In a May 2011, Smithsonian.com ran an engaging piece titled “What Defines a Meme?” that discussed how information and ideas can imitate human genes through replication, mutation, and evolution. The piece details how evolutionary biologists such as Richard Dawkins openly discussed something referred to as a biosphere, or “an entity composed of all the earth’s life forms, teeming with information, replicating and evolving.” Above this biosphere, argued Dawkins and others, was a sphere populated by something even more abstract: Ideas. Dawkins, to his credit, argued that the most important role in this sphere of ideas belonged to the replicator, or the non-chemistry equivalent of nucleic acid. The name of this replicator? Memes.
Fast forward several decades, memes have evolved from an academic term coined by an evolutionary biologist in 1976 to define the replication of ideas, to well, this. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love that this is where memes have ended up. Every time I log on to Facebook I tag the shit out of my friends in memes that have no academic relevance. But, what if I told you, that there were memes with relevance; with a genuine impact on your day to day life. In a wildly unprecedented election cycle in which millennials matched baby boomers as the largest generation in the U.S. electorate, memes became an unlikely, but perfect, envoy of politically charged messages. In celebration of these dank memes and all the joy they brought us in such a dismal political climate, I present to you an ordered ranking of the election cycle’s best political memes.
Now, to bring some order to this list it is imperative that we set up a stringent set of criteria. The selected memes will be ranked from DEFCON Level 5 to DEFCON Level 1, with Level 1 being the pinnacle of political dankness. Memes will be judged according to the following five categories: Backstory, Power of Underlying Message, National Attention Gained, Effect on the Electorate, and Humor Level. The memes in question may receive a possible score of 20 in each category for a total political dankness score of 100. Without further ado, lets dank rank!
The hands depicted in the picture above are not actual size according to The Donald, and to hear him tell it, his hands are YUGE.
DEFCON Level 5: Trump’s Tiny Hands
Backstory: This meme actually has a somewhat interesting backstory, with Senator Marco Rubio taking a stance against the Trump’s “Little Marco” nickname by calling into question the size of Trump’s hands during the Republican primaries. Rubio told a group of supporters, “He is taller than me, he is like 6’2”, which is why I don’t understand why his hands are the size of someone who is 5’2”.” He continued on to say, “Have you seen his hands? And you know what they say about men with small hands- You can’t trust them.” The comment solidified Trump’s ability to reduce his Republican counterparts to childish comments in an effort to save their campaigns. With that being said, this is still the political equivalent of trading insults with a high school classmate, which takes away from the backstory a bit. Interesting to note, this is not the first time Trump has been targeted for his hand size. Props for the history, but it’s still Childish. Score: 12/20.
Power of Underlying Message: Rubio attempted to frame the barb into some type of reflection of Trump’s trustworthiness and character. However, further inspection reveals that the message behind this barb was actually a shot a Trump’s manliness, which gives this meme a more powerful message because of what it reveals about a larger national conversation. Trump’s successfully belittled many of his Republican counterparts on his way to becoming President-Elect, but much attention was paid to his comment about Hillary Clinton not having the “look” of a Presidential candidate (say it with me, STA-MIN-A). The deeper underlying message here is simple, a man with small hands is no man at all, and if he is no man at all, he cannot therefore be a strong leader. But don’t worry, keep pretending we don’t have a masculinity problem. Score: 15/20.
National Attention Gained: I hate everything about this, but it actually received some national exposure, in part because of Trump’s determination to defend the size of his hands. Unfortunately, it was proven that The Donald has smaller hands than 85% of American men. Tough break. Score: 10/20
Effect on the Electorate: Unless it made you seriously consider the size of your hands, and then almost immediately realize that the size of your hands does not define your masculinity, the effect on the electorate was limited. It gave us a few laughs, took time away from real issues, and has not really been mentioned since Rubio bowed out of the race. For that, it scores poorly in this category. Score: 7/20.
Humor Level: The pictures were good for a laugh or two, but after that it just made you concerned about how Trump will react when Elizabeth Warren sends him children’s gloves for Christmas. Score: 8/20.
Total Political Dankness: The Trump Tiny Hand’s meme is 52% politically dank.
DEFCON Level 4: Pepe the Frog & The Deplorables
Backstory: Pepe the Frog has had an incredible life. A fictional character created by American artist Matt Furie, the meme originated in the comic series Boy’s Club and steadily grew in fame on popular websites such as Myspace (RIP), Tumblr, and 4chan. Beginning in 2016 and throughout the rest of the election cycle, Pepe was being increasingly utilized as a symbol of the white supremacists alt-right political movement. The association between the two has become so powerful that the Anti-Defamation League has officially classified Pepe as a hate symbol (content NSFW). Points for longevity and popularity of the backstory, but honestly, it’s a damn shame, because rare pepes were the best pepes. #MakePepeGreatAgain Score: 15/20.
Power of the Underlying Message: Shifting gears to focus on Pepe and the entire Deplorables crew, the power of the underlying message in the meme above is a bit subdued. The meme is predicated on Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” speech that drew significant criticism from the right. All of this is a bit concerning because I don’t think there is anything subdued about any Sylvester Stallone movie, ever. Score: 8/20.
National Attention Gained: The Deplorables comment haunted the Democratic nominee for the remainder of the election and received a fair amount of criticism from the right. Depending on where you stood in this election, you either thought it was entirely accurate, or entirely false. Score: 12/20
Effect on the Electorate: Major points here for this meme because of the galvanizing effect it had on many Trump voters. Immediate speculation post-election night was that a significant portion of the country had decided not to reveal themselves as Trump voters in part because being labeled things like “deplorable.” This, in theory, was what could have contributed to so many polls being wrong about Hillary Clinton’s chances at winning the election. Trump focused his efforts on maximizing his own voter turnout while attempting to suppress Clinton’s. Clinton, to her discredit, contributed to that voter mobilization by calling a sizable portion of the electorate shitty people. Score: 17/20
Humor Level: Sub-optimal. Score: 8/20.
Total Political Dankness: The Pepe & The Deplorables meme is 60% politically dank.
DEFCON Level 3: Bernie vs. Hillary
Backstory: Unfortunately, the DNC leaks cannot factor into the backstory of this meme because preliminary research has shown this meme was in circulation prior to the revelations about the DNC stacking the cards against Comrade Bernie (more on that in a minute). As far as one pretty brief extensive Google search has shown me, there was limited interaction between the two Democratic candidates prior to the 2016 election, which is unfortunate given our ranking system. Score: 0/20
Power of the Underlying Message: What this meme lacks in backstory; however, it makes up for in other categories. The Bernie vs. Hillary meme was important because it reinforced an underlying message that was clear, powerful, and not entirely off-base: Hillary Clinton is out of touch with the everyday American. Change candidates were what the people wanted, and this meme put the change vs. establishment battle front and center. Score: 19/20.
National Attention Gained: Another weak category here, but in all honesty, has there ever been a better political slogan that #FeelTheBern? Pity points shall be awarded for the great slogan. Score: 9/20.
Effect on the Electorate: Another very strong category for this meme in part because of the message it reinforced, but also because of the political action and motivation of Bernie supporters. In some ways, Bernie and Trump were similar because they were non-traditional party candidates that represented a change from “politics as usual.” This message reverberated with a large portion of the electorate, and Bernie was touted as the better candidate against President-Elect Donald Trump. Bernie supporters mobilized in force, which is why the DNC’s efforts to undermine his campaign were all the more concerning. Score: 19/20.
Humor Level: In all honesty, these memes were absolutely hysterical. The candidates were compared on the issues that really mattered and boy, did we have fun doing it. Score: 18/20.
Total Political Dankness: The Bernie vs. Hillary meme is 65% politically dank.
DEFCON Level 2: The Biden/Obama Bromance
Backstory: The fact that the American public voted in President-Elect Donald Trump as the “change” candidate is made all the more interesting by how well President Obama’s approval ratings have fared this late into his Presidency. At the heart of this backstory is the role of likability in winning the American presidency. Regardless of your political position, Obama and Biden are, undoubtedly, two bros you could grab a beer with. Stella anyone? Score: 16/20
Power of the Underlying Message: The message here is in the eye of the beholder, and the eyes of this beholder decided that the message is that a close-knit friendship among leaders bodes well for likability and public image. I would say that having a close right-hand partner can also help you accomplish more in office, but the gridlock in Washington pretty much shits all over that argument. Score: 12/20.
National Attention Gained: The memes themselves did not seem to be picked up by any major news source. But for those of us that sometimes use Twitter as our major news source (RIP @TallTanAnd), it was bliss. Additional points here for the hilarious Onion articles about Joe Biden. Long Live the #JoeBidenSummer. Score: 8/20.
Effect on the Electorate: Depending on where you fell on this election, you may have needed some humor in the long days and late nights that followed November 8th. This meme was there for a lot of people and was an unofficial internet swan song for what to date has been one of America’s favorite bromances. More importantly, it rekindled discussion about why Joe Biden decided not to run for President and even revealed sentiment among some voters that if they could, they would vote in Obama for a third term. Major points for healing power (if you needed it). Score: 20/20
Humor Level: These were the best, except well, for the meme ranked DEFCON Level 1. Score: 20/20.
Total Political Dankess: The Biden/Obama Bromance is 76% politically dank.
DEFCON Level 1: Ted Cruz is The Zodiac Killer
Any meme that can convince 38% of Floridians that Ted Cruz might actually be the Zodiac Killer should be an undisputed champion, and deservedly so. Additionally, the gentlemen who created these t-shirts is donating the money received to West Fund, a non-profit that helps pregnant people in El Paso, Texas receive access to affordable abortions.
No further explanation necessary, this meme receives a maximum score.
*Chief Keef voice* 1hunna.
 “What Defines a Me? Our world is a place where information can behave like human genes and ideas can replicate, mutate and evolve” Smithsonian Magazine.