I doubt that Donald Trump knows what a meme is. Or that memetics is an actual science. Not many people do.
But strangely, memetics is one of the few things Trump is actually good at. Maybe even the best ever, which would surely please him if he understood it. Which he won’t. His skills are totally instinctual.
The word ‘meme’ has recently become associated with a kind of visual gag on social media, which is too bad, because it trivializes an important concept.
A meme, in its original meaning, is a piece of information that spreads from one mind to another. It replicates itself within the social fabric of the culture, in ways that closely resemble genetic processes in biology. Which is why memes have been called mind viruses, for the ‘viral’ way they spread. The term ‘going viral’ was coined by memeticists.
The word ‘meme’ itself was coined in the 1970s by Richard Dawkins, as a conscious analogy to the word ‘gene.' Both are basic building blocks of complex constructs — genes of genetics, memes of memetics.
In the age of the internet, there are many millions of memes flying around every day. People pump them out nonstop, most through the media. All these little ideas — or germs of ideas — seek a receptive audience, a host. They behave in a Darwinian manner, competing for survival in a vast ecosystem of other memes: ideas, rumors, ads, slogans, headlines, sound bites, and other media-fortified tidbits of all types and sizes.
Some memes are true, some are false. Some are strong, some are weak. Some thrive, some fade away.
Like other viruses, most die quickly, while others plant firm footholds in the host culture. Some emerge spontaneously from an event, such as, say, a pandemic (‘flatten the curve,’ ‘social distancing,’ ‘herd immunity’). Others are deliberately spread via elaborate campaigns, designed to influence popular thought, often for questionable purposes. Russian bots are particularly good at this, but so are ad agencies, PR firms, lobbyists, and propagandists of every stripe. All participate in the creation, replication, and dissemination of memes, whether they think of it that way or not.
Trump well understands, on his own reptilian level, how memes work. Just watch him. He throws out dozens every day — some new, some old —specifically targeting his base of racists, misogynists, and xenophobes.
Most of his memes are launched from his Twitter account — perhaps the world’s largest megaphone — but he reinforces them through his media appearances and his echo chamber at Fox News. What he’s selling is lies, misinformation, and dog whistles, but give him credit — he understands his audience and knows what they want to hear.
Each meme is a virus he hopes will infect their minds. A catchy phrase, a racist taunt, a crude insult, a dig at anyone who crosses him. He counts on these to catch on and spread, yes, virally.
The ones that take hold with his base — or at least with Sean Hannity — will be repeated often, some of them for years. ‘Crooked Hillary, ‘fake news,’ ‘Russia hoax,’ ‘witch hunt.’ These are some of his greatest hits, and he regularly brings them back for encores. He understands the power of repetition.
And since each meme is just one small part of a long game, he’s never afraid to float new ones: that the coronavirus came from China, that too much testing finds too many cases, that mail-in ballots will rig the election, that Joe Biden will defund the police, that cities run by Democrats are shithole countries, and that he single-handedly built the strongest economy in the history of the nation, if not the world. These are just in the last week.
Repeat, but don’t rinse. He projects these memes with a remarkably straight face, and he’s remarkably impervious to any sort of correction or fact-checking. What the rest of the world might think never enters his mind.
His ability to do this so effectively — with a consistency that’s out of character for him — is getting more and more troubling, because the memes he’s now launching are getting more and more dangerous.
Whenever he mentions the Second Amendment, I’m reminded that while his base is only a small percentage of the electorate, it owns an outsize percentage of the guns. As we watch him conjure a crisis in Portland — as we see him double down on inciting armed action — ‘Second Amendment’ is a code word from which no good can come.
As skilled as he is, however, the actual effectiveness of these efforts seems to be waning. His memes aren’t getting the same traction anymore. His host culture is getting less receptive and more discriminating. Even his brain-dead base sees the disconnect between what he says and what’s in front of their eyes. And when that base starts filtering out his memes, the whole edifice of deceit might just crumble. Which means his future memes will be coming from desperation. Which will make him even more dangerous.
Memetics is only as effective as the strategies of its purveyors. Trump’s memes, effective as they have been, are based on strategies that are aimless, scattershot, and ultimately untenable. In the absence of any actual solutions to clear and present problems, the audience for them gets smaller every day.
In other words, while biological viruses spike out of control, Trump’s mind viruses are the only curve around that’s actually flattening.