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CNN says who michael cohen
CNN/YouTube screenshot
Technically it would be “says whom?”
ALL OF THEM

“Says who?”: The anatomy of a perfect political meme

By Adam Epstein

On Wednesday, Aug. 17, something great happened.

Michael Cohen is an attorney and executive vice president for the Trump Organization. Sometimes, he appears on television to speak for Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president of the United States. Wednesday was one such day: Cohen appeared on CNN to answer questions from anchor Brianna Keilar about the Trump campaign’s latest shakeup. What followed was the genesis of the year’s best political meme to date.

“You guys are down.”

“Says who?”

“Polls. Most of them. All of them?”

[long pause]

“Says who?”

“Polls. I just told you, I answered your question.”

“Okay. Which polls?”

“All of them.”

“Okay.”

The entire exchange played out like an alternate universe “Who’s on first?” routine, or a scene from Waiting for Godot, if it were staged by Saturday Night Live writers. Unsurprisingly, it immediately took off on social media.

#SaysWho? is but a single meme in a sea of popular memes from the 2016 US presidential election. Ted Cruz, for instance, could be the Zodiac killer. And then there was the video of Jeb Bush asking a room full of his supporters to ”please clap.” Sad!

Like Cruz-as-Zodiac and “Please Clap,” the CNN “Says Who?” exchange is likely to stick around for awhile—perhaps longer than any other American political meme of the campaign season. Here’s why:

The quotable catch phrase

Some of the internet’s longest running memes are just words or phrases extracted from something else, often a video. There’s “Haters gonna hate,” “Don’t tase me bro,” “Imma let you finish,” “Winning,” “Boom goes the dynamite,” “Hide yo kids, hide yo wife,” “Double rainbow all the way,” “Leeroy Jenkins”—you get the point. “Says who?” gets the job done.

The cultural comparison

In this case, the Cohen’s appearance on CNN seems straight out of Arrested Development, the cult comedy series that originally aired on Fox and was revived by Netflix. In the show, the patriarch of a wealthy family is arrested for what he calls “light treason” (his company built homes for Saddam Hussein in Iraq). His attorney is the hilariously incompetent Barry Zuckerkorn (played by Henry Winkler), who not only looks a bit like Cohen but also frequently says things that inspire incredulity (video).

…which brings us to our next point:

The total incredulity of CNN anchor Brianna Keilar

Had Keilar played this differently, this exchange probably never even see the light of day. The way she says “polls” and then “all of them” so flatly, as if she can’t believe she even has to say the words, is ultimately what gives the clip its comedic value. A similar situation happened on MSNBC just a week ago, when anchor Kate Snow was literally rendered speechless (video) by Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson’s attempt to rationalize Trump’s statement that “Second Amendment people” could do something about Hillary Clinton appointing judges.

“Says who” encapsulates the entire dynamic of Trump’s campaign

It’s easy to look at ”Says who?” as a lens onto how the Trump campaign views polls. Dating back to the beginning of the Republican primaries, Trump has boasted of polls that show him in the lead, even while he ignored polls that show he’s losing.

Trump’s current numbers are so bad that many of his supporters have created new, “unskewed” polls to give their candidate a more favorable outcome. Cohen’s childish repetition of “says who?” when confronted with actual evidence that Trump is down might seem funny to us, but it’s exactly how the campaign has approached the race since the very beginning.