The Meme Of The Year

How emails captivated a country and won the election

We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.

“The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” —Bernie Sanders, to Hillary Clinton, October 13, 2015

On the opening day of the Democratic National Convention, a group of Bernie Sanders supporters crashed the morning meetings of the Florida delegation. The target of their ire was Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman and, until a few days prior, the chairwoman of the DNC. As Schultz attempted to address the delegation, Sanderistas booed her down, waving matching signs that looked like they'd been cooked up half an hour prior at the local Kinko's: Each was black text in a generic sans serif font on plain white paper. Most of them read, simply, “E-MAILS.”

The signs had a wry, minimalist charm, and at the time, I wrote that there was a good chance that “E-MAILS” would become “the crossover meme of the summer.” My prediction was only half-right, and the half that was right was old news. E-MAILS was already the meme of the summer. In fact, it was well on its way to becoming the defining idea of the entire election cycle.

In late summer of 2015, almost a year before Sanders supporters staged their protest, Gallup ran a survey asking Americans what they'd heard or read about Clinton and Trump, and made word clouds out of the responses, the size of each word indicating the frequency with which it had been used. “Emails” was the largest word in Clinton's cloud, taking up a third of the infographic. The second-largest word was “email.” This wasn't a partisan phenomenon, either: The graphic looked largely the same even when Gallup constructed it from the responses of Democrats alone. Two months before the election, after Clinton had spent more than a year and more than a billion dollars campaigning, Gallup ran the survey again. “Email” had increased to fill half of the graphic.

But what does “E-MAILS” even mean? And how did its banality beat out the ironic fatalism of the This Is Fine dog, the vacant sloganeering of the Make America Great Again hat, and the absurdist appropriation of Pepe the Frog? How did this meme — both as a joke and as a serious idea — colonize the political discourse and conquer the election? To understand this, you've got to first understand an older meme, based on a picture taken of Clinton when she was secretary of state.

Clinton is alone in the foreground of the now-famous photo, sitting in a plush but functional airplane seat, a stack of thick briefing books and folders spread out on a table in front of her. She's dressed in nondescript earth tones, but she's accessorized with bronze and teal jewelry — a large brooch on her lapel matches her earrings, necklace, and the bracelet that peeks out of her sleeve. The expression on her face is hard to quantify, simultaneously relaxed and focused, the look of someone who is completely in her element. There might be the faintest hint of a smile. Most importantly, she's wearing sunglasses and looking at her BlackBerry. Against all odds, she looks legitimately cool. And so the “Texts from Hillary” meme was born.

“Texts from Hillary” was intended to be tongue in cheek, of course. Nobody believed that Hillary Clinton was really firing off cutting insults to Sarah Palin or coldly shutting down story time with Uncle Biden. But in a very real way, it represents Clinton's most favorable political persona, the best brand her personality can bear. Clinton herself was aware of how flattering it was, so much so that she contributed a riff of her own, and when she joined Twitter in 2013, her staff made the original picture her avatar.

Clinton, by her own admission, isn't a natural politician. She doesn't have Bill Clinton's folksy magnetism, Barack Obama's cool charisma, or even Joe Biden's plainspoken “regular Joe” charm. She's not an orator or a glad-hander, and if she inspires, it's because of what she's done and who she is, not because of what she says. “Texts from Hillary” reframes these weaknesses as strength. It's Clinton as no-nonsense and all business, a whip-smart, quick-witted workaholic who always does her homework and is never caught unprepared. She's seen it all and isn't impressed by any of it. She's the last person you'd call if you needed a shoulder to cry on, but the first person you'd call if you needed someone to have your back in a fight. It's Clinton as a pragmatic technocrat who gets things done because she knows all the details and can work all the levers. In short — a boss-ass bitch. Or that's the idea, anyway.

This idea of Clinton is palatable even to her enemies, precisely because it doesn't deny her flaws. But the plausibility of this vision of Clinton is exactly what made her so vulnerable to E-MAILS.

E-MAILS is really shorthand for two unrelated incidents, the more recent being the hacking and leaking of emails from the Democratic Party (something we'll get to in a second). But it originated in Clinton's mishandling of her emails as secretary of state — first, using a private server as well as an unsecure email address and devices to send and receive classified information, then deleting some of the messages and handing over incomplete email archives during the inquiries about Benghazi. If that sounds like boring technical details that aren't exactly the salacious stuff of scandal, you're right. And that was exactly the problem.

If Clinton is truly the detailed, studied technocrat that knows all the angles, then her fumbling of email-related security protocols couldn't simply be the result of ignorance or negligence. Either the persona captured by “Texts From Hillary” was specious, or worse: Her breach of protocol wasn't accidental, but done for some nefarious purpose. She must have been intentionally hiding something — perhaps damning details about Benghazi, or Clinton Foundation corruption. When she deleted emails that she should have kept, this couldn't have been clumsy technical incompetence. It had to have been part of a cover-up. And so on. In a cruelly ironic twist, it was the kindest reading of Clinton's political identity that later made it impossible for her to get the benefit of the doubt from either the media or the public. The image of Clinton as someone who always knew what she was doing is part of what made the idea that she was exceptionally shady or corrupt so difficult to shake.

When a government official saw the picture back in 2011, it prompted him to check on the status of Clinton's official State Department email address. Had someone listened to him, the entire scandal might have been avoided. Nobody did.

The second half of the E-MAILS meme was comprised of private correspondence from the Democratic Party — some from the DNC and some from party insider John Podesta — hacked by parties unknown (sort of) and then released by WikiLeaks. The CIA says the Russian government is responsible for the hack, and that it did it specifically to help Trump win the election. To be fair, there's no real way of knowing if that's true without being able to see the evidence, and it's not as if the CIA is some kind of altruistic and impartial arbiter. But if the Russians were responsible for the hack, you have to take a step back and admire the elegance and simplicity of hurting an organization by revealing its inner workings while leaving those of its adversaries opaque. This selective revelation is what weaponized the leaks and turned them into propaganda, a propaganda that announced itself openly and trusted that it would work anyway.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the hacked emails was how few of them contained information that was actually surprising. They mostly concerned stuff that we already strongly suspected: There was the revelation that the DNC was not quite neutral in the primary race — they may not have explicitly attempted to tip the scales or rig the primary, but the fact that staffers openly expressed their preference for Hillary was perhaps a signal that bias was acceptable in the DNC's culture. (This is what brought Sanders supporters bearing normcore signs to the Florida delegation's meeting at the DNC.) There were excerpts of Clinton's speeches revealing that she seemed more open and comfortable discussing her views with Wall Street bankers than she ever was in front of her own party's base.

E-MAILS ultimately became something more abstract and less concrete than a shorthand for specific scandals. It became a cipher, a catch-all for bland, bureaucratic malfeasance, the everyday unseemliness of establishment politics, the suspicion of some unnamed conspiracy. It dominated the landscape partially because of sheer volume — the tens of thousands of messages, released slowly and methodically over the summer, meant there was always raw material the media could comb through for stories both substantive and sensational. And the broadness and vagueness of E-MAILS made it fiendishly self-reinforcing — even stories that were benign or favorable to Clinton hurt her candidacy, because any story that put “email” in the headline invoked the entire meme, resurfacing the most damning of its interpretations. In fact, FBI director James Comey writing a letter that they might have discovered more emails related to Clinton's private server, without any other context or content, in the days leading up to the election, may have been enough to doom Clinton's run. It's impossible to be certain about how much Comey's revelation mattered, but that it could even possibly have been a decisive factor indicates the power of E-MAILS. You could say to another person, “I'm against Clinton because of the emails,” and the other person could nod in agreement, and there was no reason to clarify what either of you meant. It wasn't even necessary to have meant anything at all. The year's most persistent narrative, like so much else that shaped this election, was hollow.

Check out more from the year in music, culture, politics, and style in Signal & Noise 2016.

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