Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders sat down in his chair, ready for the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to begin. All bundled up, Sanders was ready to face a cold morning on Jan. 20, 2021. Legs and arms crossed, wrapped in a brown parka and signature wool mittens – Sen. Sanders seemed unaware, but he had started a fashion trend – and a viral meme.
Photojournalist Brendan Smialowski captured the moment in a photo that he deemed “not that great.” Yet, the picture quickly made waves online and transformed into thousands of photoshopped memes on social media.
Photoshopped in iconic movie scenes, paintings, historical moments, or cartoons – the image of Sen. Sanders sitting at the inauguration won over the hearts of social media users. “I was just sitting there, trying to keep warm, trying to pay attention to what was going on,” Sen. Sanders told Seth Meyers.
“This could’ve been an email” pic.twitter.com/kn68z6eDhY
— Ashley K. (@AshleyKSmalls) January 20, 2021
Sanders quickly credited the person behind his viral meme success. The mittens were made from repurposed wool sweaters and lined with fleece made from recycled plastic bottles by Jen Ellis, a Vermont school teacher.
On Late Night with Seth Meyers, Sanders said Ellis was “overwhelmed by the kind of attention that has been being shown to her mittens.”
About the attention given to the mittens? In only five days, it has helped raise $1.8 million for Vermont charitable organizations. The funds came solely from the sale of merchandise with the viral image of the Vermont senator. The “Chairman Sanders” merchandise included crewnecks and tee-shirts. They all sold out within 30 minutes.
Bernie Sanders is selling the meme in sweatshirt form at his online store. pic.twitter.com/q9sZ0t7Sok
— Holly Otterbein (@hollyotterbein) January 22, 2021
“Jen and I were amazed by all the creativity shown by so many people over the last week, and we’re glad we can use my internet fame to help Vermonters in need,” Sanders said in a written statement. “But even this amount of money is no substitute for action by Congress, and I will be doing everything I can in Washington to make sure working people in Vermont and across the country get the relief they need in the middle of the worst crisis we’ve faced since the Great Depression.”
According to AP, the groups that will benefit from the proceeds of the “Chairman Sanders” merchandise include Area Agencies on Aging to fund Meals on Wheels throughout Vermont, Vermont community action agencies, Feeding Chittenden, Chill Foundation, senior centers in Vermont, and Bi-State Primary Care for dental care improvements in the state.
The “Chairman Sanders” donation inspired other waves of charitable actions. A handmade crocheted Bernie Sanders doll raised more than $40,000 for Meals on Wheels America during an online auction sale.
Photoshopped, crocheted into dolls, or even sculpted into the snow, the Bernie Sanders meme transported through platforms and mediums.
The internet really can be magical pic.twitter.com/Jrwkj2twii
— Ashley Holub, PhD (@ashtroid22) January 21, 2021
But what does it mean for a picture to become a “meme”?
In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins defined memes as cultural units of information. Memes are ideas, which only successfully catch on if people can understand or relate to the said idea.
Google trends show a sudden increase in interest in the word “meme” in the U.S. starting in 2011, which then kept steadily increasing until 2020. More recently, with the rise of influencers and paid opportunities on social media, memes experienced a second wave of popularity. Now, memes are viable marketing strategies for brands and politicians alike – Mike Bloomberg himself had contracted meme-makers to promote his presidential campaign on social media.
While Bloomberg’s memes are widely considered underwhelming, Sanders’ effortlessly took over social media. Why?
— Siaz (@Siaz07950786) January 21, 2021
The days leading up to Jan. 20 were still tainted with the tension born out of the past four years which culminated in the Jan. 6 violent riots on the Capitol. Still, while a cloud of worry about more violence could have overshadowed the inauguration, Bernie Sanders’ meme offered the American public a moment of release. The picture of the senator facing the cold with his homemade mittens gave the public a relatable, and almost heart-warming moment to hold on to.
While Trump’s presidency was often defined by outbursts on social media, his leaving of office created a blank space for savvy social media users to take over.
As most Americans – no matter their political party – held their breath ahead of the inauguration, Sanders’ picture offered a moment of relief. More than that, it also drew a stark contrast from the pictures of the storm of the Capitol which, in comparison, feel dystopian.
This meme and the levity it brought isn’t necessarily reflective of what the new administration will bring. It only embodies a fraction of a second captured by a camera. And that is what a meme is, just a moment. But it lasted enough to capture a positive sentiment that sparked a wave of charitable actions.
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