cycle, campaigns have poured time and resources into building their social media presence: Facebook is notoriously central to Trump’s reelection strategy, while Joe Biden has turned to Instagram Live and Twitch streaming to rally socially-distanced support.

Yet it’s Jeb Bush who, despite not currently running for office and without any apparent intention on his part, continues to yield a steady flow of Photoshop edits, looped gifs and 280-character riffs.

It’s hard to quantify the exact scale of Bush’s internet celebrity, but he’s a clear favorite. Tweets about him can come in as quickly as one a minute. On TheDonald.win — a pro-Trump forum to which users of the popular r/The_Donald migrated when Reddit banned that site for promoting hate — 35 posts over a two-week period named him in their title. For other 2016 also-rans including Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich and Marco Rubio, that number was in the single digits; for Rick Santorum, it was zero.

Eva Cantor, a 34-year-old Texas-based organizer with a group called the Socialist Rifle Assn., said their fascination with Bush led them to add “Jeb emojis” to a chat server they run with some anarchist friends. In the group’s discussions, commentary on everything from pop culture to leftist theory is met with reaction photos of the former Florida governor’s many emotions: frowning, grinning, glaring.

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“He was maybe the last ‘normal’ politician we had, maybe the last normal Republican we’ll ever have, and he was a Bush of all things,” Cantor explained in Twitter messages. “It’s like the ‘anarchist Jeb’ memes you’ll see sometimes,” Cantor continued, citing a long-running joke that casts the politician as a leftist revolutionary.

“Seeing this incredibl[y] banal, milquetoast guy out of that context is just incredibly funny.”

Banality — a recurring problem for Bush’s presidential run, where his self-described lack of a “big personality” crumbled before a Trump campaign defined by the one very big personality at its center — underlies many of the Bush memes. Some evoke it explicitly, as in Bush’s infamous “please clap” moment, when he begged town hall attendees in New Hampshire for a response; others subvert it ironically, like a trend of editing electoral maps to give Bush the national sweep he never got.

The temperamental contrast between him and Trump lies at the heart of what many Jeb-posters find perennially funny about the otherwise unremarkable candidate.

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Zach — a 29-year-old Pennsylvanian who tweets under the handle @jeb_bush_2020 — identified Bush’s “tragicomic, pathetic guy” as a stock comedy figure and one which works best when contrasted with another, more Trumpian archetype: the “skilled bully.”

“In a comedic sense, the two archetypes work off of each other,” Zach explained. “Trump needs to make everyone into Jeb to win.”

Zach and the many online progressives who express ironic affection for Bush are unlikely to vote for the man. They criticize his familial privilege; his stances on abortion and gun control; and his role in the 2000 election, which they say he helped steal.

But some concede that they also feel bad for him. In the comments below YouTube compilations of his most embarrassing moments, the feedback ranges from “I just wanna give poor Jeb a hug” to “What a loser” — sympathy blending with schadenfreude.

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Bush, himself, declined to comment on his internet celebrity.

“The governor isn’t granting interviews right now. We appreciate the opportunity though,” Brandi Brown, director of external affairs for the education reform group Bush heads, said in response to an inquiry.

There’s something empowering about “memeifying” politicians, said Emily Eckelbarger, a 24-year-old socialist from New York.

“There are many ways in which Jeb Bush has more political, social and material power than me,” she explained over Twitter, “but at least I’ve never had to verbally prompt people to clap.”

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Among Trump supporters, the memory of Bush’s 2016 torment serves a different purpose: trapped in the amber of internet culture, it preserves a vision of Trump as the conqueror, dishing out nicknames and sticking it to the establishment.

On TheDonald.win, a steady flow of Bush jokes serves as a preelection rallying cry for the MAGA faithful. “President Trump with COVID-1984 is still higher energy than Sleepy Joe and Jeb combined!” one user wrote amid the news of Trump’s coronavirus infection. “Jeb! supports pedophile cannibals,” another said in response to Bush’s criticism of the QAnon conspiracy theory.

Comments on some Bush-related posts include avocado emojis, referencing the $75 guacamole bowl his campaign once sold. Others are uglier, calling Bush homophobic slurs or branding his Mexican-born wife an “illegal.”

One forum member, who declined to provide a name for fear of being “blacklisted,” said the memes have stuck around because they embody “the beginning of a new era” — that is, the transition from one type of Republicanism to another.

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“If you were ‘there’ in 2016 on the early ‘trumpnet,’” the user continued via direct messages, “any mention of Jeb! just brings back a heady nostalgia.”

But it also comes down to shoring up control of the party — a continuing political project, and one which Bush threatens.

“Unlike other 2016 candidates who jumped on the Trump train, Jeb and [George] W. [Bush] actively work against Trump’s agenda, and we haven’t forgotten it,” said Ed, a 32-year-old TheDonald.win user, over email.

In that regard, Bush is less a man than a symbol, embodying the GOP’s road not taken. And with the long-term trajectory of the party still unclear, that symbol’s meaning is hotly contested.

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Brian Lox, 33 — a libertarian from Minnesota with a penchant for writing tweets in “Jeb Bush voice” — thinks there’s still “room for a return to a more ‘normal’ Republican who is cleaner around the edges than Trump.”

Others are more skeptical. On TheDonald.win, Bush-style conservatism is dubbed “the old guard.” And many progressives say there’s no turning around for Republicans, driving home the point with references to unbottled genies and cast-off masks.

But everyone seems to agree: Bush’s fate is now intertwined with that of Trumpism. Like the restless spirit of a murder victim, the Jeb! campaign’s specter can escape its internet purgatory only when the political movement that defeated him moves on.

“Once Trump is out of office,” Ed predicted, “I imagine it will die down quite considerably.”


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