Anna Linda Tomp: Good guys have cults, too? Constructing the positive image of Bernie Sanders through internet memes

Anna Linda Tomp: Good guys have cults, too? Constructing the positive image of Bernie Sanders through internet memes
Autor: Anna Linda Tomp


Cults of personality are far from being a new phenomenon. They have been around as long as the concept of a strong leader has been known to man – be it the deification of Ancient Greek or Roman leaders, Napoleon Bonaparte, or idolized all-stars like Stalin or Lenin (Tumarkin, 1997, 1) and many, many more up to the present day (the North Korean dynasty, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, to name a few). It remains associated with negative personalities who have built, usually with the help of their entourage, their divine aura through manipulation, propaganda and is more often than not associated with repressive regimes. How has the internet changed our perception of rulers and cults of personality?

In a time where the internet allows us to surround ourselves with information that pleases us most, create and join communities according to our interests; fanbases focusing on political figures can be easily found, and joined with a simple click. What makes those communities worth our attention is their focus. Subreddits (theme-specific communities on Reddit, a website for discussion and sharing news) like bidenbro (i.e dedicated to former Vice President Joe Biden), neoliberal (a subreddit devoted to neoliberal views, with highest-rated posts being political memes), Facebook meme pages like “Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash” associated with the fan following “Feel the Bern” (aimed to support Bernie Sanders). These (and many others) do not necessarily aim for a serious discussion on the protagonists’ policies and pledges, but focus on fan-submitted content, depicting the cool, relatable and positive traits of a politician. These communities are often international and vaster than their electoral district, which proves that their goal is more than just gaining voters and setting their candidate forward. The question is: has internet contributed to the creation of cults of personality of a positive connotation? Focusing on Bernie Sanders, the US Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential primary candidate, more specifically the internet phenomenon surrounding him, the following essay will attempt to shed light upon the effects of internet culture on the development of popular politicians’ cults of personality initiated by followers, as opposed to a culture of idolization originating from the leading figure’s behalf.

A framework of traditional cults of personality

Cults of personality can be seen as deriving from Ancient Rome, where we can speak of what are known as imperial cults, making revered leaders near-equivalents to deities with qualities superior to those of regular men, acting as God’s ambassadors on earth. Describing modern cults of personality, historian Adrian Popan (2015) brings out previous definitions of cults of personality. The most widely recognized characteristics include the presence of a quasi-ubiquitous praise and the insincere quality of the praise (Popan, 2015, 11). However, the explanations of its origins differ: it is sometimes seen as an exclusive creation of the leader or his entourage, others find it possible to have spontaneous roots (ibid, 12). An important aspect that differentiates cults from mere admiration is their focus: it does not focus on a certain quality, but rather on an abstract image of the ideal leader (ibid, 12).

An interesting event Popan (ibid, 2) brings out when describing the relevance of the study of cults of personality in the 21st century is an event reported on Fox News that might raise an eyebrow or two. Popan recalls the US news channel reporting “that children of an elementary school in New Jersey were taught songs in praise of the president Barack Obama” (ibid, 2). Of course, we cannot look over the fact that Fox News has been widely criticized for its bias in favor of the Republican Party and has engaged in a conflict with president Obama’s administration back in 2009, but this event has not been debunked. Popan does not claim this as an instance of a cult of personality as it could have been a teacher’s mistake on easily impressionable children, but still leaves room for the reader to reflect. It is also worth noting that Barack Obama is certainly often praised as a “good guy” that relates to fans, with a large number of memes created in his support. Even the ultra-popular original rage comics included a figure of Barack Obama.

Political memes = political means?

In only a few years, memes have not only become an inseparable part of internet culture but have also changed the way we use media – internet users as content creators are rethinking journalism, as the process of creating content on social media becomes an important part of information distribution, with social media thus becoming a possible source of information (Bebić and Volarevic, 2018, 45). As the 2016 US presidential elections have shown, memes are also an inseparable tool in political communication, as they can help spread political messages, often through a prism of pop culture (Bebić and Volarevic, 2018, 46). Memes also have the power to politically engage people who use social media daily – as opposed to taking the time to read newspapers or watching specialized TV programs, political memes find their own way to one’s social media feed. Domagoj Bebić and Marija Volarevic (2018) illustrate this claim in the context of Croatia, where previously imprisoned political candidate Ivo Sanader was in the center of a highly popular Facebook page, “Ćaća se vraća” (“Father is coming back” – aimed as a sarcastic, but positive portrayal of the candidate). Their research has shown that such memes had a direct positive influence on his portrayal in mainstream media.

Rethinking cults of personality in the age of the internet

As for cults of personality characteristic to the internet generation, Hayley L. Cocker and James Cronin (2017) have researched the phenomenon by observing the appeal of popular YouTube personalities departing from Max Weber’s concept of charismatic authority (1964) and explaining the nature of a new type of cults of personality and the relationship between the follower and followee. Cocker and Cronin explain that today the grouping of people takes place in accordance with points of interest, enabling the creation of worshipped celebrities in a consumerist society for small groups of people at a time (Cocker and Cronin, 2017, 456). Among the various techniques YouTubers use, we can find an emotional relation being created between the leader and followers: in practice, this includes meeting fans, throwing parties and acknowledging their devotion . These manners of asserting the leading figure’s position are not imposed on the follower, but activated by the target group (Cocker and Cronin, 2017, 462). That means – the tools to do so are scattered for the follower to pick them up, but not forced on them. Other tactics may include nicknames for the followers (just like with pop stars – Lady Gaga’s fans are called Little Monsters, Katy Perry’s fans are known as Katy Cats etc.). Cocker and Cronin (2017, 467) find that new kinds of cults of personality differ greatly from “traditional” ones – they no longer include adulation imposed through anonymous efforts nor is the interpretation of the leader’s character forced on the follower. It is rather the result of a co-creation between the leading figure and his/her fanbase. In addition, modern trends of idolization are not limited to one authority or group of authorities, allowing us to idolize more than one figure at a time (Cocker and Cronin, 2017, 467-468).

Feel the Bern

Now, how can there possibly be any overlap in interests between a 77-year old male Democrat from Vermont and entertaining, youthful YouTubers? In fact, according to previous research, aiming to create a theoretical understanding of traditional cults of personality, it’s more than likely that the role of memes in political communication and YouTube superstars have a thing or two in common with mainstream politics. If we take a look at Bernie Sanders’ fanbase, we can find communities on many platforms: many fan-created Facebook groups for political discussion, four of them with at least 25 000 members (with 105 000 members in the largest), three Facebook meme groups with at least 10 000 followers (with the largest being Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash with 406 000 members). In addition, there are three official Facebook pages (created by Sanders’ social media team, with 7,5M, 5M and 1,4M fans respectively) and a highly popular meme page of the same name as the group (Bernie Sanders Dank Meme Stash, 294 000 fans). The same applies for Twitter – we can find popular accounts for all tastes (with the most remarkable being Dogs for Bernie Sanders, and the most popular unofficial account being WomenForBernie – 13 100 followers).

To find similarities between all three categories expanded beforehand (traditional characteristics of cults of personality; the role of memes in political communication and new kinds of online cults of personality) the essay shall follow step-by-step, illustrating each category with examples. As Sanders’ fanbase is powered by voluntary enthusiasts and the Senator representing Vermont himself is considered as an anti-establishment candidate with no established power comparable to that of a governor or president, it is hard to speak of the quasi-ubiquitous or insincere character of praise accorded to him. However, if we consider this grassroot-level originated followership as a characteristic, we are able to speak of a phenomenon more similar to a cult than mere admiration: the fan-created content does not focus on one aspect or his policies, but rather an image of Bernie Sanders as the ideal leader. For instance, one of the most recent posts on the Facebook page “Bernie Sanders Dank Meme Stash” (BSDMS) comments his possible decision to run for president in 2020 with the caption “GOD for president” (see figure 1).


Figure 1


Figure 2







Figure 3

Bernie Sanders has been the protagonist of various popular meme templates, such as Bernie running (depicting Bernie Sanders rushing down an elevator, see figure 2) or “Bernie or Hillary?” (a parody of a comparison between the two candidates on various issues, portraying Sanders as the good guy and Clinton as the bad guy – memes often unrelated to political issues, see figure 3).

As for the role of internet memes in setting a candidate forward and reaching political goals, social media has been of vital importance in the popularization of Bernie Sanders. For instance, the Reddit community has supported him overwhelmingly by raising 1 million dollars (as of January 2016) for his campaign. Regarding memes with humorous content (i.e. memes with the sole purpose of amusing the viewer), the most popular source is incontestably the previously named Facebook group Bernie Sanders Dank Meme Stash. Including other activity on social media, Sanders has been positively parodied in various Twitter accounts, been endorsed by satirical presidential candidate Deez Nuts, took over the campaign slogan “Feel the Bern” from fans on social media, and has been at the center of various popular meme templates.

Issuing fun, light-hearted memes with a political candidate as the protagonist without even having to concentrate on policy issues has, without doubt, contributed to the positive image and popularization of Bernie Sanders among young voters. Grouping youth around a candidate with youth-friendly policies (education, healthcare etc.) has made the candidate to conform to the communication style of his potential voters, thus creating a circular process: a) young people (with an established style of communication) are attracted to Sanders’ policies, b) making both Sanders and his fanbase adjust their style of communication, c) thereby attracting more fans, who subsequently contribute to the campaign by creating memes and other content on social media.

Applying the analysis on new kinds of cults of personality regarding Bernie Sanders, we are able to recognize quite a few of the peculiarities described by Cocker and Cronin (2017). Indeed, Bernie Sanders’ followers have chosen to join the Sanders bandwagon themselves, based on their points of interest or desired political outcomes. Bernie Sanders established an emotional relationship between his fans, for example by taking part of Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” session, where Sanders (probably with the help of his campaign team) took part of a dialogue in a text forum, creating thus the impression of speaking personally to many of his fans. Sanders has worked on dissolving the impression of a modest politician who wishes to bring the US to revolution – leaving his fans and potential new fans a passionate, direct impression. Though there is no single nickname for his fans, “Feel the Bern” has evoked many emotions, with many going so far as tattooing the slogan on their body, as quite a few tattoo parlors were willing to ink the simplistic drawing for free. An example of the candidate adjusting to his fans’ style of communication is the use of this slogan: though the catchphrase supposedly originates from a dedicated fan, his official campaign team quickly adopted the slogan and used it for campaign and marketing purposes (Grossman, 2016).

This obsession for a presidential primary candidate has been made possible by the internet, more specifically thanks to social media and meme culture. It demonstrates the relevance of cults of personality in the 21st century. The example of Bernie is just the top of the iceberg – similar tendencies can be found in pro- and contra-Trump communities, neither are memes unknown in political communication in Estonia – during the 2017 local elections, the Estonian Conservative Party’s youth wing figured that memes should have a much greater role in the party’s communication strategy, aiming to attract young voters who had yet to make their choice. Though the field of study of internet culture is thriving, the relevance of it is far from having reached its maximum potential.



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