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“Protect RBG” memes capture cultural anxiety over the Supreme Court

Ruth Bader Ginsburg received love, spells, and offers of organ donation from social media following her hospitalization.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 1993.
Ron Sachs/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.

With a Supreme Court poised to swing toward the extreme right in the age of Trumpism, news of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s hospitalization after she broke three ribs in a fall has created a stir on social media.

“Notorious RBG,” as Ginsburg is widely known in pop culture, has become a symbolic figure of resistance to many on the left since the 2016 presidential election, praised for her commitment to progressive politics and her resilience. (At age 85, she still works out every day, as chronicled in a breakout summer documentary.)

So once the news of her injury became public, well wishes for her speedy recovery immediately began to appear on Twitter, in an outpouring of love, concern, slight panic, and an abundance of offers to donate ribs or other organs, should she find herself in need of them.

On Thursday’s edition of Late Night, Stephen Colbert devoted a segment of his opening monologue to the meme, chipping in an offer of his own ribs and joking that he’d started a crowdfunding page on “Ribstarter.”

Additionally, in an apparent extension of the way that many women have embraced an alignment of feminism and witchcraft in the era of #MeToo “witch hunts” — and thus encouraged the idea of combatting unpleasant political developments with sorcery — many a conversation was had about protecting Ginsburg though good old-fashioned spell-casting:

Finally, some folks were willing to volunteer a little bit of anything and everything, up to and including protective bouncy houses, to keep Ginsburg safe:

But these responses, while both sweet and thoroughly entertaining, aren’t just about how much people love Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They also capture a very specific and fear-fueled political mood.

RBG’s supporters see her as a bulwark against the potential for profound and disturbing political changes on the Supreme Court

The rapid emergence of the “keep RBG healthy and alive at all costs” call to action isn’t happening just because people like her a lot — even though they do.

In the Trump era, the appointment of federal judges has become a defiantly partisan process, which many legal experts view as a threat to Roe v. Wade, as well as to hard-fought civil rights protections like gay marriage. Since Supreme Court justices are appointed for life, the death of any one of them could lead to a political shift on the court that lasts for decades.

So Ginsburg’s supporters aren’t worried about her health only because they love her, but because she’s one of a dwindling number of progressive justices on a court whose most recent two appointments, both made by President Donald Trump, have been conservative. If any other seat on the Court becomes available while Trump is still in office, the further swinging of the court to the right could have huge ramifications for many decades to come.

Further, many people believe that, as one of the Supreme Court’s longest-serving liberal justices, Ginsburg could well be the only person who can prevent such a rightward shift from happening — if only by virtue of staying alive.

That’s why some progressives have been expressing their general anxiety over the prospect of a Supreme Court without Ginsburg — and their resulting determination to keep her alive by way of sheer willpower — for quite some time.

Of course, no one expects Ginsburg to literally live forever. And it’s not particularly helpful or fair to suggest that her symbolic role as a Supreme Court stalwart is all that matters to the future of the federal court system.

But the social media response to her injury highlights, in a lighthearted way, the anxiety surrounding the issues that so many Americans face in the Trump era, and the general fear among progressives that the reasoned and balanced world they’re used to living in is giving way to a world defined by extremism, fundamentalism, and a rollback of hard-fought social justice victories that span decades. To her fans, Ginsburg isn’t just a judge, but a symbol of a worldview they’re fighting desperately to uphold.

After all, as the saying goes, you can’t spell “truth” without Ruth.