Gritty debates, Imposters and K-Pop armies: 10 pop culture moments that defined the 2020 election

How did political entertainment - politainment - create change in the historically high stakes of the 2020 elections?


Anna Steinmeier is an #FESFellow 2020, and works as an assistant for social media and international affairs in a state parliament in Germany. She has previously worked as a social media advisor for a member of the European Parliament and on several election campaigns in Germany and the United States. She holds a M.A. in Political Strategy, Communication and Foreign Policy from the University of Kent, where she focused her research on the role of social media and entertainment in international politics. Anna is interested in political communication and digital culture, and hosts the podcast "Politainment for Change". A series of blog posts based on her podcast will appear here on the FES DC blog.

This is the first installment, based on the third episode of the podcast. 

The 2020 election has been one for the books in many ways, from the candidates and campaigns, to viral social media posts and ongoing tweeting from the outgoing US President.  Here’s an overview of the top 10 internet pop-culture moments leading up to the November 3rd election.


1) Quotable Embarrassment : The first presidential debate

The first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and now President-elect Joe Biden on September 29th, 2020 created a lot of memes, buzz, and outrageous cultural memory.  The first debate, moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace devolved into a shouting match between the candidates, leaving Wallace as a hapless  referee. This verbal confrontation resulted in bizarre quotable moments which lead to a series of memes – including, foreshadowing the post-election drama in Pennsylvania – Trump saying “bad things happen in Philadelphia”. During the debate, it was unclear what if anything specific President Trump was referencing with this claim. Memes featuring “Gritty”, the orange hairy mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers National Hockey League team, became “Trumps nemesis”, a “bad thing” happening in Philadelphia.

One of the most quoted lines of the night came from Joe Biden, who after a few heated exchanges, was getting tired of Trump’s shenanigans, and said what seemed to be on the mind of most viewers: “Will you shut up, man?”

The first debate was historic – but not in a positive way. CNN’s Jake Tapper even called it a “hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck”. While the final presidential debate in October proved to be more “presidential” – more dignified – in the way the candidates behaved themselves, it still created a lot of memes and Halloween costumes this year.


2) A Symbol of Obliviousness: The fly on Mike Pence’s hair

During the Vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, a fly landed on Pence’s head. On his white hair, the – not so small – fly was very visible. Pence did not realize he had a visitor, and the fly stayed on his head for over one minute while he was speaking. Meme makers had a field day with this moment and even the Biden campaign joined in.

While many will remember the viral memes and content these debates created, the actual policies that were debated made less of lasting impression. This raises the question if the format of a presidential debate is still useful to communicate campaign platforms, messages, and policies. Luckily, this election cycle will also be remembered as one where important topics were discussed in new and memorable ways.

3) New Platform Alert: Twitch Livestreams

If Zoom had its moment in webinars and online-meetings during the pandemic, the same can be said about the online-streaming platform Twitch regarding the election. From live-streamed fundraisers and bots to get out the vote, the platform was also used for livestreams of ballot counting and election nightcoverage.


4) Canvassing in Online Games

Parallel to the election cycle an online game with the name “Among us” gained popularity. Twitch live-streaming and the excitement for the new game came together when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, herself up for reelection, played “Among us” in a livestream, where the players are trying to solve a mystery – who among them is an imposter who tries to kill the other players in the game.  Over three hours, she played with well-known gamers and her progressive colleague, Representative Ilhan Omar. During the game, the stream peaked with over 400,000 views at times. In addition to twitch, Democratic candidates (and some of their competitors) used online games to reach young voters and get out the vote. While reaching voters where they are is not a new concept, this election has shown an awareness in especially the Biden/ Harris campaign for so-called “digital partnerships”. In the very popular game “Animal Crossing: New Horizons”  the Biden/Harris campaign built a Biden themed island that players could visit. The island had voting booths, merchandise, banners and an animated Joe Biden character – with sunglasses of course.

Just days before the elections, the Biden/Harris campaign also released a “Build Back Better map” in the online game “Fortnite” .


5) Nostalgia for a Cause: Reunions of movies and TV shows

Another pop culture election campaign crossover that reached millions of potential voters were several reunions of popular TV shows and movie casts.  While several reunions just reunited out of the desire for nostalgia in these uncertain times, and extended lock-downs, many came with a cause: to collect donations or urge people to vote. From the original cast of the musical “Hamilton”, who gave an online performance and showed how to vote, to a table read of the movie “The Princess Bride” which raised over 4 Million Dollars for the Democratic Party in Wisconsin, there were many pop culture reunions to choose from. Several People also joined a special re-staging of “The West Wing” which supported the organization “When we all vote” which is co-chaired by Michelle Obama.


6) Celebrity Endorsements on both sides

While it is not unusual for famous people to pick sides in a presidential race, the 2020 election showed a broader engagement of celebrities urging people to vote. Many celebrities themselves voted for the first time in their lives and shared pictures holding their mail-in ballot envelopes or “I voted” stickers through their Instagram accounts. One unexpected group to support Trump were several rappers that became famous in the 2000s like Lil Wayne and 50 Cent.


7) Celebrity Candidates: Kanye West's Presidential Bid

One of the rappers absent from the list of Trump supporters is actually very close to the president: rapper and fashion designer Kanye West, who tweeted his own intention to run for president on July 4th. After announcing his candidacy, his presidential bid was met with laughter, criticism, and incomprehension –West held campaign rallies that made people more concerned about his mental state than his presidential ambitions.  His late entry into the race meant he missed some state filing deadlines and would not appear on the ballot in every state. After being dropped from ballots in several states, West managed to get on the ballot in 12 states and gained around 60,000 votes. The majority of votes were in Tennessee, where he almost got 1 percent of the vote.

While in other elections this margin would be ignored, the close race in Georgia shows that 10,000 voters can make or break a contest. Considering Kanye West’s personal issues, the ill-advised run campaign – and the fact that even his wife did not vote for him – sets a precedent for another famous independent presidential candidate who might ultimately gain a significant voter percentage and sway an election. With Kanye West already declaring he will run again in 2024, it is not unlikely that we will see more and more famous people taking on political causes and running in elections.


8) TikTok and political influencers

One medium that many predicted to have a moment during the 2020 was TikTok – and it delivered. Known for spontaneous short videos and dances, the content became more political in this election cycle. Whether it was “Gen-Z for Biden” or “The Conservative Hype House”, young adults and influencers organized on social media and reached over 10 million followers. Their followings have grown rapidly –  sometimes by over 500,000 followers in just one month – and several of them can now be considered political influencers.

It shows that young people become have become more engaged in politics, even while many of the TikTok users are under 18 years old and not necessarily from the US – that is, not able to directly participate in the US electoral process. The power of their political discourse is quite impressive when it comes to mobilizing people and disrupting the campaigns on both sides. Especially in combination with the super fans of Korean pop music also known as K-Pop stans.


9) Grassroots Fans Unite: K-Pop fans

For his rally in Tulsa in June 2020, Donald Trump and his campaign proudly announced that more than 1 Million people registered to attend. Yet only 6,200 showed up, leaving the arena almost empty. What happened? TikTokers and K-Pop fans urged their followers to register – and to not show up. Their videos of registering for tickets to NOT attend the rally generated millions of views.

While the K-Pop bands themselves support philanthropic causes, K-Pop fans – known as ‘stans’ – have been known for pushing political topics even before the genre became known internationally. The stan connection with their so-called idols is deeper than just a fandom. With color codes and insider language it in some ways resembles sports teams or coding for political parties. The stans’ activism first focused on the K-Pop industry itself which faced allegations of sexism and mistreatment of the artists. But with the global success of K-Pop in recent years, the activism has seeped into the US election. Aside from the Tulsa campaign, K-Pop stans also hijacked the 4MoreYears hashtag from the Trump campaign by spamming it with images and videos of their idols.

K-Pop is most likely here to stay to push for better conditions for the K-Pop artists and political causes. Many of the stans are young females, a demographic which is becoming a force to be recon with in popular political discourse.


10) The Memory of the Notorious RBG

The death of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shortly before the election also had a pop cultural impact. Ginsburg’s legal legacy is impressive on its own, and as a judicial figure, her pop cultural impact is simply unmatched. Her nickname – The Notorious RBG – originated in a series of memes linking the Jurist to the rapper the Notorious BIG, and creating a liberal feminist icon out of the real life woman. Her well-publicized workout routine that could have physically broken people half her age and her iconographic jabot collars had iconographic qualities that contributed to the pop culture Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who, like the groundbreaking jurist, will be remembered for years to come.


So, at the end of this election cycle, did pop culture make a difference in who will be the next president? The answer is a clear MAYBE.

While this election had historically high stakes which motivated people to vote in record numbers, the broader political reach – through social media grassroots campaigns by K-Pop stans, TV reunions and online gaming – might have communicated to prospective voters or unmotivated voters who otherwise might not have been in contact with the candidates’ positions. Pop culture has been an outlet through which people were able to communicate, find solidarity, or ease tensions during the campaign with humor, entertainment, and music. It is a trend which will only continue in the coming years, as politics and entertainment continue to mix.

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