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Obama Zombies and Rhetorical (Dis)Identifications in an Era of Dog Whistle Politics and Political Polarization

By Laurie Gries1

When it comes to playing out contemporary anxieties in imagetextual form, zombies have become a resilient and reliable figure in popular culture. As evident in a wide range of films, television shows, video games, and other cultural artifacts, these blood-craving and flesh-munching creatures have invaded popular culture to address a wide array of concerns ranging from depression era economics (White Zombie) to pandemics (World War Z) to fascism (The Fourth Reich) to consumer capitalism (The Dawn of the Dead). In many popular culture appearances, the zombie can be understood to represent society’s fear of the utter and mass chaos that would unfold as a result of people’s inability to cope with a sudden catastrophe or enormous change to the status quo (Robb). However, zombies do not just represent and respond to contemporary anxieties; from a rhetorical perspective, zombies also act as a mediating agent in perpetuating anxieties to forward specific agendas.

Such rhetorical power of zombies is not new. Historically, as Amy Wilentz has argued, zombies served as a rhetorical device for keeping slaves alive and under control. As she explains in “A Zombie is a Slave Forever,” slaves under French rule in Haiti often considered suicide as a viable plan of escape from a life of servitude on sugar plantations. The zombie, a figure deriving from old African beliefs, terrified slaves because it meant that servitude would last forever, that they would become immortal slaves. Slave drivers, Wilentz explains, were often slaves themselves and occasionally even Voodoo priests. They “used this fear of zombification to keep recalcitrant slaves in order and to warn those who were despondent not to go too far.” This rhetorical strategy not only helped keep slaves alive, but, as Achille Mbembe might argue, in a “state of injury, a phantom-like world of horrors and intense cruelty and profanity” (21).

Today, while zombie rhetorics do not seem to operate in such explicit and directed ways, zombies do play a rhetorical role in shaping contemporary attitudes and actions. Most visibly, perhaps, zombies appear in a wide range of print and television advertisements to sell everything from data services (Sprint) to hardware (Ace) to automobiles (Honda) and mailing services (FedEx). Zombies have also worked in local campaigns to encourage recycling, discourage drug use, and raise funds for non-profits such as the United Way. In 2011 and 2012, zombies even appeared in media campaigns produced by the Center for Disease Control and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to encourage citizen-preparedness in the face of threats such as hurricanes, pandemics, earthquakes, and terrorism.

In recent years, zombies have also surfaced in diverse rhetorical forms to comment on a wide range of political issues. As evident in Henry Giroux’s Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism, the rhetorical deployment of zombie politics has surfaced in left-leaning complaints about economic inequality, corporate power, and an ever-increasing corporate state. For Giroux, zombies have become a quintessential metaphor for contemporary U.S. American politics. Zombies signify, at least for him, “the arrival of a revolting politics with a ravenous appetite for promoting human suffering and hardship” (32). Coined after John Quiggin’s work with zombie economics, zombie politics also commonly refers to political ideas that have become so entrenched in conventional wisdom that they cannot be easily dislodged (Sides). As John Sides from The American Prospect explains, it doesn’t matter what credible data or published research says, or what this blogger or that blogger claims; when it comes to zombie politics, “even though ideas are dead, they just can’t be killed.” While the term zombie politics has been deployed in reference to Obama’s fiscal budgets, it is perhaps most visibly at play in contemporary debates about health care in which “Obamacare” is discussed as a zombie policy. Some have even gone so far as to rename President Obama’s health care legislation “Zombie Obamacare.”

Figure 1: Cover of President Evil, Issue 1. Cover by Brian Denham.
Figure 2: Panel from President Evil, Issue 1. Ba-rot Obama, Sarah Paladin, and John McPain mid-battle with Zombies. Art and Story David Hutchison.
Figure 3: Panel from President Evil, Issue 2. Art and Story David Hutchison. Bar-ot Obama Punching Zombies with help from Sarah Paladin and John McPain. Art and Story David Hutchison.
Figure 4: Panel from President Evil, Issue 3. Ba-rot Obama and Bipartisan Team in Press Conference at White House speaking about Efforts to Fend off Zombies. Art and Story by David Hutchison.

Zombies have also been deployed to satirize contemporary politics in political cartoons and comic books. In 2011, for example, Antarctic Press published a comic book series called President Evil created by David Hutchison. In this four book series, produced in the style of American manga, Washington, D.C. has been overtaken by zombies, all of whom have been infected by a virus originating from the swine flu. After being saved from the zombies by his 2008 Republican election opponents, Sarah Palin and John McCain, “Ba-rot” Obama teams up with them, as well as his Democratic opponent Hilary Clinton, to launch a bipartisan attack on the zombies who have threatened Obama’s family. After successfully facing a series of tribulations in a satirical take on American politics (confrontations with undead past presidents, attempted overthrows by “Crush” Limbo, etc.), the series ends with Obama, the hero, finding himself back exactly where he started. Interestingly, this comic book series is just one of many that has been produced as of late featuring Obama, a trend that is worthy of scholarly attention in and of itself. However, President Evil also indicates just how popular zombies have become in generating political criticism. Since Obama has been elected into office, zombies have pervaded the mediasphere to frame political identifications and cast political arguments in all kinds of imagetext forms.

In this hypertext, I zoom in on such Obama-related zombie rhetorics to identify a rhetorical ecology of interrelated circulating imagetexts we might call zombama rhetorics. Drawing on my research with iconographic tracking,2 I trace zombama rhetorics to see how they have emerged in various collectives and interacted with various peoples, discourses, organizations, and practices. Rather than conduct visual rhetorical analysis of a few isolated pictures, I map out a complex network of distributed collective activities and draw conclusions from their actions as a whole. I first describe zombie related remixes of Shepard Fairey’s now iconic Obama Hope poster—imagetexts discovered while tracking Fairey’s Obama Hope image for a broader research project3 that compelled me to look more deeply into zombie rhetorics in the first place. I specifically illustrate how these zombie-themed digital pictures of Obama have become a playful form of parody with unintentional but serious rhetorical consequences. In subsequent sections, I examine other zombama rhetorics that have emerged in the political sphere and explore how they have been intentionally deployed to create a wide range of rhetorical (dis)identifications that both articulate and generate political anxieties. In the final section, I explore the ethical implications of such zombama rhetorics; for as entertaining as zombama rhetorics may be, they are part of a longstanding history of marginalization in the United States and a contemporary era of dog whistle politics and intense political polarization. While seemingly insignificant, zombama rhetorics in circulation thus demand our critical attention.


In introducing the notion of zombama rhetorics, I borrow the term “zombama” from Jared Moraitis, an artist who back in 2009 created the now famous Obama zombie Obamicon. Obamicons—a term coined by Paste Magazine just before the 2009 presidential inauguration—are digitally born pictures modeled in the style of Shepard Fairey’s Obama Hope poster. As I argue elsewhere (Gries 2013), Obamicons often function as playful parodies, paying homage to certain celebrities, movies, televisions shows, comic characters, or athletes. Many Obamicons also clearly function for personal enjoyment, as people upload pictures of themselves and insert silly captions obviously to entertain. Obamicons also, however, often act satirically as they criticize various politicians and articulate dissent from official government authorities and their political practices. U.S. political figures were especially popular targets in 2008, but since then foreign figures such as David Cameron, Vladimir Putin, and Hosni Mubarak have also received their fair share of attention. In this latter capacity, Obamicons have proven potential to stir public debate and thus ought be considered an important and novel cybergenre for forwarding imagetext arguments in the 21st century.

Figure 5: Zombama Brains, Jared Moraitis, Pop-Monkey Illustrations. 2009.

According to Moraitis, his Zombama Brains Obamicon—what we might playfully think of as a zombambicon—falls into the category of a harmless parody. Moraitis remixes Fairey’s portrait of Obama by distorting Obama’s face and head (see figure 5). While one side of Obama’s face is exposed to the muscle and bone, the other side of Obama’s head has a mangled ear and missing chunk of brain, a distortion that alludes to zombies’ cravings for brains as depicted in Dan O’Bannon’s The Night of the Living Dead. While sticking to the color palette, layout, and font of Fairey’s Hope poster, Moraitis also remixes Fairey’s poster by replacing the word “Hope” with “Brains.” As Moraitis (2009) explains on his blog, most of the Obama Hope parodies circulating at the time of Zombama Brain’s production simply included words beneath the portrait of Obama or another figure that rhymed with Hope. At that time, for instance, once could find remixes depicting Sarah Palin with the word “Nope” or portraits of George W. Bush with the word “Dope.” “At the risk of coming across as an Obama-hater and attracting the FBI’s attention,” Moraitis wanted to move in a different direction and “parody those parodies.” So to create his Obamicon, he chose to go with the zombie theme, which was so pervasive in popular culture at that time. The slogan “Brains” was “easy,” to come up with, he notes. “What other slogan would a zombie choose for his campaign?”

Figure 6: Cover of President Evil, Issue 4. Cover art by Brian Denham.

Since Moraitis’ Obamicon entered into circulation, many other artists and designers have gotten on the zombama bandwagon to create their own zombamicons. As just a few of many examples, on the cover of President Evil‘s 4th issue, a “zombified” Obama with a dangling right ear appears with the words “Yes we Cannibal” (see Figure 6). Artists such as Christopher Ott and Marc Palm have also remixed Obama Hope with a zombie theme, this time in homage to John Carpenter’s film They Live. In addition, several artists who display their work on have mimicked Fairey’s Hope design even as they have created their own unique Obama zombie illustrations. Such designs have become so popular that you can find them for sale today printed on products such as bumper stickers, cell phone covers, coffee cups, and various items of clothing. A wave of Zombamamania, you could say, has swept the nation.

Such a network of imagetexts, admittedly, seems playful and innocent enough. As evident in the sheer numbers of zombamicons that have surfaced alongside other Obama zombifications on image-hosting-websites such as Flickr and Deviant Art, clearly people enjoy playing and manipulating images of our current president just for fun. Thus, we might simply conclude4 that the mass production of zombamicons and other zombama imagetexts is simply a fun, amateur form of entertainment in a burgeoning participatory culture. Yet, no matter the intentions behind their design, these circulating zombamicons, like other zombama imagetexts, transform when they enter into new associations to make explicit political arguments, attract a public, and rouse political debates. On Internet forums such as Stormfront.orgFree Republic, and opinion-based discussion communities such as BeforeItsNews and Sodahead, for instance, zombamicons have appeared numerous times to express not only outright ad hominem attacks on Obama but also his following of naive, “mindless” supporters. In many cases,5 zombama rhetorics frame vehement disidentifications and evoke uneasy dialogue. Thus, many of these zombama pictures ought to make us pause to wonder if they should be taken so lightly.

Zombies occupy, as many scholars have noted, a liminal space between self and other where contemporary attitudes and anxieties are both reflected and perpetuated. In the case of zombies (as with monsters), this “other” is often portrayed as an outsider who exists as a threat not only to normalcy but also to personal, social, and national security (Cocarla 52). “Imbued with traits that are already deemed culturally deviant/strange/excessive/unnecessary,” the zombie “vilifies, marginalizes, and ostracizes” (54). Via the production of visual rhetorics, the zombie can serve as a playful and creative way to sort through peoples’ anxieties and fears about an other. But via othering, the zombie also perpetuates hegemonic beliefs and prejudices that are often ascribed to minority figures (54). When coupled with inflammatory commentary, but also when intentionally designed for parody and jest, the proliferation of pictures depicting Obama as zombie are thus not innocent in their rhetorical impact. This is especially true if we understand that discourse never acts alone. It is always part of a “wider sphere of active, historical, and lived processes” and a “circulating ecology of effects, enactments, and events” that exert force in the world (Edbauer Rice 8-9). As part of this wider sphere and circulating ecology, zombie rhetorics compound estrangement, even if often to a designer’s unaware.

In October of 2011, for instance, a spoof of Obama Hope, depicting Obama as a zombie with a hole in its head, created a rhetorical spectacle in the blogosphere, indicating how, even if generated for humorous purposes, many zombamicons spark serious consequences as they take on a life of their own. The original design of this spoof, titled Obama as Zombie—which appears to be a remix of Moraitis’ remix of Fairey’s remix of Obama Hope6—is credited to a designer who chooses to stay anonymous. According to the person responsible for the design, people familiar with zombies know that the only way to render a zombie immobile is to destroy its brains. Therefore, this imagetext was simply intended to entertain, as it takes the zombama theme one step further. Yet no matter such intention, this remix, which most people interpreted as Obama with a bullet in his head, caused an uproar among Washington politicos and others when it surfaced in a Halloween event flier emailed by Virginia’s Loudoun County Republican Committee.

In this mailer, Obama as Zombie sits alongside a zombified image of Nancy Pelosi and other zombie imagetexts. The Loudon Republican Party Chairman Mark Sell claims that the mailer was simply “a light hearted attempt to inject satire humor into the Halloween holiday” (qtd in Nobles). However, once blogs such as the Daily Kos and ThinkProgress got hold of this mailer, they published it under headlines reading ” … Repubs’ Halloween Mailer Shows Obama with Bullet in Head.” In these rhetorical situations, the original rhetorical intentions of this zombama imagetext no longer mattered. Within hours, an onslaught of blog comments and debates surfaced as people gathered to weigh in on such events. In addition, a multiplicity of subsequent blog posts and online news articles began to report this news, increasing the circulation of the mailer at viral rates. In these compounding situations, the zombama mailer evoked different anxieties in and responses by viewers depending on where people located themselves on the political spectrum. People on the right worried that it would hurt the Republican party, which was already at risk for coming across as constituted by extreme fundamentalists. Others were horrified, claiming it did nothing but fuel hate and disrespect for Obama, not to mention racism. As Ruth Manuel-Logan, a writer for, exclaims, “Four years later, President Obama is still being insulted and disrespected as if he had every job but the highest post in this country.”

Not surprisingly perhaps, anxieties about violence against Obama were also sparked. Jane and Lewis Gordon, authors of “Of Divine Warning: Reading Disasters in the Modern Age,” explain that monsters are “special kinds of divine warning. They are harbingers of things we do not want to face, of catastrophes, and we fear they will bring such events upon us by coming to us” (25). For many, the “bullet hole” in the Obama as zombie’s head was simply too prophetic of an assassination many people had been afraid of since Obama announced his presidential candidacy. This imagetext was also regarded as extremely thoughtless considering past assassinations of U.S. political leaders, even among conservative bloggers. “I am no fan of Barack Obama,” one “Louden insider” blogs, “but putting up a photo of him as a zombie with a bullet hole in his head???????????? Like him or not he is the legitimately elected the President of the United States and Commander in Chief of our armed services in a time of war. THIS IS DISGUSTING AND SHAMEFUL. Someone should send this to the US Secret Service” (qtd in lowkell, “Too Conservative Blog”).

While some may argue that such responses to this zombama mailer are hyperbolic, even ungrounded, this imagetext depicting Obama as a zombified other is not an isolated case. Since this event, many life-sized Obama zombifications have surfaced across the United States. In a now infamous parade float, for instance, a zombified Obama standing outside an outhouse labeled “Obama’s Presidential Library” was rolled down the streets in a 2014 Fourth of July parade in Norfolk, Nebraska. And the year before, a life-sized Obama-look-alike target, produced by Zombie Industries, was displayed at the 2013 NRA convention in Houston. Such examples are just two of many circulating depictions of Obama as zombie7 that are raising concern. As Edward Said has taught us, the power of visual rhetoric exists partly due to the sheer numbers of consistent representations that are produced across time and space. Visual rhetoric’s power also stems from its involvement in a complex web of historical and cultural processes, institutionalized systems of power, contemporary events, and other related discourses from which it cannot be detached—a web that is able to exert more force than any single picture could do on its own. No matter their intention, then, as more and more monstrous depictions of Obama emerge, circulate, and begin to be taken up for often-unpredictable uses, they do have provocative rhetorical consequences. This point is especially relevant considering the fact that the zombama mailer belongs to a wider ecology of other circulating zombama rhetorics that were intentionally designed to criticize Obama, his policies, and his supporters and to generate rhetorical (dis)identifications. Examples related to Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns perhaps serve as the best evidence of such zombama rhetorics’ intentional agenda.


As Kenneth Burke and subsequent rhetorical scholars have helped us understand, rhetoric is as much about identification as it is about persuasion. Rhetoric, especially when it comes to political campaigns, is also about disidentification. Identification is rhetorically achieved when people recognize others as sharing properties (ideas, attitudes, interests, feelings, visions) and become consubstantial even as they might retain some divisions that prevent them from being totally aligned in all perspectives and actions. Disidentification, as Judith Bulter has suggested in Bodies that Matter, is about misrecognition. Butler is thinking of such misrecognition, of course, in terms of gender identity. She writes that misrecognition occurs when a person senses that they are “standing under a sign to which one does and does not belong” (219), or when, as rhetoric and writing scholars Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes draw on Butler to further explain, “simultaneous seeing and failure to see desirable identifications” occurs (“Queer Rhetoric and the Pleasures of the Archive”). But while certainly a difference exists in how this process unfolds, such misrecognition, such disidentification, is also applicable to political identification, especially during election seasons when people are forced to articulate their alignments and affiliations. While people might identify with a candidate along gender, race, ethnicity, class or other lines, for instance, they might also fail to see desirable qualities of that candidate for their attitudes toward foreign policy, healthcare, or any other numbers of policies, especially because in the latter case, they are rhetorically encoded with certain values and interests.

During any given election, political strategists are highly aware of the significant role the process of (dis)identification plays in turning out votes and thus spend much of their funds vying for people’s identification. Whether politicians are speaking to farmers saying “I was a farm boy myself” (Burke xiv) or kissing babies in the arms of possible voters, politicians are constantly trying to persuade an audience by “the use of stylistic identifications … for the purpose of causing the audience to identify itself with the speaker’s interests … ” (Burke 46). At the same time, politicians use these same strategies to persuade constituents to disidentify with their political opponents. Pointing out that one opponent did not grow up on a farm is just as effective in emphasizing that one did. Political campaigns use three main strategies of identification to persuade constituents that they share or don’t share interests, values, and opinions with the running candidates. These strategies (which are derived from Kenneth Burke and George Cheney’s rearticulation of them for relevance to organizational communication) are known as the common ground technique, antithesis, and the transcendent “we.” While these terms are perhaps unfamiliar, readers will recognize these strategies quite instantly, as they are so commonplace, they hardly need explaining.

The common ground technique is an overt effort to persuade constituents that they share common goals, desires for economic or health security, and/or any number of identities and/or roles with an individual candidate. Sharing common values is especially important as voters have been found to make electoral judgments based on short cut perceptions of candidate’s values rather than a fully formed understanding of a candidate’s policies. Therefore, as hard as candidates work to convince constituents that they share common values, desires, and interests, candidates work just has hard to convince constituents that they do not share those same commonalities with their political opponents.

Identification through antithesis is enacted via calls for unification against some common adversary. By portraying some outsider as an antagonist, identification with ‘insiders’ is simultaneously stressed as an effort toward achieving unity and collective acceptance of political, cultural, and social values. In political campaigns, this outsider often comes from outside the political race. Think of the role terrorists played in George W. Bush’s second presidential campaign. But sometimes, as we will see with the elections in 2008 and 2012, this enemy comes from within the political race, and it often gets played out in quite alarming ways.

The last strategy, which often goes under the radar, functions when dissimilar people with disparate interests are brought together under an assumed or transcendent “we.” This transcendent “we,” especially when used in conjunction with the other identification strategies, instantiates a collective by contributing to the formation of what Michael McGee has called the myth of “the people,” which during an election is imagined at different scales, i.e. political parties, unions, states, nation, etc. Whether deploying “We the American people” or “we the party who cares about education,” this strategy is equally as popular in triggering identification as other strategies among politicians both within and beyond a political race. With partisanship being as vehement as it is in contemporary U.S. politics, this strategy is especially productive for perpetuating a “we vs. them” mentality across party lines.

During any election season, opposing campaign teams use these identification strategies in conjunction with a number of other rhetorical strategies to frame and reframe the election in order to gain the votes of people who largely are undecided about which candidate they most identify with. Often times, in fact, a candidate will win, in part, as a result of how well they were able to persuade voters to either identify with themselves or disidentify with their opponents. Who wins an election is thus largely based on a campaign team’s success or lack of success in deploying these strategies of identification.

In 2008, for instance, Obama’s campaign made brilliant use of the common ground technique and the “transcendent we” strategy to generate identification by creating a powerful discourse of hope, change, and progress, a tri-part rhetoric which came to dominate his entire campaign. As Jeffrey Feldman has argued in the Huffington Post, such discourse, in fact, created a core logic that came to define the entire election. That logic, according to Feldman, looked something like this:

Election would bring Change
Voting is a chance to create something New
Victory would result in Something Very New.

Throughout the election, Clinton, the McCain/Palin team, and others attempted to reframe the election many times in order to promote disidentification with Obama. While Clinton and the McCain team both tried to reframe the debate by emphasizing Obama’s lack of preparedness to be Commander in Chief, others tried to highlight Obama’s “socialist” idealsObama’s ties to the Ayer family, and his affiliation with Jeremiah Wright, a pastor reputed to be a black separatist with vehement antagonism toward the white population. Many such as Rep. Steve King, of course, also tried to reframe the election by warning the country about “Barack Hussein Obama’s” threat to national security simply by virtue of his name. Such logic, Feldman points out, looked something like this:

Election would bring Threat
Voting is chance for Danger
Victory could be a matter of Life or Death.

Despite attempts to reframe the 2008 election with such logic and deployment of (dis)identification strategies, Obama’s campaign efforts to establish shared identifications obviously held sway throughout the election season and in the end helped Barack Obama become the first African American president of the United States. However, since the day he stepped into the oval office, the rhetoric of fear regarding Obama’s threat to national security has only continued to reverberate loudly and clearly, and zombama rhetorics are often at play in perpetuating such anxieties.

One of the most visible and lingering appeals to fear has been deployed in zombama rhetorics that point toward Obama’s hypnotic ability to produce a cult of young followers whose unyielding devotion to Obama and his left-leaning, if not socialist ideals, threaten the future of both the Conservative party and the United States. Obama’s hypnotic, cult-like rhetoric, many have argued, in fact, has produced nothing short of Obama zombies (or Obambies), who blindly support both Obama and his zombie politics. In U.S. popular culture, zombies are often thought to threaten one’s body and mind and thus one’s autonomy. Zombies do not retain a sense of self—a unique, human consciousness with an ability to think for themselves. This defining characteristic of zombies is particularly at play in zombama rhetorics. According to the Urban Dictionary, for instance, Obama zombies are defined as brainless, politically inactive, uniformed voters of Obama who got caught up in the media buzz of America’s first black presidential candidate and still continue to blindly support him.

From political cartoons to demotivational posters to YouTube videos, such a conception of Obama supporters pervades all kinds of zombama imagetexts. However, the cover of Jason Mattera’s 2010 book Obama Zombies: How the Liberal Machine Brainwashed my Generation, is perhaps the quintessential depiction of Obama zombies. In this book, Mattera describes Obama zombies as members of his own generation who have public “O-gasms” (242) at the sight of Obama, drink up the promise of change like their favorite adult beverage (x), and experience nothing short of “mental mummification” (xi) when exposed to Obama marketing strategies. Such easily duped people did more than simply identify with Obama, Mattera claims. They blindly believed that Obama could save mankind and renew our faith in both American politics and government—a cult-like power many others have uninhibitedly associated with Hitler. On the front cover of Mattera’s book, these Obama zombies are colored in the palette of Fairey’s Obama Hope poster, which has been accused by many as being one of the strongest propaganda vehicles for duping young voters into supporting Obama. With vacant, distant, wide-eyes, the young expressionless men and women appear hypnotized; brainwashed by Obama and the liberal machine, they are zombies we all ought be deeply disturbed by.

Such zombama rhetorics functioned to perpetuate anxieties about a country so run amok with lobotomized Obama supporters that the conservative party might never be able to retain control of the White House. As such, they are intended to spark not only disidentification with Obama but also rally obstinate action. Interestingly, in a similar effort, zombama rhetorics have also surfaced to perpetuate fears about Obama’s inability to provide economic and health security. While Obama’s fiscal budget has often been referred to as a dangerous zombie policy, Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act has been projected as a large threat to the nation’s health. As such, a variety of zombama imagetexts have emerged to critique Obama’s efforts at health care reform and perpetuate anxieties about the future of Americans’ well-being.

Figure 7: “The Walking Dead.” Political Cartoon by Michael Ramirez. By permission of Michael Ramirez and Creators Syndicate, Inc.

Political cartoonists such as Michael Ramirez, for example, have taken to deploying zombie rhetorics to create satire about Obama’s zombie policies. In his 2013 cartoon, we see a zombified Kathleen Sibelius (former health and human services secretary), Obama, and man with “Truth” written on his shirt, who I presume to be Rep. Darrell Issa (R. Cal.), approaching a stupefied Uncle Sam (see Figure 7). Overhead these zombies reads “The Walking Dead, Began Oct 1 ACA Subterfuge.” This cartoon emerged in November of 2013 when a heated conversation emerged over the botched rollout of new Obamacare marketplaces, the disastrous launch of the Obamacare website, and mistaken Obamacare regulations. According to the author of “Obamacare, The Zombie Destroyer of Healthcare,” Ramirez’s satirical cartoon is dead on. “Obamacare,” John Hinderaker writes, “is a dead program walking, destroying families’ health care, devastating existing, perfectly good insurance plans, driving doctors out of the profession, and generally wreaking havoc.” While not certainly everyone would agree, zombama rhetorics regarding Obamacare would only escalate in ensuing months.

Yet such zombama rhetorics in relation to the Affordable Care Act were not novel. As far back as April of 2012, zombama rhetorics were circulating on the Internet attacking the credibility of Obama’s signature health plan. For example, as Michael Beckel reports on The Center for Public Integrity website, the low-budget Super-Pac named “Occupy Obamacare” created a YouTube channel, supported by a Twitter feed. This channel featured a series of videos, produced by Glenn Morton, in which the main character “Dr. Obamacare” is a zombie intended be the physical manifestation of Obama’s Affordable Care Act. In these videos, Dr. Obamacare can be found slashing politicians urging crowds to repeal the ACA and warning crowds to “do as I prescribe” or face a slashing scythe, among other things. As Beckel explains, Occupy Obamacare may never raise a lot of funding but it can serve as a creative outlet to craft political arguments. They can also, of course, serve to generate rhetorical disidentifications, in which viewers are persuaded to disagree with Obama’s values and plans and assemble to protest his administrative moves.

YouTube Video: “Welcome to Obamaville.” March 2012. Political Ad by Rick

As surprising as such videos may be, they were not alone in cultivating rhetorical (dis)identifications. In one of the most infamous enactments of zombama rhetorics, Rick Santorum’s campaign team created an ad during the 2012 presidential primary season perpetuating fear that a second Obama term would lead to a social, economic, and political apocalypse. With an ominous voice over, a dark visual tone, and a horror film soundtrack, this ad, “Welcome to Obamaville,” feels more like a trailer to a zombie apocalyptic movie than a presidential campaign ad. “Imagine a small, American town two years from now if Obama is reelected,” the ad begins. Across the screen, black crows fly over the dark streets of an abandoned city. A slow-moving, child-ridden merry-go-round squeaks. A child’s shoe lies toppled and forgotten in the grass.

Small businesses are struggling and families are worried about their jobs and their future … The wait to see a doctor is ever increasing. Gas prices through the roof, and their freedom of religion under attack. And everyday the residents of this town must come to grips with the harsh reality that a world nation and sworn American enemy has become a nuclear threat. Welcome to a place where one president’s failed policies really hit home. Welcome to Obamaville, more than a town, a cautionary tale, coming soon to

Throughout such voiceover, the viewer is exposed to shots of abandoned buildings, empty hospital rooms, and destitute townsfolk—depictions we might expect in such hyperbolic rhetoric.8 Yet, on a subliminal level, visual rhetoric is also at work in this ad to perpetuate anxieties about national security through the rhetorical strategy of antithesis discussed earlier. Most disturbingly, Obama’s face is interjected between flashes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s face precisely at the moment when the narrator warns against a “sworn American enemy.” You have to watch closely for this shot, but it is definitely there.

According to John Brabender, a senior advisor to Santorum, this video was never intended to receive airtime. However, it was made accessible on Santorum’s campaign website to “illustrate how radically life will change for the average American when we have out of control gas prices, the full impact of Obamacare, and the daily nightmare of a nuclear armed Iran.” Thus, interestingly, in this example of zombama imagetext, we come back full circle to see multiple (dis)identification strategies and a familiar reframing logic at work. Voting for Obama would bring danger. The 2012 election is thus a matter of life and death.


To bring this article to a close, I want to address the ethical implications brought about by zombama rhetorics. In many of the zomabama imagetexts I have presented here, it is clear that much visual rhetoric related to Obama zombies can be considered a playful means of artistic expression. Many might thus understandably argue that in an age of Internet memes and participatory culture, we should hardly take many zombamba rhetorics seriously; it seems certain that many productions of zombama rhetorics are produced for no other reason than giggles and entertainment. Taking into consideration the fear of change that Obama’s administration obviously catalyzed, it is also easy to interpret much of the zombama rhetorics produced during Obama’s campaign seasons and throughout his terms as a representation rather than motivator of contemporary anxieties about the contemporary U.S. political climate. However, as I have argued, because circulating visual rhetorics are both part of a broader ecology of events, systems, and discourse and because their consequence changes with use as they interact with other people and discourse, zombomama rhetorics have much more potential than simply serving as vehicles for representation. As we witnessed in their ability to spark debate on various blogs, they actually reassemble the social as they move people with shared identifications and interests to unite in different publics and counterpublics and work toward similar goals (Gries 2013). As such, in a culture where gun sprees are on the rise, black men unfortunately continue to be live targets, and actual threats to Obama’s life have been made, it’s no wonder many people feel concerned about the consequences that zombama rhetorics such as the Loudoun County mailer might provoke.

When considering such zombama rhetorics within a wider sphere of political rhetoric, it is also not hard to see that zombama rhetorics are contributing to a culture of dog whistle politics. Dog whistle politics is a term coined by Ian Laney López to describe how contemporary politics operates in such coded terms that racial agitation can clearly be at work in political rhetoric while at the same time being completely denied. As an example, in an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, López cites Newt Gingrich’s accusation of Obama being a “food stamp president.” On one level, López argues, such claim triggers racial anxieties, but on another, Gingrich can quite simply turn around and say, “I didn’t mention race. I just said food stamps.” In fact, he can go further and say, “It’s a fact,” as if there isn’t a sort of a racial undertone there.

I think the same could be argued about much of the zombama rhetorics circulating out there today produced by the conservative right, especially if we consider the zombification of Obama in the longstanding dehumanization of the black body in the United States and consider the continued accusations of “Barack Obama Hussein’s” Muslim identity in an era of ongoing Orientalism. While it is beyond the scope of this article to do this important mapping here, these circulating rhetorics cannot be divorced from such historical processes, nor from broader cultural events at play and systems of inequity that continue to reign. Nor can they be divorced from the political atmosphere in which racial accusations have become normalized practice. As López insists in his book Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeal Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, “the connection between race and the Republican Party is not accidental, vestigial, or comical, and it’s certainly not trivial” (2). The GOP, a party dominated by whites, wins votes via racial pandering that triggers racial anxiety (2-3). We can write off zombama rhetorics as playful banter or as simply a representation of anxieties about contemporary politics. Or we can situate it within a wider sphere of other events and enactments and investigate how zombama rhetorics contribute to a continual marginalization of black men, to a racist legacy that Americans of color have had to endure for generations.

At the very least, we can see that, whether intended or not, zombama rhetorics, as an ecology of circulating Obama zombie related discourses, is fueling the partisan divide that has made it nearly impossible for shared identifications and actions to take place among U.S. citizens and politicians with conflicting political, social, and cultural views. In President Evil, David Hutchinson satirizes Obama’s appeals to bipartisanship, mocking the naive notion that the two major political parties in the U.S. can come together to save the U.S. from some its most life threatening situations. Since the comic series’ production and distribution in 2011, such a notion has become only more unrealistic. As the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press notes, today, “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines—and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive—than at any point in the last two decades” (5). These days, as such, it is difficult to imagine the congress, senate, and president coming together in solidarity to confront any threat to American life. Zombama rhetorics, if anything, fuels such partisan politics, perpetuating a tragedy in American culture that has left our political system impotent and broken.

In light of these ethical matters, for those interested in imagetexts and their role in shaping contemporary society, we might give more serious rhetorical attention to the circulation of zombie rhetorics. Tracking zombama imagetexts within a wider ecology of related discourses, historical and cultural processes, current political events, and related activities could be especially productive in identifying a compounding rhetorical sphere that has a powerful effect on the racial and political dynamics of contemporary American life. In this article, I have been able to do just a small bit of this tracking. But if nothing else, I hope this work demonstrates how productive such research of zombie rhetorics might be not only for studies of imagetexts but also for studies of culture, race, and politics in the American sphere.


[1] This article is an extended version of a presentation given at “Monsters and Margins: The 9th Annual Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels” held at the University of Florida, April 14, 2012.

[2] Iconographic tracking is a method that uses traditional qualitative and digital research strategies to trace the circulation, transformation, and consequentiality of a single image. This method is undergirded by a consequentialist philosophy of discourse, which posits that the meaning of pictures are the consequences they have in the world. In terms of generating written accounts, it is also heavily influenced by Bruno Latour’s articulation of actor-network theory in Reassembling the Social and thus privileges rich, thick description over explanation (See the interlude in Reassembling the Social). In this article, then, I devote most of the body to mapping out the various rhetorical activities of zombama rhetorics, saving the conclusion for drawing meaning from their diverse engagements. To gain a deeper sense of the ubiquity of zombama rhetorics, as well as each imagetext’s distinct deployment, please click on the provided URL links. To learn more about iconographic tracking, please see my 2013 Computers and Composition article “Iconographic Tracking: A Digital Research Method for Visual Rhetorics and Circulation Studies.”

[3] See my forthcoming book Still Life with Rhetoric (Utah State University Press, 2015) for a 30,000+ word case study on findings from such research.

[4] Such conclusion is especially understanding considering that other political figures such as Sarah Palin, John McCain, and George W. Bush have been zombified.

[5] I have chosen not to provide direct links to such forums to protect the identities of the authors of such posts and comments.

[6] The Obama Hope image originally surfaced in a photographic taken by photojournalist Mannie Garcia in 2006. Fairey’s uptake of Garcia’s photo led to copyright lawsuit involving the AP Press, Mannie Garcia, and Shepard Fairey. While some thought the case would make it to the Supreme Court and be a monumental fair use test case, the case was eventually settled out of court.

[7] Actually, both the farmer who designed the parade float in Nebraska and the booth worker at the NRA’s convention in Houston claim the zombie male figures were not intended to be Obama. Nonetheless, many interpreted the figures as such and have protested vociferously.

[8] See Jessica Lu’s “Analysis of Obamaville” for an interesting rhetorical analysis of the hyperbolic rhetoric deployed in this ad.

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