“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.
Not that anyone has ever won an election on internet hype alone. As much as their efforts are lauded, it's a stretch to attribute Obama or Trump’s victories entirely to their online savvy, just as it’s a stretch to attribute any political victory to any one thing. But their online momentum certainly played a role, and in this election cycle Biden’s lack of an online fan hive is proving to be a litmus test: Is it still possible for a candidate to get elected without a rabid internet fandom?
Prognosticating about what will happen in the future with national politics is like loudly trying to guess precisely what your next fart will smell like. There’s no way to do it without appearing vulgar and discomfitingly confident. Election Day’s outcome remains uncertain, no matter what predictive pollsters say. But if Biden does manage to pull off a victory, the fact that he’ll do so without leaning on digital idolization will be a boon to democracy. It will mean he is the rare politician who has largely been cut down to the correct size in the public imagination.
Biden’s campaign is very much rooted in his OK-ness, his adequacy. He can deliver the country from Trump, but at a time when many people are clamoring for radical change to solve urgent crises—climate change, health care—Biden’s centrist promises make it clear he’s not their ideal savior. This is bad in a very obvious way—surely there are those who would like the option to vote for someone who would like to ban fracking, for example—but it has an upside: It’s a reminder that elections are designed to pick public servants, not American idols. Everything else is just an avatar.