How Kamala Harris’s awkward moments became internet gold

Kamala Harris has emerged as the top backup candidate should President Biden end his reelection campaign. She has also been embraced by another influential constituency: hyper-online progressive content creators.

In the past week, Harris has won a surge of attention online from people recasting odd or awkward public moments into memes or viral video clips that often burnish her as relatable and down to earth. The phenomenon embraced by X personalities, TikTokers and Instagram meme accounts has been compared to the rise of a meme stock: absurd, somewhat ironic, but with momentum that could have lasting results, boosting her standing among Democratic voters.

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Many of the awkward moments being embraced on social media have previously been criticized by others as evidence that Harris is unserious and out of touch. In December, the Republican National Committee shared a four-minute montage titled “Kamala Harris Is ‘Unburdened’ By Competency” that compiled multiple examples of her encouraging an audience to consider “what can be, unburdened by what has been.” Last week, the same profound line was among the moments embraced by social posts that positioned Harris as a likable oddball.

“Everyone who doesn’t want Trump in office was like, okay who do we turn to? And she just has these funny relatable moments online,” said Bailey Stoltzfus, a law student in Arizona who has posted about Harris on X. “She’s goofy, people characterize her as a wine aunt.” A spokesperson for Harris declined to comment on the memes.

Posts featuring generally favorable video edits of Harris’s awkward or funny public moments have amassed hundreds of thousands of views on TikTok and Instagram. A thread on X compiling such clips, like when she gleefully declared “I love Venn diagrams” during a 2022 event on defending reproductive rights, garnered nearly 14 million views.

Last week, searches for “Kamala” and “coconut tree” spiked to their highest levels all year, Google data shows, as the pressure on Biden to step aside increased and the internet rejoiced in a 2023 speech. At a White House ceremony for an initiative to boost opportunity for Hispanics, Harris broke into a hearty laugh as she related that her mother would say “I don’t know what’s wrong with you young people. You think you just fell out of a coconut tree?” to remind her children to be aware of the context they were born into.

Harris’s new online prominence could help give the Democratic Party new prominence with young people - including major content creators - who are hesitant to vote for Biden again due to his climate policies, support of Israel’s war in Gaza, mishandling of the ongoing pandemic, and signing a bill that could ban TikTok.

Ryan Long, a 22-year-old college student, recently spent three hours making a remix of viral clips of Harris set to a Charli XCX song that has been viewed more than 2 million times.

“In the current society, you feel really helpless,” he said. “What can we really do? It’s hard to get politically engaged. All you can do is you can make edits, you can make tweets. It’s a way people can do their best to not support Trump with the resources we have.”

Though a dedicated online fan base known as the #KHive boosted Harris’s doomed presidential run back in 2020, her online resurgence is being led by progressive leftists on X and Instagram who supported Bernie Sanders’s 2020 run.

“Me, shedding my toxic Bernie Bro baggage and embracing the warmth of Momala’s embrace beneath the coconut tree,” Emma Vigeland, co-host of the leftist talk show, the Majority Report, posted alongside images of Nicole Kidman celebrating after her divorce from Tom Cruise.

“There’s a bit of being irony-pilled behind it,” said Will Poole, who supported Sanders in 2020 and runs an account on X with more than 137,000 followers that consists mostly of jokes and memes. “It’s like, s— seems dire right now, but if you give me the drugs that she’s getting then hell yeah, I’m going to roll with her.”

Diana Claire, a TikTok content creator and Instagram meme account administrator, who is based in Oakland, Calif., said that many people like Harris because she seems different from the typical D.C. politician. “For so long it was the good old boys, Biden and Trump talking about golf,” Claire said. “Kamala is a West Coast fun mom. She looks like a bureaucrat that would still have fun after work and go to karaoke.”

However, progressives boosting Harris content online say their politics remain distinctly to the left of hers and they are critical of her history as a prosecutor.

June Sternbach, a content creator and co-host of the “Western Kabuki” internet culture podcast, has posted Harris content to her more than 140,000 followers on X. “I still think she’s representative of everything that’s wrong with the Democratic Party - but she’s funny. It’s about the vibe,” she said. “I think it genuinely started from a palace of irony, but there’s a level where it’s not irony too. No one likes Biden, everyone feels so stuck, everyone feels so down and out. Part of the Kamala thing is the potential that things might just be slightly better.”

Compared to Biden, Harris has an uncanny ability to generate viral moments. After Biden was elected, a clip of her in sunglasses and workout gear proudly proclaiming “We did it, Joe” went viral and became a meme. Former Harris staffers said that they weren’t surprised to see her recent breakout success online.

“Even though she’s been in office for the last few years, I don’t think people were looking at her quite as closely or seriously as they are now with the realities of our ticket,” said Deja Foxx, Harris’s digital influencer strategist during her primary run in 2020. “I kind of always saw the potential for this and I’m excited to see it taking off now.”

Foxx and other staffers on Harris’s presidential run attempted to seed her audio clips on TikTok in 2019 and 2020, when the platform was relatively nascent, without much success. Now, some of those early sound bites and video clips, such as Harris dancing down a hallway alongside a line of children, are being resurfaced and getting more traction. “I always thought she had these really great, memeable trending sounds,” said Foxx.

Jules Terpak, a digital strategist and content creator, said the clip and other video edits function like “modern political ads,” and appeared to be swaying sentiment surrounding her candidacy. “[They] are curated by voters and have an artistic touch that doesn’t go through a chain of command before being sent out to potentially thousands, if not millions of voters,” she said.

Claire, the Instagram meme account administrator, says the possibility Harris could benefit from viral content that makes the vice president more relatable causes her to be careful not to boost such content too much. “She’s clearly trying to put on a facade that she’s a good guy,” said Claire, “but we all know what she’s like, we know who she’s arrested, we know the things that she’s done and she’s had a mixed record. She’s no better than any other politician.”

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