WASHINGTON—On Tuesday, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced that for 2021, its voters had selected none of the above.
A bunch of all-time great players were eligible. But it came down to character: what kind of person deserves to be in an institution of honour? Not for the first time, voters decided the suspected cheaters of the steroid era — Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens — weren’t worthy. But the bigger headline this year was Curt Schilling, excluded not for cheating, but for tweeting. On social media in retirement, Schilling supported the Capitol riot, expressed transphobic and anti-Muslim sentiments, shared memes advocating the murder of journalists and attacked school shooting survivors.
“If the Hall of Fame really is an honour and not just an acknowledgment of baseball greatness, well, one thing I feel very sure about is that Curt Schilling doesn’t deserve it,” voter Joe Posnanski, among the greatest living sportswriters, wrote recently for The Athletic. “It’s his nastiness. It’s his intolerance. It’s his compulsion to troll. Curt Schilling pushes anger and fear and hatred. Every day he divides, every day he offends.”
His description of Schilling’s social media activity sums up the chaotic meme-fuelled nastiness of a chunk of the recent U.S. political zeitgeist. So does the push to resist it.
Here, Hall of Fame voters are enforcing higher standards than some voters for the U.S. Congress. Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene was elected in November as a candidate famous for support the QAnon conspiracy theory. This week, reporting on her long trail of social media posts revealed the extent of the nastiness she’s been engaged in. Badgering a school shooting survivor, liking calls for the murder of congressional leaders, lending support to a false and ridiculous theory that a Democratic candidate for president wore the face of a murdered baby as a mask.
It’s absurd. But who can say it’s a surprise? Former president Donald Trump built his political career on his outrageous conspiracy-theorist social media persona. Nasty and nonsensical tweets helped define his presidency. You may ask how voters elected Taylor Greene despite her social media record. You may conclude they elected her because of it.
But what to do with that conclusion? More than a decade into the social media era, American institutions are just beginning to reckon with its polarizing meme-ification of everything.
Kicking Trump himself off the major social media platforms seemed like a start. For a week after Joe Biden’s inauguration, the dominant political meme on social media outlets was adorably cranky socialist Bernie Sanders in his warm coat and mittens.
By Wednesday, Sanders’ left-populist spirit even seemed to infuse the discussion of a new online phenomenon challenging an American institution. Two weeks after the storming of the Capitol, a Reddit mob was storming the capital markets with their mania for the retailer GameStop, which became a “meme stock.” But while laid-off line cooks and other individual small-time investors are the face of this financial-market YOLO insurrection against hedge funds, it seems unlikely they’ll emerge as the winners at the end of this story. I don’t want to pretend I have the expertise to game out the implications of the market mayhem, but it seems likely that ultimately this burst of revolutionary spirit will be channelled towards making many rich folks richer (such as the funds who get to profit at every turn from front-running the Redditor’s trades).
Meanwhile, the meme-stock moment has emphasized to even casual observers how divorced stock prices and performance are from the underlying value of the companies they are tied to. That’s not news. But it is so explicit here as to make its absurdity obvious.
As obvious as the way the meme-ification of politics has made the distance between the claims Trump’s political movement is based on from any underlying policy logic or factual basis.
Seeing those horses run wild, some have been scrambling to see if the barn door can be shut. Twitter banned Trump, Facebook and Google banned political advertising.
And the traditional right-wing establishment leaders of the Republican party such as Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Liz Cheney are now in the midst of a party civil war with Trump’s troll army under whose influence they’ve lost the White House and both houses of Congress. The meme-lords seem to have the upper hand.
In the same week as Taylor Greene’s outrages were making headlines, it was Cheney who was targeted for removal from the House — by Trump disciple Rep. Matt Gaetz, who travelled to her home state to stir up a primary challenge over her vote to impeach the former president. Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy, who just weeks ago spoke of Trump’s responsibility for the insurrection, went to Florida to kiss the former president’s ring. Republicans in the Senate seem increasingly unlikely to vote to convict the former president in an impeachment trial. Trump is off social media and out of the White House. Trump’s social media-fuelled movement maintains its grip on the party.
New President Joe Biden, meanwhile, is modelling what might be an anti-meme presidency. In his campaign, he essentially ignored the pitchforks of partisan-populist social media, and his first steps as president have telegraphed a consciously “9-5 presidency,” no-drama path: talking up bipartisan efforts relentlessly and favouring a long slate of broadly popular policy announcements over culture-war wedge gestures.
Baseball Hall of Fame voters drew a line against tolerating the culture of internet-fuelled outrages and uprising. They want a different character to define their place of honour. Biden appears to think the majority of Americans who voted for him want that for their highest office too.