On Thursday New Jersey Governor Chris Christie spoke to reporters about his endorsement of Donald Trump and responded to an explosion of memes invoking how distressed he looked standing—literally and figuratively—behind the deranged Republican frontrunner on stage the evening of Super Tuesday.
"No, I wasn't being held hostage," he promised, after numerous remixes of his soulless death stare, which seemed to reflect many of our feelings about a theoretical Trump presidency, appeared on Vine. "All these armchair psychiatrists should give it a break. I was standing up there, supporting the person who I believe is the best person to beat Hillary Clinton of the remaining Republican candidates. It's why I endorsed him."
As the campaigns get more surreal, so do our methods of coping.
Christie’s rebuttal on Thursday wasn’t the first time this year a meme made its way into the election cycle in a concrete way. A running joke claiming that Ted Cruz is secretly 1970s serial murderer the Zodiac killer has become one of the greatest memes of this election, migrating from Weird Twitter onto a major, real-life poll in February.
#CPAC Alert: Ted Cruz is speaking!! His speech is titled: 'This Is The Zodiac Speaking'— Red Pill America (@RedPillAmerica) March 14, 2013
By 2015 the hashtag #TedCruzIsTheZodiac and #ZodiacTed had picked up, and in February of 2016 a comedian behind the meme actively tried to get the Cruz/Zodiac connection displayed on the Google Trends ticker on the screen during a televised debate and succeeded, and it spread even further.
Since then hundreds of users have joined in on the joke, tweeting support for an idea that is logistically impossible. Cruz was born in 1970, two years after the Zodiac Killer allegedly murdered seven people, but pointing out this inconsistency only makes the meme funnier and doesn’t undo the real-life consequences it’s had online and off. The Public Policy Poll conducted in late February indicated that 38 percent of voters questioned actually believed Cruz is "maybe" the Zodiac killer. Since then one activist has been using the meme as a means of raising money for abortion, which caused one anti-abortion site to condemn the "desperate leftist" using the meme to “fundraise abortions.”
Memes can shift the national conversation; they can raise funds and inspire poll questions. They can force political figures to take stands and make rebuttals; they can make a candidate’s run or mark its demise (just ask Jeb 'Please Clap' Bush). Above all they offer an unusually accurate reflection of political standing and public appeal, given the medium.
Back in 2012 Hillary Clinton was enjoying a "remarkably high" and "eye popping" approval rating of 69 percent as Secretary of State. Then the most well-known meme featuring her was "Texts from Hillary," which showed Clinton in dark sunglasses texting on her Blackberry in a military plane, the meme’s text reflecting how calm and collected she was, especially in comparison to fellow (often male) politicians.
But in the fall of 2015 Clinton’s favorability ratings sunk to some of their lowest, down to 40.8 at times, as she battled an email scandal and faced a movement of support for Bernie Sanders drawing away some of her election base. As her approval rate fell the public traded "badass Hillary" memes for a recurring comparison about how uncool and out-of-touch the candidate supposedly is compared to Sanders. The meme works by subbing in various cultural issues that Sanders has a (fake) relevant, informed opinion on while Clinton panders and flip-flops to relate to the cool kids.
"The Bernie vs. Hillary meme hinges on cultural identifications that are at least somewhat arcane," Amanda Hess explains in Slate. "The point is that Hillary tries, and fails, to project fluency with the pop product in question."
How, in just a few years, did the go-to joke about Clinton shift from her being the absolute coolest to cringe-inducingly unhip? The shift is in more than just memes, it represents a change in rhetoric that, as Sady Doyle points out in Quartz, reflects largely on how our society reacts to women seeking office.
Meanwhile, if you’ve opened Facebook in the last six months (particularly if you are under the age of 30) you’ll notice Sanders has no problem getting positive coverage in meme form. If the election were run on memes alone, he’d probably be running the country by now. The man has a page of 300,000 supporters making memes of him called "Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash." One of the page’s original administrators, Sean Walsh, told the Washington Post he wants the group to "get people to give a crap."
But getting people to care about a candidate does not necessarily transfer to real-life success, something even the memes themselves acknowledge.
"[The previous generation’s] memes are that generation’s C-SPAN or Huffington Post," Walsh said. "Seriously, memes are going to be very prevalent in politics. They’re going to get ideas into your head."
But getting people to care about a candidate does not necessarily transfer to real-life success, something even the memes themselves acknowledge. Bernie Sanders does well in the meme department, but with Clinton winning 11 state races in the Super Tuesday elections this week, it’s clear that online support doesn’t always translate to votes.
Whether the meme-ification of the election actually affects who turns out to vote (and who is elected) matters less than how much it has already changed how elections work, and how much memes themselves are changing. Memes about Jeb! being a loser and Clinton continuing to try to cash in on more positive memes of days past seem pretty standard, but 2016 may be the first election year in which a candidate has been accused of being a serial killer (hey, he still hasn’t denied it).
The jokes are getting weirder because it’s the only way we can deal with these bizzaro-world debates and campaigns, in which a front runner for the president of the United States bragged about the size of his penis in a nationally televised debate. As the campaigns get more surreal, so do our methods of coping, and we are going to need another truckload of Zodiac Killer Teds before this is all over.