The Great Meme Wars of 2016 & 2018
The left has the power of the mainstream media but Donald Trump has the Meme. Shouldn’t it be an easy battle for the left to win? Not quite. In 2016 and 2018 the traditional model of political communication and organization was destroyed by memetics and from it’s ashes, a new system of conversation has risen. It doesn’t take a genius to notice that people are no longer interested in traditional media outlets like CNN and MSNBC. Their model of having three floating heads and one “moderator” is outdated and an ineffective medium for communicating.
For starters, most people under thirty don’t even have cable. So, it’s utterly absurd to imagine that CNN or FOX is really capable of swaying an election. Both have only a marginal impact on the outcome, but they are not the medium most responsible for impacting voter’s decisions. Take a look at Hulu, Netflix, and now Apple TV, these are new whales of the media ocean. Together, they own a majority share in shaping the world’s culture. Each of them has uniquely grown in power as they have grown in popularity on the internet. In 2010, Hulu and Netflix were still small media outlets, now they are dwarfing cable television, forcing shows to close house and putting traditional anchors out of business. Unlike traditional media, these outlets are not inundated with paid advertisements and their viewers can even skip advertisements all together.
Their programs are consumed at the convenience of the audience, viewers are free to watch what they want to watch when they want to watch it. This has removed the opportunity for politicians to use entertainment as an an explicit medium for spreading their message.
This new medium of stream-able entertainment has largely reduced the influence of traditional advertisers whom once sought highly coveted commercial slots. Instead, their money has been funneled into social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. This has transferred the power from Nightly Talk Shows to content creators who specialize in “going viral” and a new area of expertise dubbed “memetics”. Commercial advertisers used to wait for “prime time” for people to see their message and share it with their friends but now their is no ideal time to release content, the success of a campaign has less to do with where the content is hosted and more to do with it’s messaging, branding, and accessibility.
The left’s audience is older and more traditional. They still watch late night news, cable television, and follow traditional media organizations. Most of the information they consume from these mediums is not readily shareable, and even if it was, most of the audience is not culturally or technologically familiar with the importance of the process.
Donald Trump’s movement is entirely different, it’s one predicated on internet accessibility and freedom of speech. His base, in contrast to the left, primarily engages with and participates in community forums as well as online publications and influencers. The left, in contrast, is afraid of Bernie Sanders types whom want to contribute to their policy discussions. However, they aren’t welcome.
The supporters of Donald Trump are bonded together not only in their support for Trump but also by the lingo, imagery, and organization created during his campaign. Language is a critical element of culture and the left’s language is characterized by words such as “safe space”, “hate speech” and “trigger words” which ironically are words which promote disunity within their ranks as no one seems to be able to agree on general definition of these terms. This new political environment of memetics, fostered by the internet, has provided a space for Trumpian followers to quickly organize and respond to any “breaking news” or policy developments without the mainstream media rebuking their views. While Trump’s followers routinely show up during rallies and speeches, they are equally present online.
The left by comparison fundamentally lacks a unified internet culture. This is because their ideas don’t stand up well in anonymous free environment. There are no obvious forums to hang around in and discuss democratic strategy, news or political cartoons and banter. And even if there was, 2016 proved their irrelevancy. When they do try to meme or create political imagery it often is meant to spread hatred and disgust, rather than poke fun and tease.As a result, democratic party members are less informed on how their compatriots are feeling, whom they intend to vote for, and what they expect from policy. Instead of adapting their content to be more friendly towards their base and independent voters, they have doubled down on their media strategy of staying in bed with CNN, MSNBC, and the NYT.
The best meme, and policy, the Democrats have been able to come up with to counter Trump’s agenda has been “#AbolishICE”, which many people, whether liberal or conservative, find to be an extremist position. It began with the darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calling for the organization’s dissolution, and since then, several prominent Democratic leaders have picked up the issue. However, this issue is sorely out of touch with American’s feelings on border security, while many can sympathize with the struggles of illegal immigrants, that does not mean they support open border policy. While the Democrats could have taken the moderate position on this topic, they instead went to the far left and have called for the end of our border sovereignty, a policy most Americans, whether liberal or conservative, do not support. Democrats are effectively shooting themselves in the foot with this memetic policy as voters in states like Indiana and Missouri oppose legal immigration two to one.
If I remember correctly, it was Hillary Clinton who tried to appropriate popular culture on the Ellen Show by “dabbing” which sent the internet in an uproar. Here was a woman, a politician, who was clearly out of touch with reality and culture and was doing everything she could to seem relevant and hip to younger voters. Almost instantly, the internet exposed her scheme and turned the photograph of her dabbing against her and her platform. This moment was telling of Clinton’s strategy, she was willing subvert and and pander whenever and whenever possible.
There is a clear misunderstanding of American culture by Washington politicians and how we as a people interact with and consume our information. This is how the campaign of Donald Trump began and was won. Instead of employing traditional media publications and personalities with flashy lights and production, Trump’s employed the simplest of mediums to share his message:: the Meme. Best of all, the Trump memes are genuine and authentic, created by individuals unconnected to any official party, rather than by marketing organizations or political consultants
The meme culturally replaced the sound-bite as the quickest and most effective way to communicate between and with voters. In real time, voters and constituents could respond to political events, stimulate discussion, and use the meme as a forum for discussion. There is a certain ubiquity around the meme since it often references an iconic blunder or recently familiar moment. It draws upon collective consciousness to reflect an audiences perception of the event, thus shifting the power of the media back into the peoples’ hands, sharply contrasting traditional media’s often biased reporting of the event.
The most recent meme to play an influential part in the midterm elections of 2018 has been the “NPC” meme. The term “NPC” refers to non-playing-characters which often populate massive role-playing games. They are easily identifiable as they do not hold any opinions or participate in central events which occur. By calling democratic voters “NPCs” the right is poking fun at the collective group think of the Democrats. By memeing (yes, this is a real word) democratic and leftist responses, Trump supporters have trivialized and ridiculed their political crisis. By removing the emotion from their faces, their words seem out of touch with reality. The talking points and slogans of the Democrats appear more like programmed speech bubbles coming from a “Angry Citizen #1” rather then anger emitting from a genuine personality. The NPC meme laughs in the faces of those who decry that our country and society are being destroyed.
In contrast to Clinton, Trump did not overly engage with the memes nor ever posted one of his own. Instead he listened to the messaging of the memes and incorporated into this campaign while Hillary reacted to the meme rather than it’s message. Trump never had to acknowledge the supposed “alt-right”, he merely listened to what they had to say while Clinton consistently brought them up and tried to shame their viewpoints. The left ultimately thinks memes and memery is a deplorable activity, an act they are too above to acknowledge, while the rest of middle America merely see’s it as a humorous aspect of daily political and social life. If the left can’t get past the normality of the meme in everyday life, and come to grips with it’s relevancy, then they will remain out of touch with American’s political desires.