Wednesday, July 17, 2024

The Kamala Harris Social-Media Blitz Did Not Just Fall Out of a Coconut Tree

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Among the many videos of Kamala Harris that have recirculated heavily on social media in the past, momentous week, one has defined the conversation above the rest. In the clip, the Vice-President quotes her mother, the late cancer researcher Shyamala Gopalan Harris. “You think you just fell out of a coconut tree?” Harris asks, surrendering to one of her famous belly laughs. (Harris’s laugh often intimates that something almost incapacitating in its delightfulness and absurdity has just occurred, and that she may or may not get around to explaining what it is.) Then Harris returns to her—and her mother’s—point: “You exist in the context of all in which you live and what came before you.” In other words, your substance is dependent on your surroundings and on your place in a time line, and is therefore mutable. Your meaning, to yourself and others, is never fixed, always contingent.

“Coconut tree” is perhaps the best-known entry in the Kamala Harris meme treasury not least because the phrase is inveterately funny—it’s Harry Nilsson doing goofy voices after too much rum and a bonk on the head. Elsewhere in the trove, you can find Harris gushing about her love of Venn diagrams or pantomiming how to season a Thanksgiving turkey or even doing a goofy voice of her own. At times, the Vice-President’s orations hover between mantra and filibuster: “It is time for us to do what we have been doing. And that time is every day.” At other junctures, she attains an Oprah-fied astral plane of abstract inspiration: “We have the ability to see what can be, unburdened by what has been, and then to make the possible actually happen.” This last maxim has proved to be a remarkably flexible rhetorical flourish, popping up in Harris’s prepared remarks, with only mild variations, at events that have included a forum on clean transit, a roundtable on semiconductors, and celebrations of National Hispanic Heritage Month and Women’s History Month; she most recently dropped it about a week ago, at a campaign fund-raiser at Rob Reiner’s house. The Republican National Committee put together a four-minute supercut of Harris repeating the line, which, over time, begins to take on an incantatory quality.

For years, these artifacts have mostly served as evidence of Harris’s supposed unseriousness. In her first spring in office, Harris made a defining misstep when she biffed a crucial interview with Lester Holt of MSNBC. (Sample quote: “We’ve been to the border. So this whole, this whole, this whole thing about the border. We’ve been to the border. We’ve been to the border.”) In the years that followed, Harris had little luck—or, to be fair, help from the White House—in wresting control of a media narrative that has portrayed her as flailing, devoid of professional purpose, a bad manager, a bit of a kook. Not yet a year into her tenure, CNN ran the headline “Exasperation and dysfunction: Inside Kamala Harris’ frustrating start as vice president.” By February of last year, the Times declared, “Kamala Harris Is Trying to Define Her Vice Presidency. Even Her Allies Are Tired of Waiting.”

According to the Times article, in the doom-laden weeks and months leading up to the 2022 midterms, “a quiet panic set in among key Democrats about what would happen if President Biden opted not to run for a second term.” Harris, who could have been positioned as Biden’s heir apparent, was not widely seen as a viable candidate. The Democrats’ surprisingly strong showing in those elections seemed to sew up the question of whether Biden would run again. What remained mostly unacknowledged, though, is that even the best midterm result cannot reverse the aging process.

Then, last week, came the excruciating debacle of Biden’s infirm, confused, and incoherent debate performance against Donald Trump. All at once, the context changed. The Kamala canon reconstituted itself: the embarrassing supercut became the buoyant fancam. Within days of the debate, as shocked Democrats came to terms with what they’d collectively denied and now could not unsee about Biden’s fitness for office, and as speculation intensified about the Party’s succession crisis, my social-media feeds were suddenly lined with coconut trees. Dazed and faintly giddy Dems wandered through tweets and TikToks, existing in the context of a compounded democratic emergency, a coconut under each arm. Talking on the phone with a friend going through a mild work conflict, I found myself saying, somehow, “That’s not a coconut tree you want to fall out of.”

The vaguely hallucinatory near-consensus formed that Harris, little more than a gaffe-prone afterthought for most of the Biden Presidency, was now perhaps the prow of the Republic’s ship. This state of affairs did not have the air of nervous voters ginning up manufactured excitement for a subpar candidate. But it wasn’t necessarily full-throated support of Harris, either. Instead, it seemed to represent a widespread recognition that Biden cannot govern, and that the whole point of being the Vice-President is to be the President’s backup. An open convention would create sub-Sorkin pandemonium. The Democrats have a ticket and Harris is on it. You go to war with the coconut trees you have.

Meanwhile, the “quiet panic” about Harris’s electability may be unfounded. On Thursday, the Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky, appearing on MSNBC, pointed out that “the backbone of this party are Black women and voters of color”; Harris’s numbers are strong among these groups, and also with young voters over all. On Thursday, Axios reckoned that securing Biden’s endorsement would give Harris an “epic edge,” rendering her “unbeatable.” Harris’s political acumen may be underestimated: she has built a foreign-policy portfolio under the media radar, and she was out in front of the White House in realizing that reproductive rights would be a winning issue for Democrats in the midterms. Her passion on this issue is especially vital under a President who refuses to say the word “abortion” and who, in one of many horrifying exchanges during the debate, turned a softball question about the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs into a garbled anecdote about immigrant rapists that might as well have come from the mind of Trump.

Harris has always enjoyed vehement admiration from her Internet army of fans, known as the KHive. But a weirdly moving element of the recent explosion of Vice-Presidential content is that a lot of it has been powered by what I would describe—with the utmost fondness—as irony-poisoned, largely unreconstructed Bernie bros, some of whom were engaged in what might be termed benign shitposting. For “Chapo Trap House” ’s first post-debate episode, the podcasters layered their Gucci Mane theme song with an extract of Harris’s “what can be, unburdened by what has been” speech. On Twitter, Emma Vigeland, a co-host of the left-leaning radio show “Majority Report,” paired the iconic images of Nicole Kidman looking ecstatic on the day of her divorce from Tom Cruise with the caption “Me, shedding my toxic Bernie Bro baggage and embracing the warmth of Momala’s embrace beneath the coconut tree.” Much as progressives in Congress rarely receive credit for vigorously advocating on behalf of President Biden’s policy objectives, the terminally online meme lords who were sharing Kamala dancecams will likely not be acknowledged for their contributions in seeding wider energy and enthusiasm for Harris across social media.

Several in this cohort noticed the affinity between the “coconut tree” proverb and one of Karl Marx’s greatest bangers: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” The quotation is from “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” published in 1852, and captures the terrifying, zombified gerontocracy of our American political moment with ghoulish accuracy. But the line that precedes it might have squared even better with what Shyamala Gopalan Harris intended in her original invocation of the coconut tree: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” ♦

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