Election memes 2020, or, how to be funny when nothing is fun

Dr Ryan M. Milner

Associate Professor of Communication at the College of Charleston. He studies how online interaction matters socially, politically, and culturally. He is the author and co-author of three books: The World Made Meme, The Ambivalent Internet, and You Are Here.

Dr Whitney Phillips

Assistant Professor of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Syracuse University. She’s the author of three books, most recently You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape, co-authored with Ryan Milner of the College of Charleston.

Section 6: Popular culture and public critique

During the 2020 Vice Presidential Debate, a fly landed on Mike Pence’s head and Twitter went wild. It felt like old times; like 2012, when Mitt Romney’s binders full of women and Barack Obama’s burn about bayonets heralded a verifiable meme election. Or 2016, when Ken Bone captivated the crowds and blobfish Ted Cruz kept the good times rolling through an election cycle that was supposed to be a laffer. That fly landed, Mike Pence let it just sit there, and all the old fun cascaded out. Pop-up Twitter accountsZany photoshopsYouTube remixes. Run-of-the-mill election memery. Same as it ever was.

And yet all that old fun didn’t feel right. Not anymore. It was hollow. Brow-furrowing. At least it was for us. We’d both been giddy participants in the presidential memeing of 2012. By 2016, we’d grown increasingly wary of the pollution potentially carried by the memes people share. By 2020, we had little laughter left, just gnawing exhaustion. Being confronted by this rare moment of silly retro internet fun wasn’t a reprieve. It was a reminder. We’re in an emergency, and what does it even mean to have fun in an emergency?

With hindsight, it’s clear that this emergency isn’t solely a product of the Trump era. Like vast swaths of the U.S. political landscape, internet culture fun has long been dangerous. At its worst, the memey fun of 2012, and certainly of 2016, was explicitly bigoted. A lesson many, including ourselves, learned the hard way.

Even when internet culture fun wasn’t explicitly dehumanizing, it too-often ignored anything beyond the joke. For years, the only serious rule was to take nothing seriously. The hallmarks of this fun were irony, fetishization, and aloof antagonism, and they left no room for context, no room to consider the consequences for those outside the laughter. Context and consequences didn’t have to be addressed by the laughing us, because the laughing us tended to be protected from the harms inspiring their laughter and the harms that resulted from it.

Even as many have learned those lessons, fetishistic fun still exists in 2020. It remains a giant, billowing red flag, especially for those of us worn down to gnawing exhaustion. Laughter that acts like 500 immigrant children aren’t still separated from their parents; laughter that doesn’t carry the weight of the 230,000 Americans dead from COVID-19; laughter that ignores Kamala Harris’ stern rebuke of systemic racism because while she was speaking that fly landed right on the other guy’s head, lol.

Still, there’s room—and for many, there’s need—to be funny even when things are the opposite of fun. The problem isn’t laughter itself; it’s a specific kind of laughter that ignores context, consequence, and the life and death stakes for those struggling to survive. Approaches to Mike Pence’s fly illustrate this distinction. David Frum, writing for The Atlantic, leans into context in his response to the fly, pointing out just what it said about the Trump administration. The fly is a metaphor for inaction; it illustrates an utter lack of situational awareness. It is an apt vision of moral rot. This is humor that understands the weight of the moment, not fancy-free absurdity.

Likewise, comedian Sarah Cooper has persistently resonated during the 2020 election cycle for her short pantomime videos lip-synching Trump soundbites. With little more than Trump’s own words, Cooper channels the theater of the absurd we collectively experience every day. Her humor doesn’t deny the depth or the consequences of this absurdity, it leans right in, reminding us that we’ve been living through multiple never-ending emergencies, exacerbated, if not orchestrated, by a commander-in-chief who cares not one whit about making things worse. Cooper reminds us of one such emergency in an October 22 video about Trump’s climate change denial, a video she ends with a shot of a breaking glacier. Emblazoned words appear over the footage: “Climate denial is not a joke. Help us fight back.”

Cooper and Frum’s examples offer strategies for being funny when nothing is fun. In an emergency, even our humor has to convey the significance of the moment, and to avoid the traps of irony, fetishization, and aloof antagonism. In an emergency, context must be foregrounded, not denied. And in an emergency that has disproportionately affected the most at risk and marginalized, we need humor to punch up at the causes, not down at the recipients. We don’t need humor trampling those already trampled or humor pretending that power imbalances don’t exist at all.

In the right tenor, when it works against the impulse to fetishize, funny can do a lot of good. Funny can be a razor-sharp indictment or a source of solidarity. Or a gadfly landing on the crown of oppression. We need funny more than ever; we just need to be careful that our funny doesn’t spoil things for everyone else.