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Why Ken Bone became America's debate-night darling

We love championing the frumpy underdog in times of cultural distress.

Candidates Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump Hold Second Presidential Debate At Washington University Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

He’s beauty, he’s grace, he’s Mr. United States — or so the media and social media have dubbed Ken Bone, the red-sweater-clad darling of the second US presidential debate.

Bone was one of the self-declared undecided voters who made up the live audience, who were called upon to contribute questions to the debate’s town hall–style discussion. Bone’s question, which was about energy conservation and job creation, went mostly unheeded by the nation (well, except for Patton Oswalt) once it got a look at the person doing the asking:

Rocking an incongruous combination of badass name and innocuous, Santa-like appearance, Bone was an instant internet sensation and had his own Facebook fan page by the time the debate wrapped. Even Bill Clinton recognized his greatness:

“I went from, last night, having seven Twitter followers, two of which were my grandmother … to now, I have several hundred,” Bone told CNN the morning after his ascension to internet fame.

So what ingredients went into the making of #KennethBone as a meme? It’s one part fashion, two parts cultural zeitgeist.

The red sweater was the product of a wardrobe malfunction

Clad in a cable-knit red sweater over a white shirt, Bone rocked the dad bod look in form as well as fashion as he confidently faced the candidates and the camera on the October 9 debate.

In reality, the look was the result of a wardrobe malfunction. Bone told CNN that he’d intended to wear a “very nice olive suit” to the occasion, but due to an unexpected spate of weight gain, when he got in his car the morning of the debate, “I split the seat of my pants all the way open.” The red sweater, he said, was “Plan B.”

There’s something mythic at core of this anecdote — both in the jocular, unconcerned way Bone reveals it and in the picture it presents. It’s the tale of a true American hero: a luckless everyman who triumphs through plucky optimism despite the obstacle placed in his way. During a vicious debate in which one candidate was perceived by many as menacing,” stalking,” and prowling like a lion around the stage, Bone’s soft, fuzzy red sweater was the cuddly distraction viewers needed.

In other words, the comfy red sweater gave Bone an overinvested, friendly, yet slightly out-of-touch nerdy dad look that made him the hit of the debate. (The disposable camera he whipped out after the debate was over was the crowning touch.)

It’s important to note, however, that this isn’t a fashion statement that just anyone could have pulled off.

In times of cultural crisis, the US likes to celebrate frumpy white guys

This isn’t the first time America has rallied around a frumpy, middle-aged white guy who stole the spotlight during a contentious election. In 2008, Joe Wurzelbacher, a.k.a. “Joe the Plumber,” became an overnight sensation after then-candidate Barack Obama stopped to talk to him about tax breaks while walking down a street in Toledo, Ohio. Following the encounter, Republican candidate Sen. John McCain brought up “Joe the Plumber” repeatedly throughout the next debate, using him as an obvious stand-in for the “everyman” figure of American politics: white, middle-aged, working-class, salt-of-the-earth, and casually interested in where his vote would take him. At times both McCain and Obama spoke to Joe directly, as though he were in the room, as a way of directly addressing the larger working-class populace that Joe had come to represent.

In reality, Wurzelbacher had a tax lien against him at the time he was asking Obama about tax breaks, was not a licensed plumber, had a history of voting Republican, and became a darling of the US conservative movement after the election. But the image he presented at a crucial moment in the election made him, momentarily at least, a stand-in for a confused working- and middle-class public that was emerging from the post-9/11 era of the Bush administration with real, urgent questions about the economy and the stability of its respective classes.

And this isn’t the only time we’ve seen a frumpy middle-aged white guy become a stand-in for cultural anxiety. Earlier this year, Reddit turned a random Philadelphia man who likes to stand over subway grates into an internet superhero. The incident served as a latent cultural commentary on the inherent coolness of aging old white dudes. The way redditors celebrated “Subway Vent Guy’s” ubiquitous Hawaiian shirt and laid-back attitude predicted the way the internet reacted to Ken Bone’s casual appearance and don’t-care style: Sure, some people were doing it ironically, with a touch of mockery, but most of the fad’s participants — Reddit tracked the man down and set up a webcam across the street from his preferred subway vent — seemed to genuinely want to celebrate a chill dude with no fucks given.

Similarly, throughout the summer and fall, New Yorkers have been responding to the city’s politically charged “See Something, Say Something” campaign by diverting discussion about the racial profiling inherent in the slogan into an alternate celebration of one of the ad campaign’s stars: a white, middle-aged lawyer named Gregg T. The Gregg T. meme has allowed its participants a way to talk around the racially charged implications of “See Something, Say Something” while giving the city an ironic, easily recognizable hero to embrace and/or lovingly mock — much like the city lovingly mocks the slogan itself.

The “frumpy underdog” allows us to distract ourselves from real cultural anxieties

Ken Bone fits the pattern expressed in these memes: We celebrate the frumpy underdog — Barb from Stranger Things also falls obviously into this category, as, arguably, does Harambe — while self-consciously allowing them to serve as a distraction from other issues. Sure, an alarming percentage of the nation might be prepared to elect as president a man who presents as a racist, warmongering, misogynist, tax-dodging, sexual assault perpetrator, but Ken Bone looks just like the toy collector from Toy Story 2!

But if Ken Bone the internet meme is serving as a distraction from unpleasant politics for the rest of the country, the real Ken Bone is focused: “I don't know why they care what I have to say,” he said to CNN regarding his newfound followers, “but I'm glad they're engaged in the political process." Spoken like a true political hero, Ken.

And hey — at least one fan had the right political takeaway.

Bone on, Ken. Bone on.

Watch: Debates are broken and here’s how to fix them