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DANIEL VAUGHAN: Laugh about Baby Yoda. Ask more questions about Jeffrey Epstein.
Axios recent shared the results of a survey comparing the online reach of over a dozen Democratic primary candidates to the newest addition to the Star Wars universe: the officially unnamed, but beloved, Baby Yoda. (If you haven’t seen the latest Disney+ show, The Mandalorian, what are you doing? It’s fantastic!)
But the biggest takeaway isn’t the character itself or even the show; Baby Yoda reveals how little impact the primaries are having on broader American culture. And if you pull out a little farther, it’s clear that the primary candidates aren’t engaging with the topics that are animating society.
Axios estimated that the top Democrat candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, each get around 850 social media interactions per story about them on Facebook and Twitter. Any story referencing Baby Yoda? Those get around 1,651 interactions, nearly lapping the field.
A fictional character in a fictional universe is having a more direct impact on the current culture than any Democrat presidential candidate.
Now, in one sense, this should explain why Donald Trump posts memes of himself superimposed on Rocky Balboa’s body. Everyone gets a laugh, and the media loses their minds. It’s a ton of positive press for him, and he stays on top of the media bubble. (Hong Kong protestors using the Trump–Rocky picture in protests drove the media even further into madness.)
But I don’t want to stay on the point of how Baby Yoda is getting far more attention than anyone in the Democratic field — though the fact that Baby Yoda is getting three times the social media interaction as an Elizabeth Warren story is hilarious.
No, what I want to focus on for a moment is what our meme culture is telling us right now — because Baby Yoda isn’t the only dominant meme right now. The other one? “Epstein didn’t kill himself.”
Jefferey Epstein’s death permeated every part of popular culture. Everyone knows about and has an opinion on what happened. The most popular belief is that he didn’t kill himself.
When you think about that, and what Epstein represents, it’s a pretty stark sign of distrust from everyone in America toward those Epstein cavorted with: the elites.
Baby Yoda has a limited reach in that the only people who have access to Disney+ will be able to enjoy those memes. But there is no barrier to entry for the Epstein memes. If you have access to the internet or social media, you’ve seen those memes and understand them. Epstein’s death and the reaction to it reverberated in every corner of society.
But if Epstein’s death has such a powerful impact on our cultural understanding of government and power, then why hasn’t it been an issue in the Democratic primaries?
Donald Trump got a few questions about his involvement early on, but Epstein’s death signals a far deeper breach of trust with the public at large and the elite institutions ruling over the rest of us. Repairing that breach should be an essential topic of discussion.
You’d expect a debate moderator to lead off with something along the lines of: “[Candidate], Jeffrey Epstein’s death is believed to have been covered up by nearly every segment of the population. It’s a profound breach of trust. As president, how would you go about bridging the breach of trust with the public and restore faith in our institutions?”
Call me crazy, but I’d like to hear an answer from everyone on that one — including Donald Trump. And I know I’m not alone on this; polls show that 45% of Americans believe Epstein didn’t kill himself, according to Business Insider.
The Epstein meme reflects a reality where people don’t trust the people governing, which makes it something along the lines of gallows humor. Those below the top class joke about it because, on some level, they believe nothing will change, and Epstein’s death reflects a corrupt governing class that keeps itself above the law.
Axios notes on Baby Yoda that “[b]ecause this data only captures interactions with news stories, it doesn’t take in the wealth of Baby Yoda memes, GIFs, and content native to social media — meaning that the character’s reach is probably far wider.”
That is undoubtedly true; the only memes that have made it into my own social media feeds consistently feature Baby Yoda and variations on the theme that “Epstein didn’t kill himself.” And again, it’s telling that a story that has thoroughly permeated our culture — reflecting a widespread pessimism about the honesty of governing elites — is getting precisely zero attention in the Democratic field, or politics in general.
Epstein’s corruption represents a breach of trust. We’re debating a similar proposition with impeachment right now.
Did Donald Trump breach the public’s trust to such an extent with his phone call to Ukraine that it deserves impeachment and removal? That’s a fair question to ask of any 2020 contender. The Epstein story is more important though — and more worrying to the public. Why aren’t we asking more about that of these people? Epstein’s death is a federal investigation — the next president will have their attorney general involved.
On that note, journalists and debate moderators, let’s engage more important topics — not just policy questions. Ask the question. Probe the topic of a breach of trust.
We shouldn’t want this to be a meme; it speaks ill of our institutions that it is so successful and widely believed.
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