Memes are the new vernacular of political culture and we dismiss them at our own peril. Liberals learned this the hard way late in the presidential campaign, when they began realizing how deftly the alt-right was able to use viral jokes, hashtags, and images as a propaganda tool, often to bolster white supremacist ideology. The phenomenon was propagated by Donald Trump, often through retweets (the president’s Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump, is arguably a meme farm at the highest level of government). Progressives have tried to fight back with their own memes, but nothing has gained the potency of say, new vocabulary like “cuck” or Pepe the Frog, the comic book character whose misappropriation as an alt-right mascot was condemned by its creator Matt Furie and his publisher.
But the left finally has a way to take back meme culture. Instead of originating from the anonymous bowels of 4chan or Reddit, it’s coming from Capitol Hill: the social media accounts of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (often referred to as AOC, which is also her Twitter handle). Not only is she fluent in Internet culture, but Ocasio-Cortez is also willing to take advantage of it, even as critics dismiss her, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, as a “little girl” or demand that her cohort of Democrats “stop acting like young people,” as Aaron Sorkin did during a recent CNN interview.
Ocasio-Cortez’s tweets mix her knowledge of Internet and gaming culture with statements about serious issues like taxation, income inequality, fossil-fuel pollution, and transgender rights, while her Instagram posts and Stories give followers a behind-the-scenes look at Congress. She’s prompted important policy discussions, most notably in the case of marginal tax rates, turned Mitch McConnell into a meme (#wheresMitch), and even made a C-Span video go viral.
Sworn into Congress less than a month ago, Ocasio-Cortez’s impact on political discourse is already obvious. This was highlighted over the weekend, first when Ocasio-Cortez tweeted “All your base (are) belong to us” about the popularity of her tax rate proposal, which calls for earnings higher than $10 million to be taxed at 70 percent, among both Republicans and Democrats. Though the meme itself has been around long enough to qualify as “retro,” her use of it still became a major talking point.
Then on Sunday, Ocasio-Cortez dropped into YouTuber Hbomberguy’s (AKA Harry Brewis) Twitch marathon of Donkey Kong 64, a fundraiser for transgender youth support group Mermaids, to voice her support. Speaking about discrimination against transgender people, Ocasio-Cortez said “it’s important that we do talk about these issues in the economic frame, but not let go of the fact that discrimination is a core reason for the economic hardship” (she also declared the Nintendo 64 “probably the best system out of all of them”).
Ocasio-Cortez, the Congressional representative for New York’s 14th district in Queens and the Bronx, has also shown an adept understanding of how to satirize meme culture, turning it against itself even as she participates. This is something that any public figure who wants to own their own narrative and point of view must now be able to master. And Democrats seem to understand this, since they asked her to lead a training session about social media).
Her critics have credited Ocasio-Cortez’s ability to go viral as a result of her youth and appearance. That’s certainly a factor, which Ocasio-Cortez has addressed. But she has figured out how to use even that criticism to her advantage. When a fake nude selfie of Ocasio-Cortez was reposted by right-wing news site the Daily Caller, it was an attempt to turn meme culture (and her looks) against her, but the Congresswoman instead flipped it into a discussion about misogyny against women leaders.
An earlier attempt by Twitter user AnonymousQ1776 to portray Ocasio-Cortez a “clueless nitwit” based on a video of her dancing in college also backfired by instead portraying her as, well, a typical college student. Inspired by a scene in “The Breakfast Club,” the video itself was an example of an early (relatively speaking) Internet meme, which itself triggered a discussion (and lawsuit) over copyright law and fair use rights, as noted by Freedom of the Press foundation director of special projects Parker Higgins. That tweet also, as you would guess from someone whose social media star is up high right now, launched the AOC Dancing to Every Song meme.
But Ocasio-Cortez’s messages aren’t just for her political opponents. They also serve as a signal to people who have felt increasingly disenfranchised and scared over the last few years that the country’s problems, while profound, can be approached with intelligence and even some wry humor.
A week after she was sworn into Congress, tech investor Vinod Khosla casually dismissed her credentials, expressing doubt that she “understands basic economics, actual humans and technology.” This was a strange statement to make about someone who placed second in microbiology at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and earned a degree in international relations and economics at Boston University.
“Good at memes” might not look as impressive on a resume as her prize in one of the most prestigious research competitions for high school students (other alumni have gone on to win the Nobel Prize and National Medal of Science), but it shows that Ocasio-Cortez understands tech (and actual humans) on a level that her critics, including Khosla, Sorkin, and Piers Morgan, who admonished Ocasio-Cortez to start “acting like a grown-up not a juvenile smart-a**e,” are perhaps incapable of.
Ocasio-Cortez has often been compared to Trump because of their ability to control the narrative through social media, especially Twitter. To cite another meme, however, Trump is chaotic evil, acting on the urge of impulses he seems unable to control even as they profoundly affect the lives of vulnerable people. Maybe it’s too early to tell exactly where Ocasio-Cortez’s political influence will fall on the D&D alignment chart, but it is anything but chaotic.