NPR logo #MemeOfTheWeek: The Internet Vs. Jeb Bush

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#MemeOfTheWeek: The Internet Vs. Jeb Bush

Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, addresses an audience at a campaign event held in Rye, N.H. Steven Senne/AP hide caption

toggle caption Steven Senne/AP

Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, addresses an audience at a campaign event held in Rye, N.H.

Steven Senne/AP

Jeb Bush had a very bad week on the Internet. Well, a very bad week and a half, or two weeks, or longer if you're really keeping track.

On the campaign trail, he's lagged in the polls, been criticized for low-energy debate performances and then there was a book dredging up questions about his father's and brother's years in the White House. This week on the road, though, he seemed to be fighting to turn some of that criticism around.

But a lot of the Internet doesn't like Bush no matter what he says or does. It's a problem that might be bigger than just Jeb Bush.

Let's recap his three, biggest, most recent moments that made Internet: the French work week, psych majors and Chick-Fil-A, and #JebCanFixIt.

1. Jeb and the French

This one started last week, during the GOP debate hosted by CNBC. When criticizing opponent Marco Rubio's attendance and voting record in the Senate, he accused Rubio of working something similar to a three-day, French work week.

A conservative mocking the French is usually a win, but Jeb is a very unlucky man right now, so his comments set off French Twitter. Yes, there is a French Twitter -– now you know. French journalists quickly pointed out that the French are actually productive and, according to the data, work more than just three days a week.

Al Jazeera (not French, we know) made a video that, in part, mocked Bush, with the candidate wearing a French beret and juggling baguettes. This week, it all got to be too much. Jeb apologized Tuesday to France–- though it's not certain if he was serious. Either way, it was not a good look for the Republican presidential candidate – apologizing to the French, of all people, before he's even elected.

2. #JebCanFixIt

Over the last few days, Jeb Bush has attempted a campaign reset of sorts. He's toughened some of his rhetoric, using words like "damn" more frequently, and telling audiences that he eats nails before breakfast. And, he unveiled a new slogan, "Jeb Can Fix It." Almost immediately, it all went south. The jokes rolled in, including some about Jeb Bush fixing his brother's election in 2000 (remember the Florida recount?) There were comparisons to Bob the Builder. It was bad.

And then there was JebCanFixIt.com, a website Bush's campaign forgot to buy. Jimmy Flannigan, a man who ran for Austin City Council in 2014 (and failed), ran on the slogan "Flannigan Can Fix It." As soon as he heard of Bush's new slogan, he bought the domain, only to have the website lead with the following question: "Is Jeb running for President or City Council?" (You can read our interview with Flannigan here)

3. #ThisPsychMajor

At a town hall meeting last Saturday, Bush said the following: "Universities ought to have skin in the game. When a student shows up, they ought to say 'Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that's great, it's important to have liberal arts ... but you realize, you're going to be working a Chick-Fil-A.'"

Psych majors weren't having it. The hashtag #ThisPsychMajor took off.

The Washington Post also pointed out that Jeb Bush himself has a liberal arts degree, in Latin American studies from the University of Texas at Austin.


So, what should we make of Jeb Bush's very, very bad, not-good-at-all week (and a half)? It seems the candidate has reached the point where just about anything he says can and will be used against him. One could imagine Bush pointing out that the sky is blue, and the Internet shouting back, "But what about sunsets, you liar?!"

"I fear that part of what happened to Jeb this week is classic American political slapstick," said Kerric Harvey, editor of the Encyclopedia of Social Media and Politics. "I think it would have happened with or without social media. But in all seriousness I think Jeb Bush has a particular problem with social media in this campaign."

And there's a reason, Harvey said. And that reason isn't even Jeb Bush himself. "The thing about Jeb is, he's actually already his own political meme. He starts life as a political meme because he comes to the digital world dragging his family behind him, his analog family story behind him. He cannot be separated from his own narrative. The man is almost a symbol in his own right –- a cultural symbol. And a cultural symbol that is just begging for commentary in the way that social media, for better and for worse, epitomizes."

In other words, [certain segments of] the Internet likes making fun of Jeb Bush because making fun of Jeb Bush is, for many, making fun of much more than just Jeb Bush. It's mocking the idea of political dynasty, or getting out all of the anger the left still might have over his brother's presidency, or raging against the idea that only elites and the connected can be president. Jeb is more than just a gaffe or a meme. He is — for some on the Internet — whatever it is they choose to dislike about politics.

And in the age of hashtags and trending topics, a candidate with the kind of baggage Jeb Bush has, and full of the same gaffes he's prone to, can be up for a lot of punches online, which might not exactly be good. "It's gonna have a huge chilling effect downline," Harvey said, "for what politicians, or anybody for that matter are going to be able to say — but particularly politicians."

But, this is not new, she points out. For Harvey, social media and its art of the bash is just like one mode of political expression that came before. "I actually can't help but wonder if social media is bumper sticker culture for the millennial generation, for the digitalized citizen who is now also the wireless citizen," Harvey said.

"It does a lot of the same things," Harvey continued. "People whose politics who you don't know in the office splatter all over the back of their Volkswagen Bug ... things you'd never, you'd never say out loud, but you'd put them on your car. [Social media is] the same thing in that it's short bursts, it's got to be clever, it's got to be memorable. And the easy way to do that is to make fun, to be mean. Mean is so much easier than smart."

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