“Every period has its great men, and if these are lacking, it invents them.” Those are the words of philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius. Or, well, they probably are. The phrase comes from Leon Trotsky, who quoted Helvétius in his memoirs as a way to dis Stalin. Rude! But also true. Inventing one’s very own cult of greatness has helped political figures climb to power for as long as there have been politicians. In recent years, as celebrity culture has slowly devoured the political sphere, it has become the defining precondition. People don’t just vote for politicians, they stan them. Idolatry accelerated when politicians began to appear on television. Now, the internet allows for participatory, communal, real-time adulation. Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump’s presidential victories were accredited, at least partly, to their skill at cultivating avid fandoms—in particular, to their skill at ginning up support on the internet and using social media to connect with voters.
During the 2020 primaries, most of the popular Democratic candidates had loud, proud grassroots fan blocs online. Andrew Yang had his #YangGang. Senator Bernie Sanders had his bros, many of whom were women. Senator Kamala Harris had her “K-Hive” cheering her on. The outlier of these major contenders? Former vice president Joe Biden. “Biden has nothing materially consistent with that,” says Brian Friedberg, a senior researcher for the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. Instead, Biden has had what New York Times critic Amanda Hess describes as “negative online energy.” I’d call it “NCIS energy”—as in the popular, long-running CBS procedural. For most of his candidacy, Biden has, like Mark Harmon’s open-collared shirts, managed to succeed despite generating only minimal organic online buzz and attention from social media tastemakers.
“Minimal,” though, doesn’t mean zero. As the election approaches, many liberal and left-leaning digital organizations and influencers have rallied behind Biden, creating a late-breaking wave of online support. Rafael Rivero, the cofounder of Occupy Democrats, created “Ridin’ With Biden,” the most visible pro-Biden meme page on Facebook, which has had some posts reach millions. Actor and writer Michael Imperioli, beloved for playing Christopher Moltisanti on The Sopranos, recently started using Instagram to post pro-Biden fanfiction about Tony Soprano and the fictional DiMeo crime family’s admiration for the Democratic candidate. (“Tony got woke in recent years,” Imperioli wrote in the comments of one of his posts.) Meanwhile, the Biden campaign is working with an influencer marketing agency to set up digital interviews with celebrities like Keke Palmer, and it is deputizing the Biden grandchildren as surrogates on platforms like Instagram. In one of their more popular appearances, they talked with Kaia Gerber about the Supreme Court.
And Biden does have some organic fan hubs online—they even include Gen Z members. I talked to one 16-year-old in Long Island who hangs out in the r/JoeBiden subreddit simply because he ardently supports the former vice president’s candidacy. (Although he did briefly switch allegiances when Pete Buttigieg was in the race.)
Still, even with this push, “the memetic activity that I’ve seen around Biden is largely negative,” Friedberg says. It’s easier to pull up an anti-Biden meme page on Facebook, for example, than it is to locate a genuine fan hub. Meanwhile, 4chan is crawling with plots to meme the Democratic candidate into defeat. One involves doctoring images to look like Biden is using the Pedobear as a mascot, an attempt to link Biden to the conspiracy theories about elite Democrats and pedophilia. It’s grim.
Part of this is a function of Biden’s personal relationship to the internet. He simply isn’t as online as his predecessors and competitors, nor is he as internet fluent as the new class of rising political stars like US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is exceptionally gifted at Twitter retorts. He bills himself as a transitional candidate, but with his distant, milquetoast internet presence—it’s extremely clear that staff control his social media—Biden is a throwback, less instantaneously accessible and less interested in the internet as a site of connection. The former veep, and his lack of ardent online fandom, are also a direct result of his politics. Biden’s stances—his support of fracking, for instance—have been calibrated to appeal to as wide a berth of voters as possible. That’s a good political strategy, but it has also alienated the robust progressive movement, which trends young and online.