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“Before the #liberals” is the latest entry in Twitter’s evolving absurdist meme trend

The toppling of a Confederate monument led to a celebration of statues that deserve similar treatment.

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.

In the ongoing meme war between conservatives and liberals, Twitter has become a frequent battleground. But the dismantling of a Confederate statue by a group of protesters on Monday in Durham, North Carolina, has kicked off a back and forth that’s become all too familiar of late: a tweet full of conservative outrage being immediately hijacked by bemused liberals and progressives who then transform it into an expression of sheer absurdity.

In this instance, the catalyst was a tweet by actor James Woods, who saw the toppling of a racist statue as tantamount to the toppling of democracy itself:

Its mix of exaggerated patriotism and hand-wringing, along with the oddly hashtagged #liberals,” made Woods’s tweet prime joke fodder. And many of the responses quickly entered the realm of absurdity:

Such a response quickly became so routine that some people didn’t even bother to paste the whole text of the meme:

The ever-expanding collection of statues that’ve been referenced in the meme is truly, delightfully bizarre, with works ranging from the weird to the much weirder to the perverse to the hideous to the provocative to the completely WTF. If nothing else, the meme is a fun reminder of how versatile art can be.

But it also has a lot in common with other recent Twitter memes, like the “Future that liberals want” meme or the “nothing but respect for MY president” meme. Both of those earlier memes also originated from a single tweet that went viral more for its exaggerated outrage than for people supportively retweeting its contents.

And both of them, like this new statue meme, generated reactions in a specific format: the copying and pasting of the original text alongside immediately ridiculous and over-the-top images meant to reflect that exaggerated outrage.

There are plenty of Twitter memes that function around recontextualizing quotes — for example, the progressive "she persisted" meme. But the theme that characterizes this particular meme trend seems to be the equating of conservative outrage with complete and utter absurdity. The more sober the original tweet is, the more hilariously unlikely its corresponding memeification is likely to be.

The “future that liberals want” meme might as well have been a template for this structure: You start with sincere outrage — with “the future that liberals want,” it was a dismissive quip about a photo of a drag queen sitting next to a woman in a niqab on the New York subway — and end up with dramatically manufactured outrage over, for example, an apple holding a sea trident. That’s exactly what we’re seeing with the statue meme, where Woods’s suggestion that the removal of Confederate statues throughout the US will inevitably lead to the destruction of a famous memorial honoring Marines has spawned absurd celebrations of all the ridiculous statues, monuments, marketing gimmicks, art installations, and temporary structures that maybe need a good dismantling.

Given that the current political climate seems to make joking about sincerely held views the order of the day, don’t expect the trend to fade anytime soon.