We’ve all been describing 2020 as a shitshow from the jump: World War III, coronavirus, an incomprehensible celebrity death, and as a pleasant backdrop to all this, the impeachment trial of President Trump, which is overlapping with the official start to a fraught Democratic primary season. The struggle among candidates out to prove that they’re the best chance for beating Trump in November has been so surreal at times — can you believe it’s only been a month and a half since Joe Biden challenged an Iowa man to a push-up contest? — that you’d think most of it was a fever dream.
Like, how else do you explain a billionaire pouring millions into a vanity run bolstered by ads where he tries to relate to voters by declaring his love for Big Gay Ice Cream?
Don’t get me wrong: I want the gay ice cream. I’m just having trouble piecing together how this awkward clip relates to the presidency of the United States of America. To do that, we may have to roll back the clock to 2008, the first national election cycle to meaningfully contend with social media as a factor in public perception. Those who lived through this will recall how Obama’s movement drew strength from a youthful, internet-savvy demographic that generated meme-like endorsements of the senator. By today’s standards, however, much of it would be considered “cringe.” Take, for example, the “Crush on Obama” music video, which details an amorous passion for the man:
This was a viral hit over the summer of 2007, months in advance of the Iowa caucuses the following January, but other campaigns had already realized that they needed to energize online supporters in similar fashion. Trouble is, political operatives are some of the weirdest fucking people out there, and they had no idea how to navigate the new currents of web virality. Try to picture a bunch of nerds in debate club writing a comedy sketch about the teacher in charge and you might understand how we got something like the Hillary Clinton ad that parodied the controversial ending of The Sopranos finale, which had aired a week earlier. Ostensibly a teaser for her eventual choice of campaign song, it dropped a few days after “Crush on Obama,” no doubt with hopes it would prove as shareable. But its accidental(?) suggestion of Hillary being whacked in a diner while she and Bill ate carrot sticks may have inhibited any such enthusiasm.
By the way, she went with Céline Dion’s “You and I.”
Seen as part of a lineage that begins with this disjointed and inexplicable spot — everything from Bill Clinton saying “Mah money’s awn Smash Mouth” to the casting of Vincent Curatola (The Sopranos’ Johnny Sack), who starred in anti-union ads the very next year, is a head-spinning choice — Bloomberg’s Big Gay Ice Cream post makes slightly more sense. As do some of 2016 Hillary’s worst tweets, and her uncanny “chillin’ in Cedar Rapids” Snapchat. All of this stuff claws and grasps at a kind of zeitgeist-y relevance that’s wholly separate from any question of leadership or platform.
Of course, Democrats have never been alone in trying it. In December 2007, long before Trump hit upon the concept of “saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again,” Republican contender Mike Huckabee released a homey commercial that was laughably transparent in its attempt to assert Christian supremacy. Standing in front of a Christmas tree and an unsubtle big white cross, the blinky former governor literally tells the viewer to stop thinking about politics and enjoy a “magnificent Christmas season” — with god’s blessing, of course. It’s just an ad for “the birth of Christ,” as he puts it.
Disturbing to think how much more effective this would be in the age of Twitter:
Or hey, if you want to take the culture war further, check out Mitt Romney’s ill-advised “Ocean” advertisement from the same primaries, wherein he harkens back to the Columbine shooting nearly a decade after the fact, extensively quoting a Peggy Noonan metaphor to argue against “perversions” including porn and video games. Here you can sense a candidate realizing he’s not plugged in to the internet landscape and, banking on the assumption that many other conservatives aren’t, choosing to demonize it.
Amazing stuff. Too bad he couldn’t squeeze in a little brag, as Democratic also-ran Chris Dodd managed to, about becoming a dad two days after 9/11. Or juice his fearmongering with a straight-up Islamophobic montage, as seen in this Rudy Giuliani ad that all but predicted today’s alt-right media. But nothing beats the John McCain team’s self-defeating strategy, in the general election, of doggedly casting Barack Obama as a messianic celebrity. “The One” is probably their funniest attempt in this genre, a mashup of content that purports to mock Obama’s cult of personality. Instead, it showcases his power to inspire. Still, gotta give them props for using a clip from The Ten Commandments, a movie by that point mainly familiar to 100-year-olds.
These days, a few candidates have figured out that online messaging is most effective at its simplest: Bernie Sanders’ tweets are piercingly direct, Elizabeth Warren takes time for a selfie with anyone who wants one, etc. And yet, here and there, the confused energy of wonks experimenting with digital forces they don’t understand comes back to the fore, and it’s like 2008 all over again.
Is there a greater lesson to take from this? Can politicians ever truly catch up to the present day? Best not to dwell on it, maybe.