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When presidents fall, literally

- February 15, 2015

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe fell earlier this month after losing his footing coming down some stairs. It was quick. See the BBC News video of the fall. Blink and you might miss it.

Nonetheless, thanks to a great AP photo, Mugabe’s fall has turned into an internet meme. See the artful reinterpretations of the photograph on Twitter, available under the hashtag #MugabeFalls. I’ll share just a few:

Beyond the fun of the meme, what’s interesting about Mugabe’s fall is that it created an opportunity for the opposition to point out how old Mugabe is (he turns 91 later this month) and raise the question of whether he is fit to be in office, going so far to even demand Mugabe’s resignation. Pro-Mugabe media in Zimbabwe countered by saying his fall shows how mentally agile and physically fit he is.

Does a presidential fall mean the president is no longer fit to run his country? Mugabe is not the first president to trip and fall. A colleague reminded me of former U.S. President Gerald Ford.

Ford’s falls were also “memes” in their day. Rather than gaining popularity via a hashtag, the falls and other Ford gaffes were parodied on Saturday Night Live.

I haven’t been able to locate political science research on whether presidential falls are predictive of anything other than generating laughs. There is, of course, research on the broader topic of presidential gaffes, but this research often examines things presidents say, rather than their physical movement. There was, however, the Great Tamale Incident, when President Ford picked up a tamale and tried to eat it without first unwrapping it.

The closest area of political science research — that on politicians’ gaffes — suggests Mugabe’s fall will have little, if any, impact. In John Sides and Lynn Vavreck’s book, “The Gamble,” the authors admit that gaffes can generate news coverage, but in their study of the 2012 campaign, they found spikes in news coverage could not be attributed to campaign gaffes. They also show that there was no notable shift in public opinion polls after 2012 campaign gaffes (by either Obama or Romney).

When I brought up these and other research findings on politicians’ gaffes in my African Politics class last week, my Zimbabwean students reminded me that Zimbabwe is not America. In the U.S., the media is free to report on gaffes and the public is free to have its fun at politicians’ expense. The press is not free in Zimbabwe. When President Ford fell, his security detail did not ask journalists to delete photos or video of his fall, as was required of journalists who captured Mugabe’s fall. Zimbabwe’s Information Minister has hinted in the event of a future mishap, they’ll go even further than asking files to be deleted, and will confiscate journalists’ cameras. And there are reports that in Zimbabwe, 27 members of Mugabe’s security detail have been suspended following the fall.

Though the memes proliferated in the aftermath of Mugabe’s fall are generating laughs for many, they are reminding many others of the strength of the regime.