As Donald Trump has continued to lead the pack of Republican contenders for president, the public—and wide swaths of the conservative establishment—have had to contend with the thought that the real estate mogul has a shot at becoming the next president of the United States. Unsurprisingly, his rise has tracked closely with those same people airing their fears and cutting quips online. Recently, however, there’s been a new sentiment flying around the corners of the internet that fear a President Donald Trump: “It’s not funny anymore.” And others tweet the next logical thought—that it’s time to stop joking and get serious. The message: Your online jabs about Donald Trump aren’t helping.
In the wake of the terrorist attack in Brussels, attacking Trump nonetheless seems necessary. The candidate responded by suggesting that Brussels was now “a disaster city” and that, in response to terror, he wants to impose tactics such as waterboarding and surveilling mosques. With such brazenly simplistic and xenophobic ideas, perhaps censuring those who simply joke about Trump on social media is actually fair.
The trouble with this view is how it suggests political efficacy is the only way to judge the worth of an online expression. That’s one way to think about why people express their ideas and feelings publicly, but it’s not necessarily the best one. It’s a reading that misses a core part of digital culture: their performative nature. And in missing that point, you miss a vital part of the role of social media in contemporary politics. It’s mainly a way to find and build community.
Social media lends itself to performance. People post using personas, or with exaggerated emotions or opinions; sometimes it’s the opposite, leaning to understatement or faux resignation. The point is that the dynamic nature of social media gives context—users are generally either reacting to an event or referencing another, interjecting into an ever-moving stream of news and opinion.
It’s often why people say social media isn’t “real,” and is therefore a poor place to make a political critique. That view, however, neglects to consider the various ways we perform in other aspects of our lives—the way we modulate how we talk when when we’re asking our boss for a raise, haggling for a new car, or are on a first date. Do those performances invalidate your political beliefs? They do not. (Not to mention how strange it is to call such a widespread and significant aspect of modern life unreal.)
More traditional political mobilization can spring up on social media. Movements, from Occupy to Black Lives Matter to the Arab Spring, found their voices and massive audiences online. It’s quite different than Twitter jokes. It’s important to note, too, that each movement also managed to bridge the divide between online activism and offline actions.
Even so, to assert that this kind of seriousness is the only useful form of digital politicking is to miss an essential human element. Expressing one’s political feeling online can be an attempt at grounding oneself, acting out beliefs to solidify them. Funny criticisms are often solace for a weary soul. What’s more: The jokes, the snark, and the debate is frequently a way to find likeminded people. You can make a criticism of a political candidate knowing full well it’s not going to change anyone’s mind, but you do it anyway because gathering around and reaffirming shared opinion is one of the ways we maintain social ties. To miss that basic fact is to miss what is fundamental about shared public space, of which the internet is one part. It’s also why politics and social media are so compatible: We speak, and vote, to see ourselves and our views represented in a world that’s often apathetic.
And the feeling is important. Trump’s rise to prominence has been surprising and demoralizing, partly because he is an avatar of what’s deeply wrong with America—a xenophobic, authoritarian national id manifested in an aging white man with strange hair. That it now seems likely he will be the Republican candidate is worrying and dispiriting; that there is a chance he might be president is downright terrifying. The least we can do is make jokes on the internet.