For better or for worse, memes have fully entered the world of politics. And they’re here to stay.
Earlier this week, a new political protest appeared outside of the White House–an enormous inflatable chicken stylized to look like President Trump. The chicken, with Trump’s distinct hairstyle and signature hand gestures (👌) was placed on the Ellipse, a park between the White House and the Washington Monument. The large balloon representation of the President drew plenty of attention, from both side of the political spectrum. According to the New York Times, the inflatable chicken’s trip to Washington was planned and organized by Taran Singh Brar, and was meant to represent trump as a “weak and ineffective leader.” Brar said that his goal was for his political statement to go viral and his inflatable chicken certainly did exactly that, though perhaps not exactly in the way that he was hoping.
Beyond the initial coverage of the chicken’s appearance, there has been very little information about Brar and his message of Trump as an ineffective leader. Instead, Trump supporters have flocked to the inflatable chicken and used it as a unifying symbol and as a rallying cry. The specific messaging has varied–from the chicken as a symbol of “butthurt liberals” to being representative of the President’s personality and his “enormous cock.” Despite these variances one fact remains, which is that Brar’s inflatable chicken, originally intended to criticize Trump, was now being used in a positive manner by his supporters.
The frontpage of /r/The_Donald, a subreddit for Trump supporters, was filled with links to images, articles, and comments all relating to the giant inflatable chicken. Trump supporters visited Washington, posing for photos with the chicken while wearing their Trump shirts and Make America Great Again hats. Other redefined Brar’s original message of cowardice and saw the chicken as representing strength, bravery, and leadership–or in one user’s words, “The President’s huge cock.” For them, the chicken was a symbol of Trump’s style of leading the nation, his America-first style of diplomacy, and the manner in which he pushes his legislative agenda. And finally, one last common theme that was found throughout /r/The_Donald was that Brar’s chicken represented liberals’ inability to accept Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 Election. For many, the chicken was seen as an immature response from the left to the Trump Presidency.
However, what’s really interesting regarding this whole chicken business is that this conflict over its meaning did not take place in the form of debate, discussion, or even as an argument. Instead these messages arose in the form of memes, and spread in a similar fashion. Originally meant as a single political statement, the giant inflatable chicken had become its own meme and had begun to spread virally, just as Brar had hoped.
Instances of the inflatable chicken meme ranged in form and style–some were simply a photograph of the chicken with a simple caption placed on top. Some copied previous memes, such as “I Made This” and simply edited in imagery of Trump supporters stealing the chicken from a Clinton supporter. And some Photoshopped the chicken image into other photographs, as if to represent their view of Trump’s wide-reaching power and influence.
And if the meme instances alone were not enough confirmation that Trump supporters had reclaimed the inflatable chicken imagery entirely as their own, the comments that were left on each post confirmed this point even further. The general theme of most comments was that the meme had successfully been stolen from the left, and that the right’s memes were significantly better than what the other side could ever come up with.
“BECAUSE THE LEFT CANT MEME” – /u/HIGHENERGYBASTARD
“We have the best cocks, don’t we folks?” – /u/God_I_Love_Men
“We have the best meme thieves, don’t we folks??” – /u/MAGANOPOLIS
“WE HAVE SEIZED THE MEMES OF PRODUCTION” – /u/kingofthekarts
Interestingly, there has been little to no dialogue from the other side, from those who the meme was supposedly stolen from. Though /r/The_Donald is filled with comments bragging about stealing the chicken meme from the left, nobody on the left really seems upset nor seems to even realize that something was “stolen” from them in the first place. In other words, the transformation of the inflatable chicken from single political statement to Internet meme underscores many of the issues relating to the increasing prevalence of memes within politics. Specifically, the inflatable chicken meme calls into question the notion of ownership when it comes to the issue of memes.
I am currently writing my senior thesis on Pepe the Frog and that meme’s role in American politics; many of the concepts my research has led me too are echoed by the recent appearance of this inflatable chicken. Memes are unique because unlike other political statements, there is no one single owner. There isn’t a single person, or even a single organization, that can rightfully claim ownership of a meme and define what its specific (and “real”) meaning actually is. The inflatable chicken portrays President Trump simultaneously in a negative and positive light–and neither interpretation is intrinsically more correct than the other. Memes serve as a vessel to carry and transmit to complex ideas, and distill them down to a simple image or phrase. The conflict between Trump supporters and Trump opponents, and the complex relationship between Republicans and Democrats, and the inherent complications of the US political system are all somehow simultaneously embodied by this giant inflatable chicken.
At first glance, the chicken is merely a simple political stunt, and images of it that appear online are nothing more. However the chicken has grown to represent in simple terms the complex political ideas, discussions, and debates that are currently unfolding in the so-called “real world.” The fact that a simple inflatable chicken can serve as a symbol of such a wide array of topics is significant, and underscores the new reality of the 21st century: Whether you like it or not, memes matter. And they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.