In June, a new item arrived at Hillary Clinton’s online campaign shop: a neon yellow T-shirt featuring a Warholish black-and-white picture of a young Hillary and a big, block-lettered rallying cry: “Yaaas, Hillary!”
Yaaasss currently reigns as “the Internet’s favorite expression,” as millennial outposts Mic and Bustle have confirmed, so naturally, it’s Hillary Clinton’s favorite expression, too. In August, the Clinton campaign yaaaased again, repurposing the T-shirt graphic for the candidate’s first-ever Snapchat message. And this month, Hillary’s official twitter account posted a photograph of Clinton, Amy Poehler, and the young stars of Comedy Central’s Broad City, with the hashtag: “#yas.”
As Hillary Clinton, the human, crisscrosses the country stumping for votes, Hillary Clinton the social media presence is canvassing the Internet, angling for likes. IRL, Hillary Clinton is a 68-year-old grandparent who pronounces Beyoncé “Bay-oncé.” Online, she speaks the language of a millennial fangirl on all the relevant apps. Since its official April launch, her campaign has partnered with Bitmoji to create a Hillary-themed avatar; asked followers to tweet their feels on student debt “in 3 emoji or less”; marketed a cross-stitch pillow in the style of ironic feminist Tumblr; tweeted an ice-cold GIF of Hillary appearing to brush off her shoulder during the Benghazi hearings; sat for an interview for Lena Dunham’s newsletter; Snapchatted the “praise hands emoji” in a diverse array of skin tones; ’grammed a #TBT of Hillary’s 1995 Dolly Parton costume; and called up a set of Star Wars reaction GIFs to illustrate the “Dark Side” of the Republican field. Also, the candidate posed for a selfie with Kimye.
This is Twitter’s third presidential race, and Snapchat’s first. Social media campaigns are still so new that even the basic ground rules for running them remain unwritten. At this point, it’s obvious that presidential candidates don’t type out their own tweets. But many campaigns are still building social accounts that resemble digital replicants of the candidates themselves. @JebBush tweets things that sound like what Jeb Bush would tweet, if Jeb Bush actually tweeted. It’s easy to imagine Ted Cruz retweeting an anti-Obama Peanuts meme, or Rand Paul Photoshopping Marco Rubio’s face onto a milk carton. It’s harder to envision Hillary Clinton meeting Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson and being like, “Yaaaaassssss!”
This is a bold choice by the Clinton campaign: Its online presence is not molded to mimic Clinton’s persona. Instead, it’s written in the voice of a Hillary Clinton enthusiast eager to build an online fandom in her idol’s image. This is a dicey proposition. Several of the core demos the Clinton camp hopes to mobilize—black people, gays, young women—are on the cutting edge of online cultural production, so you can see why the campaign is eager to get on their level. But like the brand that says bae, the candidate who says yas risks being accused of pandering (or its radicalized relative, cultural appropriation). More to the point: Is there anything less cool than someone trying to look cool?
As one observer said of Clinton’s yas offensive: “This is the thirstiest presidential campaign in history.”
Meanwhile, established Hillary fans are eating it up, tweeting back at her with “squad goals” and “SLAY” and “sometimes my fanfic comes to fruition.” The yassing of Hillary Clinton is, in some respects, a grassroots initiative. Fan artists were hawking “Yas Queen 2016” merch before the campaign started selling its own. And California supporter Nick Walsh, who’s crowned himself “Hillary’s #1 fan” on Twitter, has been affirming Clinton’s moves with resounding yasses from the start. When the Hillary campaign announced its first big event, he tweeted: “YAS KWEEN!!!” When it linked to some infographics: “YAS MOM! SPILL IT!” When it made a self-deprecating joke: “YAS SELF AWARE KWEEN!” When I asked Walsh, over DM, how he felt when the campaign began yassing back at the fans, he said, “I like it. I think it works.” Even though HRC herself wouldn’t use the term, nodding to the language on T-shirts or Twitter reflects a gameness to engage with her supporters, to nod to the culture of their fandom, and “to speak the way people speak—and not talk down or at them.”
The strategy has also freed Clinton’s team to use emerging social platforms in the way they were designed to be used. While Marco Rubio’s designated Snapchatter broadcasts a behind-the-scenes photo of Rubio’s debate lectern (behold: his pad of paper!), Clinton’s team creates Snapchat stories that read like bright, emoji-laden flip-books. As Bernie Sanders’ Twitter feed churns out populist truism after populist truism, Hillary’s talking points are mixed with reaction GIFs and pointed personal jokes. Even media critics who snipe at the artifice have acknowledged the artistry. When HRC’s Snapchat mocked up a series of catty alternatives to Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” cap, The Stranger praised “the bright and wonderful minions” who managed to “slay Trump, tie his lunacy to core planks of the Republican platform, and be funny in a bratty yet kinda serious way.” And when the Onion skewered Clinton’s wooden personality with the scathing mock HRC editorial, “I Am Fun,” her team tweeted a one-word reply—“Humorous”—that compelled the Cut to tip its cap to “the intern who runs Hillary’s Twitter account.” Even if Hillary’s not self-aware enough to laugh at the Onion parody, she’s smart enough to hire someone who is—a fine quality for a president.
The popular divide over Hillary Clinton’s social media presence calls back a narrative that’s dogged her for 20 years: She has to work harder than everybody else, and it shows. Or, as it’s most often framed: She’s not naturally likable, so she tries to fake it, which just makes it worse. (As Kate McKinnon-as-Hillary put it on SNL this weekend, “Not enough to just work hard: We have to be cool but tough, soft but strong, a sweet old lady but a sweet old lady that says ‘Yaaaas, queen!’ ”) Meanwhile, Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders doesn’t have to lift a finger to an iPhone, because a brigade of youths have built his online empire for him. Sanders fans rally under names like “Bernlennials” and “Babes for Bernie,” bloat Reddit threads with pro-Sanders rhetoric, and screenprint their own “Bernie Is Bae” T-shirts at Brooklyn loft parties. The Clinton camp eats up every meme fans cook up, then regurgitates them back at them. Whatever Sanders’ people are doing to encourage an online following, they’re keeping the memes off Sanders’ own feed, which manages to make him look both cooler and more serious than the competition. Like the online fandom that’s coalesced around 82-year-old Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and nicknamed her “Notorious RBG,” Sanders fandom combines “admiration for progressive conviction with a slightly condescending fondness for cranky senior citizens.” Sanders is, per the New York Times, “your cool socialist grandpa.”
There are lots of reasons why Bernie might out-cool Hillary: He’s more progressive, he’s a long-shot, and he’s so new to national celebrity that he has the luxury of being introduced to the world as a solidly “authentic” political specimen. But there’s also one last thing. It’s difficult to imagine a 74-year-old woman who yells all of her opinions and refuses to brush her hair being embraced by pundits for her “refreshing” and “authentic” look. American culture does not exactly appreciate the image of the “authentic” older woman, but boy does it hate the older woman who strains to stay relevant. Sanders is six years Hillary’s senior, but somehow, the cool looks better on him. One Twitter observer sized up Sanders’ and Clinton’s personas and put it this way: