In America’s meme war, the left and right are fighting different battles

If you were on Instagram before HBO’s Game of Thrones ended, you surely saw hundreds of images starring Daenerys Targaryen, queen of dragons. But one resonated particularly well with the American right. It features two separate images of Daenerys. In the top picture, she’s surrounded by her happily worshipful people with a caption reading, “Promising socialism.” 

In the bottom image, one of Daenerys’s dragons breathes fire down on King’s Landing (the capital of the GoT world). Screaming residents flee from the flames. The caption says, “Implementing socialism.” On Instagram, the accompanying description includes hashtags like #SocialismSucks #BigGovSucks and #CapitalismCures and has more than 32,000 likes.

The meme was created by Turning Point USA, an organization aimed at getting young people to promote Trumpian conservatism. It’s been one of the organization’s best performing memes.

“The thing went everywhere,” says a TPUSA spokesperson, who asked not to be named. “[Republican representative of Texas] Dan Crenshaw retweeted it. Dave Rubin retweeted it. It got millions and millions of impressions.”

A TPUSA meme’s success, says the spokesperson, is “measured in the cutting commentary and the exposure.” 

Some of this “cutting commentary” appears in the comments section of the Daenerys meme on Instagram. A user with the handle Papakropotkin, whose avatar is an image of Russian anarcho-communist revolutionary Pyotr Kropotkin, writes, “Side note needed: Those people are running to vote in their democratic workplace and that dragon is cooking their lunch.”

Papakropotkin is a leftist Instagram account run by two late high school-age students in the northern U.K.: Sam and Paddy (they prefer I use only their first names). The duo follows right-wing accounts and post their opposing views in the comments. They’ve come to believe the intention of “right-wing meme pages,” like TPUSA’s, is to “rile people up,” says Sam. “That is the way they increase the levels of hatred that exist.”

Sam and Paddy are members of the Instagram Meme Union, an organization formed earlier this year by meme-makers with the goal of gaining leverage in talks with Instagram and supporting fellow, mostly left-leaning meme creators.

Adryn Alvarez, the union’s 26-year-old representative, believes Instagram’s community guidelines are “deliberately vague,” and that the social platform leans on them when banning the types of accounts the union aims to support—mostly those espousing beliefs like socialism, LGBTQ+ inclusion, and pro-immigration. Memes help bring people to Instagram, the union believes, so their creators should be treated by the platform with dignity and respect (this is by no means an officially recognized union, and its members aren’t employed by Instagram, though some make some money using the platform).

These two groups, TPUSA and the Instagram Meme Union, are bold font-using avatars of the U.S.’s political landscape. Their divergent missions and tactics reflect the larger attitudes of the country’s divided right and left. 

Take Abolition.memes, a white, non-binary member of the Instagram Meme Union in their mid-twenties who lives in Portland, Oregon (and preferred to go by their Instagram handle). They started getting serious about making leftist political images after noticing memes about abolishing Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (“abolish ICE”) last summer. Their outrage over the atrocities committed at the U.S./Mexico border encouraged them to learn “how to do graphic design,” they say. 

Abolition.memes’s tongue-in-cheek images focus on abolishing policing, capitalism, and borders. While their early memes seem to just place “Abolish ICE” in different visual settings (like a Lisa Frank poster, or over a picture of Rihanna), their later work drills down on more niche leftist ideas, like that universities are capitalist bastions worth destroying and that the work should be abolished

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#aboliceice #occupyicepdx

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Certainly not everyone in the Meme Union feels this way, but the point of the union isn’t to push a cohesive political message. One of Abolition.memes’s goals now, they told me, is to show others how easy it is to make memes, hopefully encouraging them to start using the medium to express their own political and social ideas.

Meanwhile, TPUSA spells out its cohesive objective on its homepage. There, you’ll find a big, red, white, and blue star-spangled banner that says, “Winning America’s Culture War.” This so-called “war,” often led by President Donald Trump himself on Twitter, is fought largely on social platforms, in comment sections and tweet threads. This is deliberate. TPUSA’s target demographic includes high school and college students, those who walk the grounds of what TPUSA sees as overwhelmingly progressive campuses. 

To spread a message of Trump-style “conservatism” to teenagers and young adults who may feel “silenced” by their campuses’ supposedly overpowering liberalism, TPUSA meets its target audiences where they’re at—the internet.

“It’s not that young people aren’t conservative,” says TPUSA’s spokesperson. “It’s most often that they haven’t been exposed to conservative ideas. That’s really the mission of Turning Point USA.” 

Besides posting to social media, TPUSA carries out this mission by traveling to college campuses and hosting conventions. Its events sometimes feature meme-making tutorials, where student members are taught to create memes like the infamous images of Lindsey Graham looking sickly self-satisfied during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.

The socialist memes created by the likes of Instagram Meme Union members and the libertarian memes published by TPUSA reveal a generation of young people growing increasingly disillusioned with the Democrats and Republicans of the U.S.’s long-held, two-party system. While TPUSA’s memes celebrate nationalism (and the second amendment) and mock socialism, they don’t focus on touting the Republican party. One image on the organization’s Instagram even shows a young man holding a sign with boxes next to three words: Republican, Democrat, Awake. Only the box next to “Awake” is checked.

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I am... ⭕️Republican ⭕️Democrat ❌Awake

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Meme Union members often criticize specific Democrats, like in this image of Chuck Schumer with the overlaid text, “The Democratic Party Is White Supremacist Too.” These memes are about ideas, not parties, but one side is much quicker to embrace politicians that espouse their philosophies.

Though it’s a nonprofit and cannot endorse political candidates, TPUSA has politicians like Vice President Mike Pence speak at its events and posts images celebrating Donald Trump. It also posts memes implying Trump’s innocence in the Russia investigation, at least one with the explicit hashtag #FakeNews.

Though the memes’ comments might get into the weeds of a debate, TPUSA’s memes themselves, says its spokesperson, are “a shorthand, and get from point A to point B really quick.” The group plans its content like a corporate social media account “marketing its new product.” 

Here, that product is Trump-conservative values and individualistic freedom that looks a lot like hate-mongering libertarianism. “He’s unapologetically himself, and he doesn’t make any excuses,” says TPUSA’s spokesperson of Trump. “I think a new brand of people can appreciate that.” 

TPUSA’s founder and executive director Charlie Kirk certainly does. He describes himself as a “conservatarian.” It’s a hybrid of the traditional, Republican conservative and the more freewheeling ethos espoused by libertarians who take pride in their arrest records and post make-your-own-gun tutorials on YouTube. It’s the kind of self-satisfied rightist ideology that sees any government program as overreaching socialism.

TPUSA’s memes are similarly unapologetic. An image featuring an M18 handgun comes with a caption mocking nontraditional gender identities: “My handgun self-identifies as a power tool… If you say otherwise, you’re a bigoted monster!” (To which Instagram user “casually_profound” replied, “Guns aren’t people and don’t self identify. People have the right to identify themselves without others or the gov telling them who they are.”

The only organized meme-making group encountered on the left was the union (unless you count this “IRL” party for queer, feminist, and POC meme-makers that took place in Brooklyn last year), which isn’t concerned with converting people to leftist thinking. In fact, Alvarez told me the group isn’t actively trying to recruit new members. There are already too many applications for the union to process.

Rather, the union’s main goal is to support fellow Instagram meme makers who they feel have been unfairly banned from the platform, especially where white supremacist accounts freely remain. “It’s something that I find very rewarding, when I can help a deleted profile come back,” says Alvarez. So far, the union has managed to revive several banned accounts, including Th0t_catalog (which has 40,800 followers and posts surrealist, ‘90s internet-style takes on current Instagram culture) and Veganoverlord.

“I think the most egregious case would be Sadafricanqueen,” says Alvarez. A meme creator who covers topics like racial bias, feminism, false equivalences, and wealth disparity, Sadafricanqueen found her profile had vanished one day several months ago, with no explanation from Instagram. “She didn’t have any of her posts deleted, she didn’t have any sort of offensive content,” says Alvarez. Many Instagrammers came together to try and restore Sadafricanqueen’s account, but for a while, nothing happened. 

Then the meme union took collective action.

“We managed to bring [her account] back into the spotlight,” says Alvarez. With an organized group behind the effort, Sadafricanqueen was able to return to Instagram, though she now posts memes under the account Saqmemes, which has about 14,600 followers. Her creations are characterized by exactly what right-wing meme-making organizations avoid—they embrace nuance, managing to express a variety of complex issues both succinctly and hilariously, riffing off known memes in novel ways. 

For those on the right, this nuance can look like a lack of understanding of meme culture and aesthetics. “It strikes me as a widely understood truism, if you will, that the left can’t meme,” says the TPUSA spokesperson. “Sometimes different things work for different people—just like progressives love NPR, conservatives love memes.” 

Mostly in their twenties, the Instagram Meme Union members tend to fall right into TPUSA’s target demographic, and those I spoke with believe memes are a more native medium to those on the left. The right is just now “playing catch up.”

“Leftist memes have always been pretty interwoven with your standard millennial comedic memes,” says Alvarez, citing some good, old-fashioned memes mocking George W. Bush’s intelligence from around 2009—precursors from which today’s left-leaning political memes have evolved. “The right is still posting images from, like, six years ago—like Pepe, and the weird squiggly faces. So now they have to hold workshops to try and figure it out.” 

Those workshops, like TPUSA’s, are about using memes for mass marketing Trump-conservative values. They eschew nuance for high conversion rates. “Memes are not a medium for nuance,” says TPUSA’s spokesperson. They’re a way for the organization to get young, potential conservatives “more interested and engaged…and a lot of them end up coming on to our campus events.”

Meme makers on the left tend to value critical thinking and expression. Take this Saqmemes creation from November 2018

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#mentalitymemes

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This kind of knowing uncertainty has both plagued and benefited the intellectual left—benefited because it makes for sharp critical thinking, but plagued because it makes it hard for the U.S. “left” to put their weight solidly behind a single candidate. 

While the right seems to almost effortlessly unite behind political figures they think will win elections, the left loses out on big wins because of its members’ more nuanced political positions. Socialist Bernie bros refused to vote for capitalist Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election on principle (and probably also because of sexism). Environmental, anti-corporation champion Ralph Nader got votes that could have helped elect Al Gore over George W. Bush in 2000, and the growing ring of Democratic presidential candidates for 2020 is making the political left look more divided than ever.

“The power of making memes is not in individual debates, but in the cumulative power of being able to get images in front of people in a numerically significant way,” says union member Abolition.memes. “That’s what the right has done through different messaging boards.” 

This hasn’t happened so much on the left. The idea of having any sort of collective messaging strategy, says Abolition.memes, is “either downplayed as not that important, or people are very committed to their ideological positions and don’t want to collaborate with people across those positions.”

While individual meme creators on the left post their unique ideas and protect one another from corporate Instagram (owned by Facebook), organized groups on the right use memes to fight TPUSA’s “culture war.” 

If we’re indulging the right-wing group’s war analogy, it’s a pretty haphazard fight. While members on one so-called side are building an army, mobilizing followers to “defeat socialism” and promote “free speech,” the other has organized solely to focus on its own medical camp, reviving those who have been beaten down by social platforms and the other side. 

As meme union rep Alvarez puts it, the union doesn’t concern itself at all, “officially or unofficially,” with the culture wars. “If a right-wing memer needed help with something, they’d be welcome to join the union. They’d be allowed to vote on topics just like everyone else,” says Alvarez. “It’s not a dichotomy by any means within the union. We’re all the same. We’re all the same.” 

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Jessica Klein

Jessica Klein

Jessica Klein is a freelance journalist whose stories about everything from cryptocurrency to Renaissance Faire kink have appeared in The Atlantic, The Outline, CNN, Vice, and Salon. She is also the coauthor of Abetting Batterers: What Police, Prosecutors, and Courts Aren’t Doing to Protect America’s Women, which chronicles the criminal justice response to intimate partner violence in the U.S.