After the Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina last weekend, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was represented by none other than Killer Mike. While it's pretty standard for campaigns to send proxies in to wrangle reporters, those proxies usually don't include a a self-described "Pan-Africanist gangster rapper" who's released music with everyone from Andre 3000 to Zack de la Rocha and makes up one half of the acclaimed underground hip-hop duo Run the Jewels.
But Mike worked the room with the political pros, comparing his candidate to the Beastie Boys and Martin Luther King, Jr., and gamely humoring the political press corps by announcing he'd become a Sanders supporter while "smokin' a joint, reading his tweets."
There's no two ways about it—sending Killer Mike into the spin room made Bernie Sanders seem cool. Damn cool. It lined right up with the straight-shooting, no-fucks-given attitude that's characterized Sanders' unlikely White House bid, and helped the Democratic socialist surge ahead of Hillary Clinton in the latest Iowa and New Hampshire polls. And Mike isn't the only rapper who's lent his cred and cool to the Sanders campaign. As a recent New York Times piece noted, the Vermont Senator has also received endorsements from such artists as Big Boi, Bun B, and Lil B.
According to Times reporter Jonah Bromwich (an occasional VICE contributor), when he reached out to the Clinton campaign for comment on these endorsements, a "Clinton aide emphasized Mrs. Clinton's support among African-Americans and named African-American artists who are supporting her campaign, including Snoop Dogg, Usher and Waka Flocka Flame."
The response is telling. Yes, the aide did indeed name black hip-hop artists supporting the candidate—but the similarities with the Sanders supporters Bromwich mentions end there. Which is to say, Killer Mike, Bun B, Lil B, and Big Boi are unequivocally looked at as political voices and thought leaders in their local communities.
Meanwhile, rap legend though he may be, Snoop Dogg is largely viewed as a sentient weed joke these days, and no one is looking to Usher for his views on politics. As for Waka Flocka, the Atlanta brawl-rapper's endorsement of Clinton seems to have been a bizarre joke that the media seized hold of and ran with. Originally, Flocka claimed that he himself would run for president in 2016; when he finally did endorse Clinton, he did it on the condition that she return the favor, and help push his new album, Flockaveli 2.
That Clinton's aide failed to grasp these differences is not particularly surprising: "Cool" has never really been part of Hillary's brand. But it also underscores the superficial, almost shameless way the campaign approaches minority voter outreach, pandering to the different identity groups under the Democratic Party umbrella, as if they are demographic boxes to be checked off on a spreadsheet (which, of course, they likely are).
Recently, this pander-machine seems to have gone into overdrive. In the past month alone, Clinton has hit the dab on Ellen, sparked a backlash on Black Twitter for making aKwanzaa-themed Twitter avatar, and drawn virtual eyerolls from Latino voters for a campaign blog post listing all the ways Hillary is "like your abuela."
Less offensive, but no more subtle, are the millennial-baiting totebags, reaction gifs, Lena Dunham Instagram-takeovers, GOP Star Wars villain listicles, and requests that Twitter followers describe their student loan debt in "3 emojis or less." There are "Yaaas, Hillary" t-shirts, #yas-hashtagged photo-ops with the girls of Broad City, and spiritually-yassed "More like Chillary Clinton, AMIRITE?" koozies, neatly accompanied by a video of the Cool Mom Candidate awkwardly saying the word "chillin'."
One more thing about that "Yaaas" t-shirt, before we banish it into the the back of our minds forever—it's actually part of a line of Hillary Clinton merch labeled the "pride" collection. The irony, that Clinton was once against gay marriage and now panders to LGBTQ voters by doing stuff like selling "Yaaas" t-shirts, is stark, but has never been pointed out as cuttingly as when she was counter-memed by the venerable @WorldStarFunny:
At best, the Yass memes, dabbles in dabbing, and rotating avatar colors feel forced, making Clinton seem less like a unifying leader, and more like Amy Poehler playing Regina George's mom in Mean Girls, desperately beseeching voters to like her by trying to act Young and Cool. At worst, they underscore the perception that Clinton is inauthentic, and suggest her campaign is so convinced she is entitled to the Democratic nomination that it doesn't feel the need to communicate with voters in any meaningful way.
Image via hillaryclinton.com
Of course, this type of pandering isn't unusual, and is in fact expected of politicians, particularly those running for president. Michael Munger, a political science professor at Duke University (whose son Kevin has contributed to VICE properties in the past), points out that there's not much difference between Hillary hitting the dab on Ellen and Bill Clinton hitting the sax on The Arsenio Hall Show back in 1992. The problem for Hillary, Munger said, is that her campaign's gimmicky voter outreach seems to have taken the place of a broader argument for her candidacy.
"Clinton either can't be bothered or just isn't able to come up with principles that unify the interest groups that are stitched together into the Democratic coalition," Munger said. In lieu of a unifying message or a vision for the country, her campaign seems to be courting individual groups piecemeal, in ways that show little actual interest in the unique issues each group faces. The campaign is all signifier, nothing signified.
"When it's that obvious," Munger added, "it really turns people off."
Indeed, the 2016 election may very well go down in the DMs of history as one in which authenticity won out over experience and resources in the minds of American voters, a trend borne out by the surprising success of Sanders and Donald Trump—two candidates who, despite their ideological differences, share an almost pathological inability to be anything other than themselves.
"You see the pendulum swinging towards this 'internet candidate,' somebody who can actually engage in a conversation with voters," says Josh Uretsky, who until December served as the national data director of Bernie Sanders' campaign. "Candidates have to deal with more questions that have to be managed in a different way. They don't have as much ability to control the narrative."
Clinton, like most successful presidential candidates, is all about controlling the narrative. But her attempts to package herself as the candidate of the Young and Cool have mostly succeeded in making her look craven and out of touch. Sanders, meanwhile, has genuinely become the candidate of the young and cool simply by virtue of not trying to be anything other than himself. Nowhere is this contrast more apparent than in his relationship with Killer Mike. Because despite the obvious cool factor that the rapper adds to Sanders' campaign, their budding political bromance has always been exactly what it looks like: A 74-year-old Democratic Socialist from Vermont sitting down with a Pan-Africanist gangster rapper from Atlanta, and listening.
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