In the past week alone, I have seen gifs of the Polish First Lady blatantly blanking Donald Trump in favour of his wife, photoshops of Ivanka Trump as Serena Joy, “auntie” Maxine Waters captioned with Beyoncé lyrics, and photographic comparisons of Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron as Charlie’s Angels. And that doesn’t even cover the endless stream of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn”. It’s not especially surprising to see social media filter modern political discourse through memes, and it’s probably a more sensible approach to someone like Donald Trump than the usual barrage of think-pieces, but in these strange times where we’re trying to find the right balance between laughing away the agony and taking the inevitable apocalypse as seriously as necessary, watching how memes evolve and are used for specific purposes has revealed much regarding the ways we try to process the impossible.
I previously argued that Trump was the Twitter President due to his obsession with the site, but I would say he’s also the meme President, as evidenced by that mess with the CNN wrestling gif and the fallout from its virality. Memes, previously the bastion of a hyper-specific online culture that baffled the mainstream, have become an expected tool in communications, and now they’re making headlines. Even CNN cover the best political memes of the week. Previously clear lines between politics, satire and commentary have blurred beyond comprehension. Even acknowledging this bizarre, increasingly mainstream underground of the internet became a disaster in the making, not to mention endlessly cringe-worthy. Remember Jill Stein’s “dank memes”?
In the Trump election, “for the lolz” became shockingly toxic. This had been preceded by a few years of an increasingly volatile internet discourse, driven by men’s rights groups, 4Chan and Reddit-based bigots, and YouTube commentators who made bank on calling feminism “cancer”. Between GamerGate, the Hugo Awards’ Sad Puppies hijacking, and the exhausting furor that followed the remake of Ghostbusters, it became clear to many that a culture war was brewing, driven by white male anger and convenient figureheads waiting to make a quick buck. Many of their methods of communication to spread the hate came in the form of memes, although to even call them that feels reductive. Using that pseudo-comedic mould to spread vile misogyny doesn’t negate the harm done, but it still gave them the thinnest of grounds to claim that they were just joking around. Outside of the internet, a disappointingly large portion of the media - not to forget actual law enforcement - couldn’t understand this brand of violence in action. It’s just a woman’s photograph with some nasty words printed over it, or some distasteful photoshops, or a hijacking of their Wikipedia page: What possible harm could that really cause? Inaction through ignorance just leads to further pain because it must be “for the lolz”.
The 2016 election was mired in this, which we now know to be partly influenced by a certain country’s government. Trump’s supporters, or at least the façade of them, were big with memes, with Pepe the Frog standing as the icon of this poisoning of what is supposed to be light-hearted, vaguely transgressive discourse. A crudely drawn anthropomorphic frog became the poster child for neo-Nazis, anti-Semitism and racism, but racist propaganda was hardly limited to Pepe when it came to memes. The weak sheen of so-called satire did nothing to dispel the obvious bigotry, not when Trump’s own campaign were surfing Reddit to use anti-Semitic images to attack Hillary Clinton.
There is a flipside to this, wherein the meme culture has been deployed with giddy optimism. Think the Bernie bird or Diamond Joe Biden or the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, particularly during the most recent general election. In 2015, the Milifandom — a Tumblr-style fangirl approach to then-Labour leader Ed Miliband, championed primarily by young women — showed the ways in which the organic evolution of online culture could be used to provide an intersection between politics and fandom. This example was unique in its explicitly feminine approach to the male dominated world of British politicians: No misogyny, no discomfiting trolling, no nastiness disguised as weak satire. The welcoming mix of earnestness and campaigning may not have helped Miliband become Prime Minister, but it did more to combat years of the PR nightmare his “awkward geek” persona provided for the party than dozens of overpaid advisers.
The obvious problem with that styling is the rose-tinted celebration of anything that is presented as an opposition to Trump’s madness — the trifecta of “liberal awesome” shared in memes of Macron, Trudeau and Merkel that conveniently skips over their voting records. Joe Biden gets to be the cuddly grandpa thanks to this public shift while Hillary Clinton must contend with a needlessly harsher approach, even as their more controversial voting records line up. It’s easy to see adorable Joe doing the thumbs-up and eating ice-cream and forget the Anita Hill case. Memes aren’t designed for nuance, and sometimes it’s just irritating to see every modicum of a complex system compared to Harry Potter.
But make no mistake, Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer.