There has been a veritable flood of new information this week about Russian interference in American elections, including the release of a Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee report confirming the Trump campaign’s coordination with Russian operatives before the 2016 election. In a press release issued upon the full release of the Intelligence Committee report, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that:
“America’s intelligence and law enforcement communities have made clear that the Russian Government is continuing to wage a massive intervention campaign to benefit the President, warning of a ‘365-days-a-year threat’ to compromise the 2020 elections and undermine our democracy.”
Memes continue to be a key element in the Russian intervention campaign, and observing how they work is a valuable exercise for anyone who hopes to understand, and maybe even lessen, their effects.
In a recent post, I wrote about how conservative memes on social media support Donald Trump’s re-election efforts. But the meme wars aren’t strictly aimed at conservatives. In 2016, the Russians produced tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of memes to appeal to moderates, liberals, progressives, libertarians, and any other group you can imagine on the political spectrum. And they’re no less ecumenical in 2020.
The last post ended up being pretty popular, so I thought I might do a series of posts that look at memes from different parts of the political spectrum. In future posts, I’ll look at Progressive/Leftist and non-political (sh*tposting) memes. In this post, I want to look at three memes designed to appeal to Democrats/Liberals/Centrists, or DLCs. I realize there is significant diversity among these three groups, but I’ll accept the risk of running them together.
As with the previous and future sets of memes, I don’t know for sure that these were created or circulated by Russians. Nevertheless, I’ve seen multiple versions of these memes circulating in multiple places, so I assume they’re at least well-traveled. And whether Russians are specifically involved with these memes or not, they still serve the Russians’ goals: inflaming tension and intensifying division in the United States.
Hold My Nose
The first meme I want to look at I’m calling the “Hold My Nose” meme. I’ll explain the name below. Dozens of versions of this meme exist, including variations that encourage people to contribute to good discussion, refuse bitterness, and behave either kindly or civilly. I chose this version because it specifically denies the importance or value of political affiliation. The apparent central conceit of “Hold My Nose” is bipartisan common sense. If we take it at face value, we’re invited to rise above the fray and come together around values all Americans share, which are helpfully spelled out.
According to the words in the meme, opposition to Trump isn’t about politics at all. It’s about common decency. Common decency—basic humanity—instructs us to reject bigotry, misogyny, and racism, which is embodied in Trump, an obnoxious, disgusting not-real-American.
I’m not planning to spend much time looking at fallacies in this meme, but I’d hate to ignore the “No True Scotsman” appeal at the end of the meme, which is a beauty. A No true Scotsman fallacy has three parts:
- someone makes a universal claim (All Scotsman like haggis),
- someone else provides a contradicts the claim with a disconfirming example (Seamus does not like haggis), and rather than refute the example,
- the speaker declares the exemplar “not true” (Seamus isn’t a real Scotsman because his mother’s family is from Wales)
That’s what’s happening in “Hold My Nose”—according to this meme, he’s No True American. Not really my point here, but it’s not every day that you see such a perfect specimen in the wild. Now back to the regularly scheduled program.
Contrary to initial appearances, this meme is not actually about rising above the fray at all. It’s about reinforcing DLCs’ sense of their own virtue, which becomes clear once you start pulling the elements apart.
It, of course, has elements that suggest unity—a blue dog wearing a red (MAGA?) hat. That’s weird, but maybe it represents compromise (hint: it doesn’t). There’s also blue text and red text. Overall, it asserts a common decency is basic to all humanity, and it implies an invitation: if you’re a decent human, you should join this meme-making in rebuking Trump.
That’s not actually what it’s saying, though. What it’s saying is DLCs are good and conservatives are bad. It does this through what rhetoricians call synecdoche.
In synecdoche, a part of something is made to represent the whole or vice versa. Here’s an example: when politicians discuss starting a war, they’ll often refer to that action as “putting boots on the ground.” Obviously, they are not literally setting boots down. The boots (a part) represents all the soldiers being deployed (the whole).
One function of synecdoche is misdirection. “We’re going to send lots of troops to war” sounds a lot less palatable than “we’re putting boots on the ground.” But it also lets you connect things to one another in subtle ways. The colors in the “Hold My Nose” meme are synecdochic.
Notice, for example, where all the insults are. It’s not an accident that they’re in red text. The blue text describes rising above differences, but the red text describes terrible characteristics associated with the leader of the Republican party. If you align in any way with Trump, you get painted with the same terrible characteristics, but in fact, if you align in any way with Republicans, who are represented by red, you’re a horror show.
Plain and simple, this meme isn’t for conservatives, and it isn’t about rising above our differences. It’s about reinforcing a belief (Trump sucks) among people (DLCs) who already hold it.
No doubt you’re wondering how the heck that helps the Russians. I’m glad I imagined you asking. Allow me to explain.
First, by seeming to be about compromise and transcendence while actually being pretty insulting, it reinforces the belief among conservatives that liberals are self-righteous. Earlier today, former Republican and current Never-Trumper, Tom Nichols, tweeted
Remember, Trump’s base doesn’t hate rich people. It doesn’t care about income inequality. It really doesn’t even care that much about taxes or the cost of living. It cares about the perception of being looked down up [sic]. It cares about the perception of being looked down up. It cares about status. Understand this, and you get it.
This meme plays right into the perception that DLCs look down on Trump supporters. In that sense, if conservatives happen to come across it, “Hold My Nose” amplifies the tension that already exists between DLCs and conservatives under the guise of DLCs being magnanimous. So condescending!
The condescension angle assumes conservatives will come across this meme, and they might, but as I’ve been arguing, it’s not for them. It’s for DLCs, and it is within those audiences that it does its most important propaganda work.
If the ostensible argument of “Hold My Nose” is about rising above the fray, it’s most powerful argument is actually that politics are gross. In claiming to transcend politics, this meme implies that politics are distasteful in general. It pits politics and political affiliation in direct opposition to common decency and humanity.
Politics, according to this meme, are a thing we engage in despite our beliefs and values, not because of them. We hold our noses and cast our votes because Trump and his gang are so horrible, but it would be better if we could wash our hands of the whole affair. That’s what the other versions of this meme do, too—they associate debate, disagreement, argument, and politics with an odious responsibility.
So, while “Hold My Nose” is for DLCs and is generally shared by them, it actually reinforces beliefs about liberal condescension and reinforces common sense about the fundamental distastefulness of political action. As such, it functionally energizes conservatives who come across it by activating their feeling of being judged and it seeks to de-energize DLCs by making politics seem necessary but distasteful—like eating vegetables and flossing.
The second meme I want to look at does some of the same things as “Hold My Nose,” so we can draw on some of what we learned from looking at that. “Holier-Than-Thou-Art” just started circulating when Steve Bannon was arrested for fraud and money laundering.
“Holier-Than-Thou-Art” lays it out pretty straightforwardly: people who supported Trump’s wall were racists, but they were also stupid. They were marks in a con game. Idiots.
One thing to keep in mind for those of you who are shaking your heads in agreement. It’s important to note that reading memes can take truth-value into account, but that’s only ever one element in the persuasiveness. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter if people who donated to fund the wall were racists or marks in a con. What matters is how those messages get put to persuasive ends.
In contrast to “Hold My Nose,” “Holier-Than-Thou-Art” doesn’t even pretend to be about bipartisanship. It goes whole hog into self-righteousness. There’s no veneer of rising above.
“Holier-Than-Thou-Art” is a classic in-group appeal. In-group appeals, as Trish Roberts-Miller has taught us, are central to demagoguery. They assert that “we” are good and “they” are bad, and therefore whatever “we” do is good and whatever “they” do is bad. Group membership and identity then get used as a proxy for genuine decision-making.
That’s the logic of “Holier-Than-Thou-Art.” The audience for this meme—DLCs—are in the in-group, and conservatives aren’t. Conservatives, by definition here, are stupid, racist marks just waiting to be victimized, and they deserve nothing but our mockery and disdain.
Like “Hold My Nose,” this meme plays into the perception that DLCs look down on Trump supporters. If conservatives come across “Holier-Than-Thou-Art,” it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t find it condescending. But it’s not for them. It’s for DLCs.
In this case, there’s an underlying argument that I think many DLCs would find somewhat appalling, which is that we should take comfort in our enemies’ pain. By building on the in-group/out-group logic, it suggests that Trump supporters are, in fact, our enemies. And as “Holier-Than-Thou-Art” makes very plain, those of us in the in-group should take comfort knowing that they’re being taken advantage of by their own leaders.
In an ideal democracy, different parties are not supposed to be “enemies,” though they may strongly disagree. But even if the parties are in powerful disagreement, the notion that one group should take pleasure in the other party’s pain and suffering is anathema to the central process of democratic decision-making. Obviously, we don’t live in an ideal democracy, but this meme actively, if somewhat subtly, attacks the assumption that we should even want the ideals of democracy. The more we’re encouraged to reject the assumptions of our form of government, the less likely we’ll be to work for them. By taking aim at the values of democracy, it feeds Russian disinformation, all under the pretense of showing how superior “we” (DLCs) really are.
The third meme I chose is somewhat different than the previous two. I’m calling it “No Homo.”
“No Homo” is a direct response to attacks against Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee, Kamala Harris. In the mid-1990s, Harris had an extra-marital affair with former San Francisco Mayor and State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, and conservatives and leftists alike have seized on that affair to suggest that Harris’s entire political career can be attributed to her sleeping her way to the top. As a meme, then, “No Homo” rejects this accusation by illuminating the hypocrisy of focusing on the female candidate’s dating history and ignoring her male counterpart’s.
But “No Homo” is only marginally about Kamala Harris. She’s a prop in this meme.
There are several versions of the meme going around, but the one here is being circulated by a Facebook group called “Feminist News,” which identifies itself as “a new digital media platform committed to raising awareness and advocating for women’s political, social, and economic rights through thoughtful commentary, critique, and journalism.” In other words, the group is pretty straightforwardly aligned with DLCs’ investment in feminist advocacy, and it has nearly 1.5 million members.
My goal here is not to attack Feminist News or the people who are in the group. I have no reason to doubt their sincerity and goodwill. I mean only to point out that it’s a very popular group aligned with the core beliefs of DLCs. Which is why this meme is so strange.
In general, DLCs who identify with the goals of feminist advocacy tend also to identify with LGBTQ+ equality. However, “No Homo” sends a really confusing message about homosexuality because it levels a homophobic attack at Mike Pence. The meme implies that he’s a closeted gay man and that his wife, who he calls “Mother,” is his alibi-wife.
It’s just a joke, right? But it’s not. “No Homo” sets Pence up to be mocked solely on the basis of his implied sexuality. It renders homosexuality, in general, as an aberration worth of scorn. We’re back to synecdoche here—if Pence (the part) deserves to be mocked because he’s gay, then anyone who identifies as gay (the whole) should be prepared to be mocked and scorned for their sexuality, even by people who are supposed allies.
For DLCs who would dismiss the severity of this analysis, I’d ask you to consider the mockery in terms of in-group/out-group. If DLCs are in the in-group, Pence is in the out-group. Perhaps that accounts for the mockery. But even if that’s the case, the negative characteristic associated with him—literally, the punchline—is his sexuality. In other words, whatever makes Pence worthy of being mocked, homosexuality is still necessary for the joke to work. For the joke to work, we have to accept that homosexuality is yucky or abnormal or deviant.
If I’m right that the majority of the audience for this meme supports LGBTQ+ rights, then it is tremendously odd to imply that there’s something wrong with Pence simply because he’s gay.
On its own merits, “No Homo” justifies homophobia and reinforces the belief that gay = bad, which is obviously a problem for a party that wants to build a big tent.
But my goal is not simply to point out homophobia. It’s to look at how memes align with Russian disinformation, which “No Homo” really does nicely.
One of the challenges for the Democratic party, dating at least back to 1968, is that it’s a coalition party. There are lots of groups within the Democratic party that have different goals and priorities, and sometimes even competing goals and priorities. The Republican party also has different groups with different goals and priorities, but for several decades they’ve more or less been able to come together around two main issues: tax breaks and opposing government regulations. What this means is that Democrats have to overcome significant internal tensions within the party that Republicans haven’t really had to deal with to the same degree.
Since the objectives of Russian trolls are to inflame tensions and intensify division in the United States, and since Russian disinformation campaigns are working in support of Trump and Republicans, then it is to their benefit to amplify Democrats’ internal tensions. “No Homo” does this really efficiently by setting a supposed defense of the Democratic VP candidate in direct contention with LGBTQ+ rights and equality. “No Homo” scapegoats one part—traditionally a persecuted part—of the supposed in-group, with the result that tensions get amplified. Score one for Russia.
In my previous Russian trolls post, I offered some recommendations for what actions meme analysis might lead to. I’d refer readers back to that if they want more extensive thoughts on what rhetorical analysis is good for.
I’ll conclude here by noting that a lot of memes work really well to convince people that what they believe is right. They’re literally designed to confirm people’s biases. Most propaganda works on that sense of goodness and rectitude. Such affirmation can be a powerful tool for energizing people, building community, and strengthening resolve. But in the right hands, it can also have really terrible, destructive results. So, in addition to the recommendations I already made, I want to emphasize the importance of learning to read against memes we agree with. Doing so is almost certainly more important than learning to read memes that aren’t meant for our consumption in the first place.