Since the beginning of 2016, America has seen a prolonged and viscous election, the passing of beloved public icons like Leonard Cohen and Prince, and some disappointing superhero movies. Meanwhile, the internet has kept itself sane with the widespread deployment of memes.
The political arena in particular, perhaps due to the dire and toxic nature of the election, provided a slew of material for the internet to celebrate, denigrate, or otherwise poke fun at. Political memes may seem like a trivial thing, easily lumped in with the rest of the internet’s shenanigans. But to conceptualize memes that way is to sell them short; to discount the borderline therapeutic quality they can possess when we need something to make us laugh. Political memes have provided us with some necessary distractions, satire, and pleasure.
With that in mind, here are the best political memes from 2016:
Please Clap for Jeb!
This one is from much earlier in the year, back in February. In the clip, Jeb(!) Bush is speaking to an audience before the New Hampshire primary. He speaks about his intention to express both dignity and strength on behalf of the United States through foreign policy. His words are very clearly a dig at Donald Trump, who was the Republican frontrunner at the time. The audience’s response to those words, however, is lukewarm. A few people offer some tepid applause before Jeb says, with a saddening mixture of demand and desperation, “Please clap.” The internet was not gentle about it.
The moment encapsulated well how people felt about Jeb Bush: unenthusiastic and bored. Next to Trump’s showboating, Jeb looked like a sideshow, and actually had to ask for the attention he felt he deserved.
Ted Cruz: Zodiac Killer?
Technically this meme began back in 2013, when it was started after Cruz gave a speech in which he promised to get rid of funding for Obamacare. But it really came to life in 2016, reaching peak popularity around the time Cruz dropped out of the presidential race.
The senator from Texas, in addition to being a generally creepy guy, who says creepy things, actually bears a striking resemblance to sketches of the real Zodiac Killer. The real Zodiac Killer started murdering in 1968, and Ted Cruz was born in 1970. That, and a host of other reasons, makes it clear that this whole connection is just a long-running, well-executed joke, but that didn’t stop about 38 percent of Floridians from believing it could be true.
Diamond Joe Biden
It’s perhaps the real Vice President’s penchant for gaffes and goofiness that has helped catapult Biden into a full-fledge internet icon. People took to making memes of pictures of the Vice President.
Those memes showcase a publicly sourced continuation and evolution of the Diamond Joe character. He’s a simultaneously mischievous, silly, earnest, and hardcore prankster who now even has his own subreddit. Of all 2016’s political memes, Diamond Joe may be the hardest to let go.
Memes can be uplifting, too. While at a rally in Portland, Oregon, a bird briefly joined Bernie Sanders at his podium and the crowd went wild. Seizing on an opportunity provided by the moment, Sanders commented that the bird was “really a dove asking us for world peace.” It was a genuinely hopeful moment in a season of aggressive rhetoric and sharp political division. Seeing the bird, and Bernie’s reaction to it, it’s tough not to crack a smile.
The incident spawned a slew of tweets and artwork supporting the Sanders campaign. It provided, if only briefly, a much needed injection of levity. It also gave us some neat T-shirts. But what political moment during the election season didn’t spark some merch ideas?
The Romney Dinner
A newer addition to the family of internet memes, the now-infamous photo of Mitt Romney looking nebbish and defeated at a dinner with Donald Trump, made it in just under the 2016 wire at the end of November.
The dinner had to do with the possibility of Romney being tapped as Trump’s Secretary of State. The jury’s still out on whether or not it did him any good. Regardless, it might have just been really bad timing, but Romney certainly doesn’t look like this is how he wanted to spend the evening.
It started when Marco Rubio decided he’d had enough of Trump calling him “little Marco,” although its true origins do run a little deeper. Trusting in the age-old wisdom that it’s the bullies who are truly insecure, Rubio remarked to a crowd of supporters that Trump has small hands for a man his height. He said, “Have you seen his hands? And you know what they say about men with small hands.”
Rubio’s tactic turned out to be effective, playing on Trump’s trumped-up sense of masculinity. He took time in the next debate to clarify that there was “no problem” with his hands or his penis. America still hasn’t gotten over this one.
John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight on HBO, has also thrown his hat in the tiny hands ring a number of times.
Sad Bernie Watches the Debate
It wasn’t supposed to be sad, but when Bernie Sanders tweets a picture of himself tuning into the first presidential debate from home, it invoked the collective sympathy of his supporters and the internet at large.
Those who saw the picture could only imagine what the Vermont senator was thinking, watching with his hands in his pockets as Hillary Clinton, his rival in the primaries, took the stage with Republican nominee Donald Trump.
That it should have been Bernie, not Hillary on the debate stage, was the prevailing sentiment among those who took part. It was an opportunity to share a dejected laugh and mourn for a final time what many saw as the loss of a great opportunity in Senator Sanders.
Sarah Palin’s Word Vomit
Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate, endorsed Trump for president in Iowa on January 19. But her endorsement alone isn’t what caught peoples’ attention. It was what she said — or, perhaps more accurately, what she tried to say.
Going off script to a degree never before seen, even from her, Palin rambled on about her own career and the troubles America is facing. She descended at times into true incoherence, which, in addition to confounding the poor reporters who covered her speech in real time, gave us some great remixes.
Bill Clinton’s Balloons
On the final night of the Democratic National Convention, there was a balloon drop following Hillary Clinton’s speech as the nominee.
Delete Your Account
Hillary Clinton was accused of many things during the election. Possessing the ability to produce quotable, memorable tweets like Trump was not among them. It was perhaps for this reason that when Clinton delivered a particularly on point response to a tweet by Trump, people went a little nuts.
The tweet set off reactions both from the public and other politicians. In retrospect, it may have been one of Clinton’s strongest moments with millennials, who are most fluent in this sort of back and forth.
The moment, however, was somewhat undercut by a response from Trump that reminded everyone why he remains the petty master of the flame war.
It’s been a wild year for politics, and these memes certainly reflect that. We can only speculate as to what 2017 will bring, but we certainly hope that everyone brings their A-game once again.
Photos via Getty Images / Aaron P. Bernstein