Keep Your Political Paws Off Dogs

Kelly Weill
Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast / Photos Getty

It was an Elizabeth Warren video that finally snapped me. In the 31-second clip, the Democratic presidential candidate runs down an Iowa street, arms outstretched, toward a towering inflatable version of her pet golden retriever. Her supporters chant the megalith’s name: “Big! Structural! Bailey!” The whole video has the exact emotional tenor of a hangover dream. 

No, I thought. This dog is entirely too large.

It’s not just Warren’s campaign. Like a 40-foot inflatable, dogs are looming large over our news landscape. America has entered a political moment of Too Much Dog. 

Twice in recent weeks, the internet has lost its mind over the Trump administration’s portrayals of a dog used in a raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that Massachusetts State Police have been testing an internet-famous robotic dog for use in raids on buildings. 

There’s no technical reason to use a robot dog in these operations; police have been using less-endearing robots for years. But the robot police dog, the Trump administration’s display of Conan the ISIS dog, and the Warren campaign’s three-story golden retriever all cast a cutesy veneer over otherwise distressing realities: police overreach, endless wars, and endless elections. After all, how can you argue with a dog?

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Dogs can be a deflection on the internet, said Adam Downer, an associate editor at internet trend tracker Know Your Meme.

“You can’t really talk about the CIA’s problems when they’re celebrating a dog, because it’s a dog,” he said. (In a 2017 tweet, the CIA described the “h*ckin’ good dogs” that worked with its agents. “H*ck” is part of a lexicon of dog-centric internet language, but its use by the CIA prompted critics to point out the military’s use of aggressive dogs to abuse prisoners.)

“Everyone loves it. It’s got a cute face. It’s certainly a way to distract from your problems and get a good press cycle.”

So powerful is the figure of the dog online that even questioning their status puts you at risk of a very bad day on Twitter, so let me also deflect and note that I love dogs. When I think about my own dog (his tiny paws! his big big ears!) I get a little weepy. I am, as internet users are expected to be lately, a “dog person.” Dogs are not the issue here. The issue is their growing role as involuntary public relations officials.

Dogs weren’t always the internet’s default animals. For much of the internet’s history, cats reigned supreme. Until mid-2012, web users searched for videos of cats more than any other animal, and until 2010, cats outweighed dogs on Reddit’s animal photo powerhouse r/aww, the Outline reported earlier this year. In late 2017, Merriam-Webster dictionary listed “doggo,” a ubiquitous internet term for dog, as a “word we’re watching.”

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Dogs’ recent ascendancy might say something about paranoia and power on the Trump-era internet. “Goodbye kittehz, hello doggos: Why did the internet’s dog obsession take off in tandem with Trump's rise?” a Salon headline questioned in 2017, positing that perhaps “dogs are just a salve for the anxiety-ridden times that we live in.”

The New York Times suggested last year that while stereotypes of cats as fickle and anarchic mapped onto older, messier models of the internet, obedient dogs are more in line with an increasingly corporatized digital space.

“Think of Twitter, where every dog is a ‘very, very good boy’ and every cat is hellbent on destroying civilization,” the Times proposed, adding that today’s internet “is starting to look more and more like old media, with big companies imposing order, offering convenience, and extracting maximum value.”

We’ve made dogs a symbol of stability and goodwill in unstable and cruel times. Would a giant inflatable tabby cat inspire the same image of dependability as a golden retriever on the campaign trail? Likely not. 

“Liking dogs is the least-controversial opinion on the internet,” Downer noted.

Inevitably, they’ve been trotted out to represent some of the most controversial people on the internet. In late October, President Donald Trump tweeted a picture of “the wonderful dog (name not declassified) that did such a GREAT JOB in capturing and killing the Leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi!”

“Trump was so close to having a good moment when he just posted about the dog. People were like, ‘Oh, he posted about a dog, finally a good tweet that we’re not upset about,’” Downer said, adding that he saw people replying “about how it was the only good thing he’d ever tweeted.”

The sentiment was remarkable, given Trump’s wild unpopularity with half the internet, the thorny history of U.S. military operations in the Middle East, and people’s general objection to dogs being placed in harm’s way. But the dog picture was just cute enough for bipartisan consensus. 

The dog, whose name was later revealed to be Conan, cropped up repeatedly in the news in the following weeks, first when Trump tweeted a picture of Conan photoshopped over a Medal of Honor recipient, and a second time when the Trump administration held a press conference with Conan. Although Trump was in the midst of impeachment proceedings and a scandal over the dismissal of a Navy chief, Conan became a viral topic, in part because the Trump administration gave mixed messages about the dog’s gender.

Dogs don’t even need to have a gender to act as a proxy for power. Late last month, Massachusetts State Police were revealed to have used the famous robotic dog “Spot” to enter homes in bomb squad operations. Developed by Boston Dynamics, Spot is internet-famous for its realistic ability to frolic like a biological dog. Promotional videos of Spot bounding around to “Uptown Funk” make me unsure whether I want to scratch its chrome belly or clutch my flesh-and-bone pup for dear life.

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Although Boston Dynamics prohibits the weaponization of its Spot machines, police have previously used robots to controversial effect. In 2016, police killed a sniper with an explosive-loaded robot, the first time one of the machines was used to kill

But Spot is designed to appear more lovable. Although the robot is functionally similar to the one that killed a sniper, Spot “feels different,” and kicking it would feel weird, one robotics expert told WBUR. Civil liberties watchdogs are already concerned what Spot might do with the dog-like motions that once charmed the internet.

"During the Civil Rights Movement, dogs were turned against civilians in ways that really violated people's basic civil rights and civil liberties for things like the freedom of association, freedom to dissent and to protest and to gather without fearing that you might be tracked by a robotic dog," Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts told CNN.

Dogs don’t have any politics besides the views we project on them. Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, has been critical of police overreach in her own state. It’s easy to imagine Big Structural Bailey and Spot duking it out in the streets of Boston, giant inflatable paws swiping at puppy-shaped metal.

In a culture that insists we must love dogs, these partisan pups can be a balm to either side of an embattled America. The Nevada GOP banked on that when they started selling a Conan shirt shortly after Trump tweeted the dog’s picture. Warren’s campaign site even sells pet gear: Bailey bandannas, Bailey dog collars, and a “PURR-SIST” cat collar for good measure.

For all the puppy love, only the cat collars are sold out.

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