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Memes and Politics Summer 2016

Sep. 7, 2016
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Political fervor in America is rising. Last summer may have been the hottest on record, but this summer’s constant stream of violence, large-scale protest, swelling political discord, and even thinly veiled calls for treason and assassination by an actual US Presidential candidate (yes, I’m talking about Donald Trump, not like, Pol Pot?--WE HAVE TO SAY THAT?) have no doubt caused many to recede into the nearest air-conditioned, news-sealed, hypoallergenic chamber.

How do we respond to the constant stream of tragedy, police violence, ridiculously bloated and disgusting political rhetoric, the election machine, and bigotry that is real life?The memeverse has exploded in a frenzy of activity, piling meme on top of meme representing, critiquing, lambasting, satirizing, and wagging their disappointed fingers at what looks more and more like a blown-up version of an elementary school playground. And I’m talking about contemporary society. 

Indeed, when the country was recently faced with a firestorm controversy over hand size, and uh, potential presidential patriarchy size, Illma Gore responded with what is now an utterly classic example of modern political art.   In a horrifying turn of events, she was violently attacked by assumed Trump supporters merely for making her art. What a completely unnecessary, and sad, lesson about the intense power of art.  

That the size of a presidential candidate’s member has become normal political discourse yields only the possibility of rigorous satire. 

Then came a logo, which was, sadly, swiftly changed.

One way satire offers its user power over the powerful is by illuminating the absurdity of power’s fear. If Trump is afraid of being thought of as not-masculine-enough, the humor in the Trump-as-purple-running-sex-toy and campaign-logo-penetrating-itself memes is taking that fear to its logical extreme. In this instance, satire castrates by offering more, not less. It literalizes Trump’s fear, subverts its power, and offers a comic antidote to what is a very real danger.  

It is this space of subversion that art creates, and has for a long time. One glance at graffiti discovered at Pompeii proves that little has changed. Political satire has been written on the literal walls since time immemorial, and was significantly a part of nearly every imaginable politically heated time (French Revolution, May 1968, fall the the Berlin Wall, etc). This makes the meme the new graffiti, tagging the digital (Facebook) “walls” of our collective imagination. 

Memes allow the digital public to talk to itself, through language and imagery, and gives voice to ideas in a way that is prohibited by the absurd banter during the glossy sheen of political conventions and media-sponsored debates. Like ancient graffiti and street art of the last several decades, memes proliferate, change, and are written over in an evolving palimpsest, and seem in some fundamental way anonymous. All of these qualities allow the meme to be a vital form of contemporary political satire. 

Other memes of the political summer, Bernie v. Hillary, Crying Bernie Sanders Supporters, and delete your account, prove that satire, and memes, can direct attention to the left or the right. And while I like these memes, they cannot compete with Ted Cruz as the Zodiac Killer. Because, well, just ask John Boehner.

Or, maybe the best symbol of the self-swallowing vortex that is the Donald Trump campaign:

 


Images via Giphy, Bustle, Know Your Meme, and Twitter (@jessieopie)