Dirt: Pritzker Memes
"It's not that deep."
Wearing a tailored suit (though no tie), Illinois’ billionaire governor JB Pritzker is already a bit out of place in a school hallway. As he surveys the area—a makeshift COVID vaccine clinic at a high school near Chicago—he attempts to give a compliment equivalent to “I love what you’ve done with the place!”
Everything from the TV cameras to the gaggle of other elected officials in the cramped hallway makes the scene wholly unnatural, which Pritzker matches with his awkward, stilted praise.
“Well, great. This is awesome and I love the spacing out,” the governor says, seemingly grasping at straws. “You’ve got it all worked out. You’re in a relatively small area, which is (pause) phenomenal.”
But superimposed above Pritzker’s head are 23 words that transform the otherwise forgettable 10-second video clip: “When your boy just broke up with his girlfriend and you go to his new 75 sq. ft. apartment for the first time.”
It’s the first @pritzkermemes TikTok video I saw back in early December when the newly created account broke through to those of us in the world of Illinois government and politics. And after eight years of covering this stuff, I immediately wondered if the account was a creation of Pritzker’s re-election campaign; it’s not outside the realm of possibility for a politician to hire some Gen Z kid to play up his “dad” image on a platform that’s far outpacing any other social media among young people—a voting bloc that has been low-participation for decades.
Behind this suspicion was my grand unified theory of voters’ learned expectation of personality in their politicians: Whether it’s Donald Trump’s weird humor and mean streak or variations on the #YasssQueen #BossBitch vibes of Nancy Pelosi, performed personality is both an extremely powerful tool wielded by campaigns and a corrosive force in American politics.
The way we consume news and media has warped perceptions of what voters should want in a leader. Voters have been habituated to want a connection to politicians they favor akin to the connection felt with a favorite TV character.
Turns out I was wrong…but also a little bit right. The TV character thing? The creators of the @pritzkermemes account describe Pritzker’s invented persona in their TikToks as a sort of “Michael Scott” from The Office. But the four 20-something dudes behind the account — who, for the record, are all over the ideological spectrum —have nothing to do with the campaign, and have really only learned about Illinois politics through osmosis while mining video footage of endless press conferences for more content.
In an interview with two of the four guys behind @pritzkermemes, they told me they’d started making the memes as an inside joke for their group chat in early 2020—before Pritzker would become a fixture on Illinoisans’ TVs via daily COVID updates early in the pandemic. In the invented world of their group chat, Pritzker is the perfect vehicle for a character so unlike the real governor.
“There's no reason for someone his age to be talking about, you know, his crushes…trying to send risky texts,” they said of the governor’s alter ego, who always seems to be overstaying his welcome at bars on Chicago’s north side.
When I ask a few different ways for the creators to reflect on any deeper meaning to the Pritzker character’s penchant for partying—was it because they missed socializing when bars were closed for COVID?—they finally have to make it plain for me: “I hate to say it but we're—there's very little thought [put] into it,” one laughs. “It's not that deep.”
One thing that does lend itself to Pritzker being particularly memeworthy? The governor’s careful manner of speaking.
“Every single politician just has like kind of political speak, they don't want to shoot themselves in the foot,” the creators told me. “And taking that out of context when they're trying so hard not to be taken out of context is what makes it funny.”
Comments on many of the TikToks seem to come from users outside of Illinois who have no idea who Pritzker is but still say the @pritzkermemes account is their favorite. The creators say they love that—and also laugh at people who use the comment section to fight about actual Illinois policy and Pritzker’s performance as governor.
I told the guys that Pritzker is aware of the account and has seen some of the TikToks, though his press secretary said some of the jokes go over his head. The creators seemed most excited about that and had one request: that they’d someday get a shoutout from the governor at one of the press conferences that make @pritzkermemes possible. — Hannah Meisel
The Dirt: Please Pritzker, we’ve been so good!
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