If you can't beat them – try to join them. That's one way to describe the relationship Democrats have had with the meme culture over the past couple of years.
They've gone from denouncing memes as a vile vehicle that helped propel Donald Trump to power, to attempting to embrace them, now that another presidential election looms large.
In the opposite corner is once again Trump, who, love him or hate him, is by now universally recognized as a social media force to be reckoned with.
His political opponents and media outlets behind them have for years tried to get the President off Twitter; the platform's decision last week to ban ads promoting “politics and issues” was enthusiastically welcomed by Democrats, who (quite possibly mistakenly) believe that this will chip away at the Trump campaign's social media mojo.
Aware of all this, one of the Democratic presidential hopefuls, Elizabeth Warren, has decided to add some meme flare to her own campaign. It's a step in the right direction, but it's going to be an uphill battle to achieve success in this arena, observers are saying.
For one thing, it shouldn't be a battle at all. Successful memes and campaigns revolving around them are organic and natural – often as much about having fun by expressing an opinion or even just a sense of humor, as they are about marketing that opinion to others. This authenticity, rebellion, and effortlessness is what makes memes popular, and in the end, successful.
As if to prove their seemingly profound misunderstanding of memes, US mainstream media recently fact-checked as fun photo-edited image of Trump bestowing a medal on a dog who recently helped track down the ISIS leader, which Trump himself retweeted.
AMERICAN HERO! pic.twitter.com/XCCa2sGfsZ
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 30, 2019
The visually crude edit is an integral part of why the meme's funny in the first place, but that point went right over the heads of Trump's media detractors, who, as The Daily Wire points out, published articles about the president “disseminating a doctored image created by a right-wing propaganda site.”
With this attitude in mind, it's not surprising that there's little that seems organic or natural about the effort of the Warren's Meme Team, which describes itself as a grassroots organization.
They have put together a 9-page document (mirror) that painfully overthinks the meme phenomenon and reads almost like an attempt to find a scientific formula for a successful meme-driven social media presence.
As if for added credibility, the “plan” is littered with emojis that stand in stark contrast to the tone of the document.
Will it succeed?
Independent US journalist and political commentator Tim Pool's answer to this question is a hard “no.”
“The meme war will once again be won by the right and anyone who bets otherwise would be a fool,” he says.
In a YouTube video Pool unpacks the reasons why Democrats and leftists attempting to incorporate memes into their campaigns represents almost a case of cultural appropriation – as the very nature of their ideology is different from that of Republicans and conservatives.
The left, he argues, is driven by a grim pursuit of political correctness even at the price of bullying and ostracizing (“canceling”) people for stepping out of ideological line – also known as the outrage culture. It's an exhausting and joyless effort – and some of the more astute figures on the left, like Barack Obama, are now speaking out against “woke outrage” – likely as they realize it will eventually backfire.
On the other hand, a successful meme often requires the creator to take risks and push the boundaries of humor. According to Pool, the left simply doesn't have what it takes to engage in “a meme war” as it's constrained by its endless quest for political correctness and the stamping out of “harmful jokes.”
To prove this point, the commentator mentions a recent op-ed published in the New York Times that recognizes the importance of memes, but misses their point entirely.
Instead of getting out of their comfort zone to embrace the true nature and the rules of the game of memes, the article speaks in favor of using them to double down on “righteous progressive outrage” on issues such as climate change, inequality, and corruption.
But, as Pool pointed out in his YouTube video – “If you can make memes that are funny and fun, but you want regular people to make them, you run the risk of those people being ‘canceled' for being offensive.”