The 2016 was a goldmine of political memes — in part because of the growing technology, but also in part because of the wide array of candidates. The 2016 race began with twenty-two Republican candidates. Twenty-two candidates. In one party.
With twenty-two candidates in one party, there’s sure to be a bit of mayhem and meme-ing. Ted Cruz is the perfect example.
One of the biggest memes about Ted Cruz was this declaration that Ted Cruz was the infamous Zodiac Killer from the 1960s-70s. And, looking at the side-by-side, it’s kind of easy to see how this went viral. They don’t look that dissimilar.
Immediately, there are two things that jump out at me about this meme. First, why does Ted Cruz look like he could kill everyone you love? And second, what does this meme say about our national culture?
Luckily, the first question was answered in this Quartz interview. The short answer is that Ted Cruz doesn’t smile the way we want him to smile. We expect smiles to turn up the corners of your mouths and crinkle your eyes. Instead, Ted Cruz has a flat smile, which makes him look like he’s doing a photoshoot after just being told that his dog died. Not convincing, and startling.
But let’s think broader. What does this meme, and its virality, say about our national culture? As a nation, we love a murder-mystery story. We like the intrigue and the suspense, and we also like to figure out who-dunnit.
The Zodiac Killer story is the perfectly chilling tale for America. The killings took place for over a decade, the killer taunted the police and the public, and the mystery lingered on for years. The only thing that’s missing in the narrative is the solving of the crime. This meme gave us some type of closure.
Of course, Ted Cruz is not the Zodiac Killer. For one thing, Ted Cruz would’ve been committing murders at the ripe age of -2. For another, serial killer to senator would be an interesting career path.
Regardless, we, as a culture, had an ending to the Zodiac Killer narrative, even if it was a joke ending. After this meme became wildly popular, I pondered to my friends who the real Zodiac Killer was. “Well, we know now,” they joked. “It’s Ted Cruz!” We don’t care about the veracity of the ending; any ending is better than none.
The implications for this meme go beyond the closure of the Zodiac Killer case, though. There are plenty of reasons to dislike Ted Cruz — from his political stances to his embodiment of the establishment. On top of that, we have the psychological reasons that we are wary of his smile. And on top of that, we have this meme.
Like I said, anyone could easily figure out that Ted Cruz was not the Zodiac Killer. But this meme helped to delegitimize him as a candidate. For one thing, there’s no sane way to address the meme. It wasn’t a chance for Cruz to clarify or solidify his political stance or potential policies. It was so ludicrous that he couldn’t really acknowledge the claims successfully (though he has since acknowledged them in a humorous way).
Instead, the memes festered and wormed their way into pop culture and various media outlets. People in my demographic, many of whom would not have voted for Cruz anyway, were now only thinking about Cruz as a punchline.
So here’s the takeaway: even when memes are outrageous, they have a lingering power. Cruz is a caricature because of a meme that never once talked about his politics or even pretended to be legitimate. But even so, that meme destroyed Cruz’s legitimacy.
Featured image by Gage Skidmore. License information at: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode.