This is officially my favorite election cycle of all time.
Last week, Public Policy Polling issued an unsurprising report on the North Carolina electorate. Donald Trump continues to lead the Republican field with 24 percent after an eight-point gain earned him the "biggest momentum in the state over the last month." Hillary Clinton continues to own the Democratic field, with 55 percent in the polls to Bernie Sanders’ meager 19 percent. But buried at the bottom of an otherwise predictable polling report is a glimmer of hope: Independent candidate Deez Nuts is polling at nine percent in North Carolina, as well as eight percent in Minnesota and seven percent in Iowa.
Deez Nuts’ story is a wholly American one. He's actually Brady Olsen, a high school-aged farm boy from Wallingford, Iowa, who filed with the Federal Election Commission as a practical joke (with his parents' blessing, of course). The name itself—a slang term for one's testicles—has long been the stuff of Internet legend, thanks in large part to countless memes and viral bait-and-switch videos. Based on interviews with Olsen, it appears he's playing for keeps. "I really didn't want to see Clinton, Bush, or Trump in the White House," Olsen told Rolling Stone, "so I guess I'm just trying to put up a fight."
Deez Nuts' "candidacy" is part of a lovely American tradition in electoral politics: the modern protest vote.
It is impossible to read the straight-faced coverage of Deez Nuts and not crack a smile, especially with the ongoing circus of the Trump presidency wearing thin. Deez Nuts is exactly what America needs in this election cycle; Americans can't get enough of Deez Nuts; Deez Nuts will never get old. The headlines basically write themselves. And the spectacle isn't going to die down anytime soon: Public Policy Polling director Tom Jensen told the New York Times that he planned to include Deez Nuts in New Hampshire polls over the weekend and in a national survey this week. "The next step is to get some party nominations, like the Minnesota Independence Party or the Modern Whig Party," Olson told the Daily Beast. "It would also be great to find a VP, preferably [Limberbutt] McCubbins"—a cat that’s also polling in North Carolina—"because the Nuts/McCubbins ticket sounds amazing."
But while Deez Nuts can't be taken seriously as a viable presidential candidate—under Article II of the Constitution, Brady won’t even be eligible until 2035, although Brady's convinced that an electoral victory might shame Congress into amending the Constitution—the instant phenomenon of his "candidacy" is part of a lovely American tradition in electoral politics: the modern protest vote.
Deez Nuts isn't the only fictive force to capture the public imagination. An actual gorilla by the name Willie B. earned 390 votes in a 1960 Georgia congressional race; Pigasus J. Pig ran as a write-in candidate against Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election; Miss Piggy and Mary Tyler Moore were contenders on the Connecticut ballot in the 1980 presidential election; DuPage County, Illinois, voters favored Frank Zappa, Nancy Reagan, and Jesus Christ over George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis in 1988; and in 2012, Jesus received more presidential votes than Hillary Clinton or Jon Huntsman in Travis County, Texas. (The Texas Tribune notes that Tupac Shakur didn’t do so well.)
The absurdist protest vote is partially a product of the populist-bureaucratic regime of American governance, which grew out of the turmoil of the Great Depression. American politics after 1932 is considered populist by historians because public affairs became increasingly shaped by a burgeoning mass media and other outside voices, and bureaucratic because of the emphasis on an ever-expanding ecosystem of New Deal agencies that created a sprawling network of political power where those voices could find footholds (think of the relationship between the environmental movement and the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, or literally any online shaming campaign you've ever seen). Coincidentally, it was the New York mayoral race of 1932 that marked the first appearance of Mickey Mouse, the then-four-year-old anthropomorphic rodent and future fixture of American iconography, on a ballot (both Mouse and Al Capone only received a single vote, sadly). Since then, we've seen all aspects of civil society—from Greenpeace to the National Rifle Association—leave their mark on American political discourse as channels for the populist spirit they endeavor to embody.
The success of Deez Nuts says, "Ha, nothing matters."
That populism has been especially amplified today, both within the "conventional" political discourse and outside of it; the latter manifested by the instant popularity of Deez Nuts. Candidates like Trump and Sanders are modern updates of the populist-minded "authenticity" that catapulted William Jennings Bryan to the national stage at the turn of the 20th century. They serve as alternatives for voters frustrated by the political dynasties of the Houses Bush and Clinton. Trump's bizarro surge is the most indicative of this mindset. Consider, per the New York Times, that Trump "leads among women, despite having used terms like 'fat pigs' and 'disgusting animals' to denigrate some of them."
But whereas Trump and Sanders attract voters who still hold, despite the outsized impact of money in politics, some level of faith in the electoral influence, the success of Deez Nuts says, "Ha, nothing matters." It's the political equivalent of culture jamming, a modern protest vote perfect for a campaign season in the Internet age. In some ways, a vote for Deez Nuts is a more salient form of protest than abstention, since modern political strategists actually count on voters staying home in defiance and opting out of the system entirely, which is in itself cynical and disappointing.
While Deez Nuts follows in the long, vibrant tradition of Mickey Mouse as rejection of our political status quo, his uniquely outsized response speaks volumes to the Internet's mediating role in the populism wrought by the beginning of America's modern political regime. The rise of social media as a powerful voice for that modern populism has basically become a given for both political figures and private persons. It's also, however, the media's dependence on social media for influence and revenue (Facebook just passed Google as the top referrer for digital news sites) that makes outlets from the New York Times to BuzzFeed essential nodes in propagating this protest.
There's a general malaise in the American electorate that makes Deez Nuts so appealing. American trust in government is at an all-time low, especially with regards to the much-despised Congress, and people aren't all that confident in the electoral college. Even when they get candidates they do like, Americans think the influx of donations into political campaigns is a huge problem. This is great for candidates like Lawrence Lessig, who wants to run single-issue campaigns in the service of the body politic, but it also makes Deez Nuts more than a one-night stand. The protest vote is no longer confined to a wink and a nod at voting booths in Illinois and Texas. It's become a matter of national interest. Deez Nuts simply can't be contained.
While speaking to Olsen, Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson broke from the faux-serious candidate interview he'd been conducting and asked the Iowa farm boy the one question on the mind of every American with a Facebook profile: "How far are you willing to take this practical joke?" Olsen's response: "As far as America wants to take it." Like his testicular forebears, the rapid descent of Deez Nuts is inevitable. But until then, rest assured: For an electorate exhausted by the predictability and dishonesty of their political leaders, this won't be the last America's heard—or seen—of Deez Nuts.