Last November, in preparation for a day that I was confident would be marked by the greatest collective release of breath in my lifetime, I put together an A-to-Z children’s coterie of the best (or most persistent) memes of the nightmarish 2016 presidential race. It wasn’t supposed to be dismissive of the major issues of the election, just a wry acknowledgment of all the absurdities we had narrowly avoided, and a celebration of the jokes that kept us afloat during 20 months of escalating fear. Here’s how it ended:
“People keep saying things like ‘It will all be over soon,’ and ‘Can you believe it's almost over?’ Do you think they are talking about the election or the 45-year mystery of ‘Who is the Zodiac Killer?’
Either way, it's almost over. Take care of yourselves, America.”
Reading the post now, obviously, is not funny — not because the memes weren’t good, but because the thing that was supposedly over wasn’t at all, and there was no sigh of relief. There was none of the nervous, shocked laughter that comes after stepping back onto the sidewalk just in time, there was only... whatever sound you make when you get hit by the truck.
“Comedy under Trump” became a subject of conversation almost immediately after the election: either we needed comedy more than ever or comedy wasn’t enough or we shouldn’t laugh or we couldn’t laugh. Trump would make comedy better or Trump would make comedy worse. Comedy is a weapon or comedy is useless. With a president thin-skinned enough to rage publicly in response to Saturday Night Live sketches and an administration ridiculous enough that straight-faced weekly recaps sound like parody, the conversation is less silly than it is repetitive.
In The New Republic, two weeks after the inauguration, Jeet Heer outlined the broader case for making jokes about the Trump administration: “Jokes, even political jokes, aren’t about persuasion, but rather psychological comfort in the face of difficult or painful situations.”
100 days into Trump’s presidency, it looks like he’s right. We’ve already got enough memorable, pervasive memes to fill the world’s scariest children’s book. Each one was born from something horrible — cruel or grossly stupid — and each one was a tiny, dumb, tasteless victory against despair.
A is for “Alternative Facts”
The first weekend of Trump’s presidency, Kellyanne Conway told Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd that White House press secretary Sean Spicer was just presenting “alternative facts” when he made blatantly untrue claims about the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration.
The phrase quickly became a trending Twitter hashtag, then a meme, then a Dove deodorant ad campaign, then the centerpiece of a New York Magazine profile of Conway, in which she told reporter Olivia Nuzzi, “Excuse me, I’ve spoken 1.2 million words on TV, okay? You wanna focus on two here and two there, it’s on you, you’re a fucking miserable person, P.S., just whoever you are.”
In the same profile, Conway provided some examples of alternative facts: “Two plus two is four. Three plus one is four. Partly cloudy, partly sunny. Glass half full, glass half empty. Those are alternative facts.”
Honorable mention: “All talk, no action or results”
B is for “But her emails”
Like many of the memes on this list, “but her emails” originated as a sincere (albeit snarky) expression of dismay and frustration. How could Hillary Clinton’s email server possibly, genuinely have alarmed people more than a man who tweets threats of nuclear war? And where were those critics when Trump was refusing to give up his Android phone?
That’s no joke! That’s just hypocrisy. But human beings, ever resilient, ever pushing the boundaries of good taste, eventually got to the point where they could recognize it as a meme. “But her emails,” after only 100 days, now means something less like “oh my god, we’re all going to die because of you fucking idiots” and more like “lol, remember reason?”
Honorable mention: “Bernie would have won”
C is for “Can I punch a Nazi?”
A video of right-wing extremist and white nationalist Richard Spencer getting punched in the face on Inauguration Day went viral, prompting what was at first a sincere debate about whether punching a Nazi is commendable, condemnable, or somewhere in between.
In answer to the question, memes sprung up on just about every social media platform you can think of, remixing the punch to hit songs, setting the image against famous Nazi punches throughout pop culture history, and, in the most direct effort — linking out to a website called canipunchnazis.com, which has only one page.
D is for Donnie Darko
I hesitate to acknowledge this meme because it makes almost no sense — Donnie Darko is a movie about a young boy and an undead man who wears a bunny costume, and in it they team up to stop the world from ending. What about Donald Trump and the White House Easter Bunny reminds people of this story, other than... the name Donald and the bunny? I can concede that there is something unidentifiably unnerving about the photograph, in which nothing in particular is happening, but I don’t feel the joke holds much water.
However, it is not for me to deny a truly viral goof. If a beautiful cult classic starring the most talented actor of my lifetime helps some people get a chuckle on a Monday, good for them. A chunk of the Twittersphere retweeted it, and the dozens of copy-cat tweets, so it seems they were made incrementally happier and relieved from the obligation of moving on with their day for at least a few seconds.
Honorable mention: Donald Trump Jr., sitting
E is for Executive Orders
Honorable mention: Easy D
F is for “Fake News”
To state this as simply as possible: verifiably fake news, created by people who said things like “I write fake news,” went viral on Facebook a lot last year. This was somewhere between disconcerting and unspeakably horrifying, because much of the fake news was of a political nature and then we elected an aging reality star accused of sexual harassment and assault two dozen times over as president of the United States. Plus, the CEO of Facebook was initially loathe to cop to fake news being a problem at all, despite the network being one of its best tools for distribution.
Just as the conversation around fake news reached a fever pitch, Trump decided that all writing and public speech he didn’t agree with was also “fake news,” and the phrase spiraled into utter meaninglessness. A meme was born.
Honorable mention: “Frederick Douglass... somebody who’s done an amazing job”
G is for Get Out
I’d rather not explain the joke here, because it’s a major spoiler for Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’m not sure what’s going on with you. But this is the best meme that came out of the inexplicable, almost pleasantly mundane scandal surrounding Kellyanne Conway’s choice to sit on a couch in the Oval Office in an uncomfortable position.
The movie was a sharp, scary, surprisingly funny blessing, and so is this meme.
Honorable mention: Grizzly attacks
H is for “Holocaust Centers”
Sean Spicer consistently finds ways to top himself, sometimes before he’s even managed to get a breath in.
Honorable mention: Hillary in the woods
I is for Ivanka’s neighbor
Earlier this month, a group of LGBTQ activists held a climate change protest party outside Ivanka Trump’s house in Washington, DC. They yelled for her to come dance, and she did not. Her neighbor, on the other hand, did come outside — not to dance, but to become a folk hero for a day.
This is the best work a glass of white wine has ever done.
Honorable mention: “iPhone or health care?”
J is for “Join the conversation”
Pepsi’s solution to clashes between protesters and police? Be a beautiful white model, “join the conversation,” and hand the cop a Pepsi.
If this failed experiment in capitalizing on protest culture taught us anything, it’s that we could all be making a lot more money as the person on the marketing team who says, “Wait... think about that for a second.”
Honorable mention: Joint Address
K is for Kushner at war
Jared Kushner went to Iraq recently, in his capacity as “a dude Trump has assigned various vague foreign policy responsibilities to.” He dressed himself, as far as anyone knows.
Honorable mention: Kid Rock at the White House
L is for “Largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period”
M is for Mother
In January, Rolling Stone published a profile of Mike Pence, which has the sub-heading: “He's trampled on the rights of women, LGBTQ folks and the poor. Then there's the incompetence. Meet, quite possibly, the next president.” My god.
Somehow, in a many-thousand-word piece, the detail that stuck out the most was this: Pence refers to his wife, Karen Pence, who used to own a company that made wine glass charms but for beach towels, as “mother.”
It’s awkward enough that it’s almost hard to make jokes about. That did not stop anyone from trying.
Honorable mention: Microwave cameras
N is for “Not usually a sign guy”
Honorable mention: “Nevertheless she persisted”
O is for Obamacare vs. GOP replacement
Honorable mention: Obamacare’s “death spiral”
P is for President Bannon
Honorable mention: Paid protesters
Q is for Queen Trump
According to the guy who has spent the last year Photoshopping Trump’s face onto pictures of Queen Elizabeth II, “It’s not about politics. It’s because it’s funny.” In my opinion, not really. But the Instagram account has 7,000 followers, the comments are all from people having a good time, and it’s much better than this account with a similar name.
R is for Russian ambassador
Sarah Jessica Parker is consistently good at Instagram, where she often posts photos of street garbage, Amtrak hot dogs, and piles of her children’s hair. Amidst revelations of Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions’ undisclosed contact with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, she posted her first meme — of herself, as Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City. She found the meme on Twitter but could not remember who posted it.
Here is a random selection of people who liked this post on Instagram: Reese Witherspoon, Obama-era White House photographer Pete Souza, someone named “Gorgeous Kathy,” and me.
Honorable mention: Rachel Maddow
S is for “Someone who is good at the economy”
This is an old joke structure that recently found some new life thanks to Trump’s budget ideas, military decisions, and the GOP’s botched attempt at repealing and replacing Obamacare, a task they had seven years to prepare for and yet totally flubbed.
Honorable mention: “See you in court”
T is for Trucks
This sort of stretches the definition of “meme.” It’s really just a series of photos of the president of the United States getting into a Mack Truck and pretending that he’s driving it. A picture is worth 1,000 words, and sometimes it defies them.
Honorable mention: “Ok Tammy”
U is for #DeleteUber
Whether or not the logic of the #DeleteUber movement was airtight as it pertained to the instigating event, it’s pretty solid in general. And it reportedly led 200,000 people to delete the app from their phones in protest. Many of these people posted screenshots to Instagram and Twitter to prove that they gave Uber a lil piece of their mind on the way out.
V is for Vacation Obama
W is for “Wall Requirements”
Honorable mention: Winona
Y is for “You don’t have the votes”
The GOP’s health care plan was so bungled that it didn’t even make it to the House floor, where the party holds a sizable majority. Instead, Paul Ryan, who you might have thought this meme coterie had forgotten about — but it didn’t — had to tell the country: “We’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future.”
It was, to borrow a phrase from Jezebel’s Anna Merlan, good. The Hamilton memes that everyone came up with in response were embarrassingly repetitive riffs on an already played-out cultural object, but who needs to pull out the comedy big guns when they’re celebrating?
Z is for Zoolander
Late-night hosts, satirists, stand-up comics, they’re all flailing trying to figure out what to do with the Trump era. We expect a modicum of usefulness from our culturally central sources of comedy, regardless of whether that’s wise (and looking at what SNL has done with its renewed wave of attention, it’s not).
It seems silly but the excess of hashtags, Photoshops, and recurring jokes pouring out on Twitter and Tumblr and Reddit every time a member of the current administration opens their mouth feels indicative of a group of people who are trying to make for each other what the comedic institutions of the past are failing to provide. By now a streamlined emergency response system, the comedy is consistently sharper and more insightful than the distilled version you’ll see at week’s end on Saturday Night Live. And most importantly it’s faster and often more earnest. It’s also reactionary and a little tasteless, sure, but the alternative is sitting through the next four years alone.