Image credit: @katesparkers

On a list of things you might have predicted were going to happen this Inauguration Day, Senator Bernie Sanders literally busting down the door of the Internet and claiming it as his own was probably not one of them.  

And yet …

The phenomenon that is “Bernie Sanders is Fine With Being at the Inauguration But Needs to Make Sure He Gets to the Post Office Before It Closes” was everywhere. It doesn’t seem to be dying down yet, either. In fact, we’ve now moved onto videos.

In the broader context of America in January 2021, which until now has been pretty much America 2020 but with extra “I’m Not Going Anywhere Energy,” we might think of the Bernie meme as an indication of how radically things have changed just with the departure of the last administration. Literally overnight, we have room to laugh and riff again, because our imaginations and our social feeds are no longer populated with violence, lies, gibberish, and outrage. 

In a sense, the insane popularity of the Bernie meme – which has gone from Put Bernie in Funny Places or on Shows You Love to businesses using him in funny ways and others going for slower burn (pun most definitely intended) turns, is indicative of just how much bandwidth had been consumed with things that are no longer present. As well as being just plain silly, the meme is a sign of hope.

But I think there’s even more to the meme than that. I would argue that  Sanders’s fashion choice was performative much the way the public actions of Pope Francis have been. Sanders’s presentation is an expression of his priorities–not fancy dresses, celebrity chit chat, or self-congratulation, but the work to be done. 

It’s not a crazy analogy: Sanders is an admirer of the Pope and he left the presidential campaign trail in 2016 to take part in a Vatican conference on economic justice. The two men met briefly, and neither dressed special for the occasion, according to reports. 

In the same way, Francis eschewing furs and capes for the simple white is a statement of what it means to be a priest and a Pope, Sanders’s “I Have Coupons for Smart & Final in My Pocket” look is an expression of what it means to be a congressperson right now. 

And also, I would contend, an American. Let’s be honest: our life and jobs right now are hardly big events and concerts on malls. No, they’re ugly gloves that don’t fit right but which we keep wearing because we need them. Or as one person put it:

Sanders is us in what he’s wearing and he’s also what he wants us to be. Again, like our own Catholic master of moments that call us to our best selves, Sanders’s manner at the Inauguration was intended as an invitation. I saw versions of his message over and over on my social feed  – “Today we celebrate, and tomorrow we get to work.”  

Sanders is us in what he’s wearing and he’s also what he wants us to be.

Some wondered after Sanders conceded in the Democratic primaries what kind of support he might offer now-President Joseph Biden. The two have very different visions of what America can and should be. But yesterday they could have put the Sanders meme on a banner and used it as a standard for Biden’s inaugural address. For all its pleas for unity, Biden’s speech was fundamentally a call to service. 

“This is a time of testing,” Biden said. “We must step up. All of us. It is a time for boldness, for there is so much to do. And, this is certain. We will be judged, you and I, for how we resolve the cascading crises of our era. Will we rise to the occasion? Will we master this rare and difficult hour? Will we meet our obligations and pass along a new and better world for our children? I believe we must and I believe we will.” 

With its steady emphasis on the work “we” have to do and our responsibilities to each other, Biden’s address was a Delaware-by-way-of-Scranton Catholic version of “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You.” Save the fancy words for the Knights of Columbus Banquet in June. Right now is the time to roll up our sleeves. 

Days later, we still might be trying to find some other hilarious place to put Bernie. (Although I vote for the dinner line at a Jesuit community, I did find this.)  

I think the fact that we’re doing all that stands as a sign that we agree on one thing: there’s so much to be done. After ten months of being trapped in our homes and four years of feeling trapped by the past administration, we want to put on our bland Target coats and Walgreens eye-rack reading glasses and help out.  

A final note: the only reason that this meme was actually possible was that rather than sit with everyone else, which frankly did not seem terribly safe, Sanders took a chair and sat off by himself. 

In this way, too, may we draw from his example.

Jim McDermott

Jim McDermott, S.J., is a screenwriter, journalist, and Los Angeles correspondent for America.