It’s simple. It’s effective. It’s “Bernie vs. Hillary”: the meme. Boosted on Tumblr, on Twitter, and in “Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash”—a Facebook group with 160,000 members and counting—it riffs on a typical election year poster: “Bernie or Hillary? Be informed. Compare them on the issues that really matter.” The issues that really matter, in this telling, include the candidates’ preferred gaming consoles and philosophies on sneaking soda in the free water cup. Invariably, Bernie Sanders’ response is passionate and charming while Hillary Clinton’s is insufferable and cloying. As one Facebook contributor spelled it out: “The meme is supposed to show that Bernie [knows] what he’s talking about and is relatable while Hillary is out of touch and flip flops.”
In the Olive Garden one, Hillary regurgitates corporate lines while Bernie gives it to you straight:
Then there’s the Radiohead version, in which Hillary gets overexcited about the band’s mainstream hit while Bernie wheels competently through the band’s catalogue:
And who could forget the lizard iteration, in which Bernie projects authentic enthusiasm, while Hillary hates fun:
important issues for me pic.twitter.com/LYbEwIXovk— LIZARD WARNING (@Spurksploodge) January 28, 2016
The meme recalls “Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle,” a single-serving site created by the journalist Mat Honan almost exactly eight years ago. The difference here isn’t just that Clinton is not your new bicycle. (Man, she probably doesn’t even know how to ride a bicycle.) It’s that while Honan’s site bestowed Clinton’s challenger with universally pleasing attributes—“Barack Obama gave you a puppy,” “Barack Obama fixed your car,” “Barack Obama escorted your grammy across the street”—the Bernie vs. Hillary meme hinges on cultural identifications that are at least somewhat arcane. The point is that Hillary tries, and fails, to project fluency with the pop product in question.
The meme’s portrait of Clinton as overeager to relate to the cool kids reads as a backlash to her campaign’s own strategic approach to youth and Internet culture. Clinton has signaled a gameness to engage with fluff, politely fielding garbage questions like, “Would you rather be the president or Beyoncé?” even when what comes out are stilted lines like: “I mean, she sings, she’s up, she’s down. It’s just amazing.” The meme’s vision of Sanders rapturously nerding out, though, doesn’t jibe with his typical response to a softball: dismissal and hostility.
When the New York Times Magazine’s Ana Marie Cox asked Sanders to comment on his iconic hairdo, he shut her down, saying: “OK, Ana, I don’t mean to be rude here. I am running for president of the United States on serious issues, OK? Do you have serious questions?” This no-nonsense attitude is part of his charm. The joke at the heart of this meme is the translation of Sanders’ passion and expertise in discussions of economic inequality to a meaningless cultural dispute he’d never actually address. But even the staunchest Sanders supporter can recognize that Clinton is a policy nerd who stumps with what the New York Times calls “a wonkish intensity.” So the meme doesn’t exactly fight fair: It compares how Clinton fields soft questions with how Sanders replies to hard ones.
But whatever. A successful meme doesn’t stick to facts. It riffs off a vibe. Bernie registers as passionate and authentic, Hillary comes across as pandering and robotic, and those assessments are very sticky. When New York magazine’s Rembert Browne asked Sanders to name his favorite David Bowie song at Fusion’s January Brown and Black Democratic Presidential Forum, Sanders replied, “I know he passed away, and the answer is that I wasn’t much of a follower of his.” Weeks later, Bernie closed an Iowa speech to the tune of “Starman,” and Newsweek raved that the choice “felt sincere.” Close readers of Bernie’s musical tastes know it was as calculated as any other candidate’s pandering playlist, but it “feels” sincere because Bernie feels sincere.
Meanwhile, as Sady Doyle has chronicled for Slate, Hillary’s reputation as a pandering fake is informed by 20 years of being skewered as either “bitchy, crazy, dangerous” or “cold, robotic, calculating” by critics on both the left and right. If she seems to try too hard, it’s because she does have to work harder to succeed.
Which brings us back to that nuclear critique of Bernie supporters: Some of them, sometimes, may just be a little bit sexist. Though there are some notable exceptions—Bernie has better eyeliner!—the meme overwhelmingly situates Bernie’s dominance in masculine subcultures and products: anime, Tony Hawk, Star Wars, Pokemon, PlayStation, gaming, first-person shooters. Hillary, meanwhile, doesn’t understand football (actually, she doesn’t know what any sports even are); confuses Star Trek with Star Wars; and is, of course, unfamiliar with dank memes themselves.
As Houston Press writer Jef Rouner points out, the Bernie vs. Hillary meme looks an awful lot like the old “Idiot Nerd Girl” meme, which posited that “women are interested in traditional nerdy things like Star Wars or video games simply because they are now trendy, and that their interest is superficial.” So similar are the two memes that they can make the exact same joke, and it works both ways.
The Bernie vs. Hillary memes “are just the latest expression of this idea, utilizing arguably the most famous woman in America right now as its sexist punch line,” Rouner argues. “Don’t think for a second the jokes in these memes have nothing to do with the fact that a woman is in serious contention for a job that has always been held by a man.”
It doesn’t help that one popular strain of the meme sounds just like a rewarmed Fox News talking point from 2008. “When Barack Obama speaks, men hear, ‘Take off for the future!’ ” Marc Rudov said on the network after Obama’s Iowa win in 2008. “When Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear, ‘Take out the garbage!’ ”
But while 2008 Hillary reminded men of “their nagging wives,” as Fox put it, the joke about 2016 Hillary is that she reminds kids of their nagging moms. The Hillary of the meme is simultaneously a prim hall monitor, a teacher’s pet, a strict schoolmarm, and a mean mommy who won’t let you stop at McDonald’s for a snack and makes you eat healthy cereal. (By the way, calling the meme sexist is, according to the meme, a very Hillary thing to do.) She’s also—why not?—a racist who says stuff like “#AllLivesMatter” and “I have a black friend.” Some iterations of the meme are just excuses for a ba-dump-ching punchline about Hillary’s husband cheating on her. Point is: Bernie good, Hillary bad. Or, to express that in meme form:
The laziest iterations of the meme reduce the choice between the two candidates to capitalist brand identification: Bernie and Hillary are Coke vs. Pepsi, Apple vs. Android, MAC makeup vs. a drugstore brand, Cinnamon Toast Crunch vs. Kix, TurboTax vs. H&R Block, and McDonald’s vs. Burger King. Sanders, the democratic socialist, is often aligned with the more expensive product.
In a way, the memeing of the presidential race helps keep the campaign focused on substantive stuff: Now, issues of pop cultural identification have been outsourced to the supporters themselves. Unsurprisingly, as the meme has strayed further and further from any relevant political observation, the debate about the candidates has devolved into a fight over the meme itself. On the dank memes Facebook page, long threads unfurl where Sanders supporters debate, for instance, whether Bernie would play the Xbox One or the PS4. To the most exacting meme-ers, Bernie vs. Hillary has already evolved into such an undank meme that it’s been shoved into the Hillary column. It’s yet another fun thing ruined by overeager latecomers who like it for all the wrong reasons.