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Meme warfare on the convention stage

Viral images and videos are the choice political weapons of our time because they seem to speak for themselves

August 24, 2020

6:20 PM

24 August 2020

6:20 PM

Who’s on the roster of speakers for the Republican National Convention is just as revealing as who’s not. Nowhere in sight are former GOP standard-bearers like George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. Included, on the other hand, are several anonymous civilians turned into internet celebrities by viral videos. Among them is Nick Sandmann, the teenager at the center of the Covington Catholic confrontation captured on film at the National Mall last year. Also featured will be Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the couple whose armed confrontation with protesters outside their St Louis home in June also circulated widely online. Their inclusion clearly signals that the party is leaning into the meme warfare strategy that helped propel Trump to victory in 2016.

Sandmann and the McCloskeys exist in most people’s minds as a single still frame, extracted from a video and endlessly shared. For Sandmann, it’s the image of him smiling, or smirking — depending on who you ask — at Nathan Phillips, an older Native American man. For the McCloskeys, it’s the scene of them — again, depending on who you ask — using their Second Amendment rights to defend their property, or harassing Black Lives Matter protesters. ‘Democrats no longer view the government’s job as protecting honest citizens from criminals, but rather protecting criminals from honest citizens,’ the pair are set to tell the convention this evening.

Both images are a litmus test: if you see Sandmann and the McCloskeys as aggressors, that you fall on one side of our polarized politics; if you see them as victims, you fall on the other side. They give us a binary choice: villain or hero? Meme-ified snapshots like these are now the basic currency of the culture war. The convention organizers clearly understand this.

The story of the first Trump term could be told through a sequence of still frames of this sort. Scenes like the ones featuring Sandmann and the McCloskeys have served as proxies for the issues that polarize the nation along party lines: conflicts over race, cultural symbols, the Second Amendment, and so on. But just as importantly, they reveal shifts in the nature of media representation itself.

Viral images and videos are the choice political weapons of our time because they seem to speak for themselves. Once we’ve decided what they show us, we take them as incontrovertible proof of whatever our position is. We exhort our political opponents: ‘just look at what’s in front of you!’ But images do not actually speak for themselves: they are always liable to conflicting readings. Memed images like those of Sandmann and the McCloskeys prompt debates between contrasting interpretations. In the process, they become proxies for larger political conflicts. 

Party conventions are consummate legacy media events. After the rise of television, they gradually evolved from closed-door, smoke-filled-room affairs to public-facing spectacles. In his 1962 book The Image, Daniel Boorstin cites the political convention as a key instance of what he called a ‘pseudo-event’: an event that occurs purely for the purpose of generating news. A prime vehicle of politics in the age of television, conventions equally served the interests of politicians seeking flattering coverage and news organizations looking for dramatic spectacles.

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However, ‘pseudo-events’ have evolved alongside the rise of the internet and the universal distribution of phone cameras. Previously, in order to have a continuous supply of politically relevant news, the media and politicians collaborated on scripting and pre-arranging events to feed the demand for news. Now, much of this work is crowdsourced from the public. People capture footage and share it, and if it’s regarded as incendiary enough, the press picks it up.

Unlike the old pseudo-events, today’s may be spontaneous rather than prefabricated. They are pseudo-events of a new sort: mundane interactions that can be used to stoke partisan polemics and sustain political narratives. These are not photojournalistic images of a traditionally ‘newsworthy’ event. Instead, the images themselves are the news. 

The old sort of ‘pseudo-event’, according to Boorstin, was scripted, institutionally organized, and disseminated via central channels. The new sort is spontaneous, crowdsourced, and viral. With the appearance of Sandmann and the McCloskeys at the RNC, individuals who rose to fame by way of the new media ecosystem will appear within a pseudo-event of the old sort. However, as Boorstin says, ‘pseudo-events spawn other pseudo-events in geometric progression’. Their convention speeches will generate new, easily meme-able images. And this, surely, is part of the point.

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