The Healing Hilarity of the Bernie Meme

The unexpectedly viral memes are helping a weary nation come together again.

Posted Jan 22, 2021

Wednesday’s Presidential Inauguration was unprecedented for many reasons; the occurrence during a global pandemic requiring distancing and mask-wearing, the heightened security after a Capitol invasion two weeks prior, and more.

With most viewers watching the event from home, there was a new kind of communal experience, with many relying upon the internet to communicate in real-time as the historic ceremony unfolded. After all the stress of the preceding year, the event brought forth vivid emotions for many. The swearing-in of the first-ever woman Vice President—and the first woman of color to boot in an Executive Office—brought on tears for many who have seen how difficult it is to break through glass ceilings. And the inauguration of President Biden signaled, to some, hope that America could start to heal from the divisive rhetoric of recent times and unify against the painful common enemies of COVID-19, racism, and economic disparity.  

In the midst of this collective national emotional processing emerged a wholly unexpected and yet perfect social phenomenon: the viral Bernie Sanders meme. For anyone on the internet, the images burst forth like an undammed torrent of humorous relief.

The original image itself was endearing in its own right; Senator Sanders was photographed sitting on a portable fold-out chair, in a brown canvas coat suited more for tough Vermont winter woodchopping than for an elegant ceremony. He sat cross-legged and cross-armed, grouchily huddled for maximum warmth (except for the odd lack of a hat for a balding head), plain surgical mask slightly off-kilter. And then the finishing piece de resistance: the adorable massive mittens, apparently a gift from a Vermont schoolteacher hand-sewn from scraps of old sweaters. The delicious contrast of snuggly cuteness with grizzled no-nonsense Bernieness was social media catnip.

Yet the photo climbed to an even higher zenith of internet infamy. The Bernie meme had an unexpected versatile resonance that reverberated throughout the Twitterverse. People’s wicked creativity for all things American and all things Bernie began to merge in brilliant, multifaceted combinations, each just as delicious as chocolate hitting peanut butter. There was no focus on ownership or individual recognition either; the memes were all spread common source, authorless, fully democratic acts of expression. And they riffed off of every corner and time period of American popular culture one could think of: Bernie as a member of The Breakfast Club, of Edward Hopper’s "Nighthawks," of the Red Room in Twin Peaks, of the final gathering of leaders on Game of Thrones, as just a small sampling.

He even became part of meta-memes, where other famous memes incorporated him to heightened hysterics, such as Baby Yoda wearing the Bernie mittens, or the man one-handedly flipping open a portable chair then tossed open Bernie on his chair. The memes could also be completely personalized as well; Bernie sitting at your local watering hole, your Korean BBQ feast, your grandma’s picnic, your favorite pizza place, etc.

The general vibe of this viral internet comedy show was, for many, a chance to finally laugh, and laugh at everything, no strings attached. After so much loss of life and loss of faith in our once seemingly stable American institutions, some people felt as if they were sighing a collective breath of relief… that grumpy down-to-earth yet lovable Brooklyn-by-way-of-Vermont grandpa Bernie could make everything silly yet comforting again.

As a daughter of Korean immigrants myself, I have had my own struggles with what it means to be American, but have always yearned on some level to root for my country, even when it hasn’t always rooted for me. The recent normalizing of comments from our previous leader, disparaging those who don’t look or fit a certain narrow racist vision of Americanness has been deeply hurtful. But I still tear up easily when I think of the brave souls who sacrificed themselves to prevent the 4th hijacked plane from hitting the Capitol, as I did on 9/11, and I felt searing pain in my heart when I saw it invaded and desecrated on 1/6.

I still am an American, and while growing up and feeling often like a misfit as one of a handful of Asian-Americans in my school, pop culture and humor were what frequently soothed me, and helped me bridge the cultural gap with my peers. A steady diet of Saturday Night Live, Gen X comedies, MTV, and more kept me sustained alongside Victorian literature and New Yorker articles. For better or worse, I have always adored the American sense of humor, laced with humanity, freedom, honesty, and unpretentiousness.

So now, I see this release of our collective pop-cultural history, our hometown landmarks, and shared experiences filtered via the perfect prism of Bernie’s Bernieness as a mass moment of healing, a way for us to remember what makes us great as a country and as a people. It may seem a bit over the top for me to view a silly meme as a profound thing, but that’s why it works. Our humility and our rootedness, our ability to honestly self-reflect and laugh at ourselves and the absurdity of life, not our arrogance and brittle egotism and will to power and greed, is what will save us all.