Meme war is merely the continuation of politics by other means

If the U.S. presidential campaigning is pop culture, as I claimed in 2016, the deployment of memes by Joe Biden and Donald Trump indicate the mainstreaming of the once-fringe, subcultural enterprise.

We actually elected a meme as president,” ran a headline from The Washington Post, on November 9, 2016. The quote came, in a post accompanied by an image of Pepe the Frog, from 4chan. This reviled image board was, along with its uglier younger sibling 8chan, and r/The_Donald on Reddit, the wellspring for the offensive memes and rhetoric that defined much of the online support for Trump, coming to be known as the alt-right.

That 8chan and The_Donald subreddit have since been banned reflects not the rejection of memes as a means of doing politics, but rather its integration into the mainstream. Again, in 2016 I cited Stuart Hall, who wrote that popular culture “is the arena of consent and resistance. It is partly where hegemony arises, and where it is secured.” Those who enjoyed and gained an identity from operating in the resistant murky underbelly of the internet continue to congregate on 8kun and, while campaigns around the world have consented to the use of memes as political communication.

While it is of course hyperbolic to claim that memes won Trump the presidency in 2016, they do help explain the enduring passion and nature of his support. Trump’s outsiderness worked well with meme culture in his 2016 campaign, carving out a new rhetorical space in the political landscape that in opposition to the Democrats but was outside the GOP, and in which his supporters could play and organise under the banner of MAGA.

Crucially, Trump’s 2016 campaign, whether by design or thrift, did not create any memes of its own. Trump was merely an amplifier for the frowned-upon fringes, a malleable identity that could be adopted by anyone.

Funnily enough, it is perhaps the Clinton campaign’s explainer about Pepe the Frog that signalled both the power of this outsider status and its demise. Donald Trump Jr.’s infamous re-post of The Deplorables meme, with photoshopped heads from Trump’s inner circle (including Pepe) replacing the cast of the film, The Expendableswithout any explainer demonstrates how the Trump campaign harnessed the power of political outsiderness, and twisted the meaning of institutional labels (Clinton calling Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables”) to its own purposes. By taking seriously the effort to make Pepe the Frog a hate symbol, the Clinton campaign at once realised this effort and missed the joke. But not getting the joke also undoes its magic, and jimmies the methods of meme-making onto the conventions of traditional political communication.

This posture was not possible in 2020. Trump has been the most powerful man in the world, the U.S. president, for four years. His ineffective response to the coronavirus reflects a failure of governance that he cannot pin on someone else, no matter how hard he tried to spread, like a meme, “China flu.”

Joe Biden had a previous (and positive) meme life during the early days of Trump’s presidency as Obama’s overzealous and avuncular defender, which remains in play even if 2020 opposition memes target senility and sexual misconduct. Biden’s earlier meme life gave his campaign a base on which they could generate their own memes, playing on a nostalgic, ironically knowing lameness that is nonetheless inflected by the integration of MAGA into the mainstream. To wit: The Occupy Democrats Facebook page (initially created in response to the Tea Party movement) created a meme page, Ridin’ With Biden. Just as Trump repurposed Clinton, the Biden campaign now uses Trump’s slogans in memes against him: “Get In, We’re Draining Trump’s Swamp and Making America Sane Again!”

The MAD-like parity of the presidential meme wars is evident in each campaign spending roughly $83 million on YouTube advertisements. Perhaps as a legacy from his earlier meme success, but also reflecting the way he has continuously innervated his base, Trump’s channel gets over ten times as many views as Biden’s. But instead of amplifying the voices of supporters, the channel creates its own content, such as “Prevent a Zombie Uprising.” A thirty-minute loop of a ten-second ad, with Biden (the titular zombie) turning green, alongside zombie and ghost emojis, this melding of memes and traditional television advertisements cements the integration of meme culture into mainstream politics. The videos, and their thumbnails, are designed to look like those produced by young YouTubers. The close-up of an excited face, Impact font, bright, high-contrast colours, two or three emojis, are interchangeable with a video game review or an unboxing reveal. With its YouTube home page takeover on Election Day, the Trump campaign went from authentic and mischievous outsider to the familiar and mainstream insider—and lost something.