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The internet often speaks earnestly of cultural resets. Shakira performing at the Super Bowl? Cultural reset. Parasite winning Best Picture? Cultural reset. Beyoncé doing literally anything? Cultural reset. Loosely defined, cultural resets are the moments when things shift and the mood in the collective pop culture room recalibrates. This week’s cultural reset? A 79-year-old US senator from Vermont sitting in a chair.
Wednesday’s inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris was full of fashion moments: Lady Gaga’s golden bird, Harris’ pearls, Michella Obama’s everything. But it was Senator Bernie Sanders (D–Vermont), decked out in his coat and mittens and holding a manilla envelope (and maybe a cashier’s check?), who captured the attention of meme-makers everywhere. Before the swearing in even happened, people were tweeting out images of the senator, commenting on his accessories and give-no-fucks demeanor. By the time the sun set, he was being Photoshopped into all kinds of scenes, from New York City subways to the Iron Throne.
It was a cultural reset but not in the traditional sense; no one is really thinking about memes, or Bernie Sanders, or even mittens differently now because of this. Instead, it was a realization that, occasionally, during the Biden/Harris administration there will be flip, inconsequential memes about politics. That in the absence of reacting to tweets from President Trump, social media will get to react to something else.
This is not to say that now that Trump has been deplatformed and dethroned, the internet will return to the way it was in 2015—that would be naive and short-sighted. America’s problems don’t immediately get fixed by new administrations, and no matter who wins there will always be people who feel not in on the gag. But the meme does show that there has been a shift. (Well, this and the fact that @POTUS now follows Chrissy Teigen.) It was almost as if it tested some uncharted waters, some Great Beyond (Trump’s Presidency) Sea. Scrolling to find each new one felt like hearing Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development say, “It’s so good to laugh again”—an unsure moment of levity delivered amidst what are still very fraught times.
Many of the best memes are born this way. Like most good humor, they’re tension breakers. A collective release. The internet has had some good ones over the past four or five years, but often, amidst the political bickering, it’s been hard to know when to interject with a joke. On Wednesday morning, people let ’em rip—and suddenly the thing keeping everyone warm was laughter.
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