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Chris Honoré: A meme for the West Wing

On June 1, 2017, at 12:01 in the morning, Donald Trump tweeted the following: “Despite the constant negative press covfefe.” The word covfefe had his followers on Twitter and the press reaching for their dictionaries, only to discover that the word — except in Trump’s early morning universe — doesn’t exist. However, since this is the Internet, covfefe quickly became a meme, the word attached to photos and accompanied by text. #Covfefe.

But before continuing, let’s take a moment to define meme, a word that is almost as hard to get your mind around as covfefe. The only difference between the two is that unlike Trump’s post-midnight post, meme is the real deal, coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, “The Selfish Gene.” According to Wikipedia, the word has evolved to mean “... an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols and practices through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or imitable phenomena.”

Perhaps an example is in order, and I’ll offer one that seems uniquely appropriate. If you saw the film “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), I’m sure you recall that iconic scene where Indiana (aka Indy), having retrieved a golden skull from a deep cave, is on his way out. Suddenly he hears something and glances back and sees an enormous round bolder rolling toward him. Suddenly Indy is running for his life as the boulder gets closer and closer, his sense of panic palpable. At the last moment, he reaches the opening in the cave and dives headfirst into sunlight. The massive stone comes to an abrupt halt, unable to fit through the opening.

That’s a meme that resonates. Life is bearing down on you — that seemingly inescapable round boulder. As it turns out, it is applicable to what has been taking place today (actually over the past 15 months but seems much longer) in the White House. Over that period, the West Wing has lost 43 percent of its staff. And we’re not talking janitors or groundskeepers, but high-level denizens of the Trump administration, the most recent being Gary Cohn, the 11th Director of the Economic Council and chief economic advisor to Donald Trump. His departure was policy-related (tariffs on aluminum and steel), hence qualitatively different than, say, Hope Hicks, one of Trump’s closest personal advisers.

It’s an astonishing number of people and each has the Indiana Jones meme attached. It’s not a stretch to imagine Reince Priebus (chief of staff) or Steve Bannon (political strategist) flying head-first out of the cave opening, covered in cobwebs and dust, in truth much relieved to have escaped.

But then there’s the fact that if you’ve been following this train wreck of an administration, it’s impossible not to see events not only as a meme but as an increasingly baroque story so profoundly layered that it’s seemingly impossible to keep up (not to mention exhausting).

The collective chaos and scandal (e.g., Stormy Daniels), which includes the Russian narrative, indeed feels more and more like the Indy meme with Trump running desperately toward the cave opening.

I know: You, the reader, have a life to live, errands to run, work to go to, perhaps children to raise. But over the next months pay close attention. This morality play, aka a reality play, will be riveting. Try not to miss a chapter. We, all of us, are the stakeholders in our democracy and Trump and his enablers (the Republicans in Congress) have made their Faustian bargain and it is party/power before country.

Of course the meme also applies to the press that has done some of the best investigative reporting since Watergate. Keeping the spider web of nefarious players straight requires a program, and it’s the press that has been the collector of dots and then the painstaking connector of dots.

And all the while we wait for Team Mueller to do its work behind the scrim, appearing only briefly to file a grand jury indictment and barely hint at what lies ahead. Meanwhile the Indy meme seems ever more relevant.

— Chris Honoré of Ashland is a Daily Tidings columnist.