BOSTON — The serenity of a perfect spring afternoon was interrupted Saturday when hundreds of bloody zombies invaded Boston Common, storming across couples' picnic blankets, halting buskers' guitar strumming, and terrifying parents in town to visit their sons and daughters at college.
Providing the apocalyptic soundtrack for Boston's annual Zombie March — atonal feedback broadcast through his megaphone — is a bearded man wearing a boot on his head, a man who resembles some kind of demented Santa Claus. This is Vermin Supreme, and this is how he campaigns for president. Of the United States. Of America.
Supreme, an eccentric performance artist and perennial political candidate, had a breakthrough year during his latest bid for the presidency in 2012 (former New York gubernatorial candidate Jimmy "The Rent is Too Damn High" McMillan was his running mate). Supreme finished third in the New Hampshire Democratic primary with 833 votes, and could be seen taunting Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum outside their events.
For the show, he was profiled in major publications the world over, immortalized in merchandise and Internet memes, became the subject of a new documentary and upcoming series of video games, and has started giving speeches at colleges on the history of political satire. Even Highlights magazine, the wholesome staple of pediatric waiting rooms, featured a cartoon wizard holding a toothbrush that seems derivative of Supreme.
So how could Supreme (that is his real, legal name), who has been mocking the political system by mocking himself for years in increasingly over-the-top stunts, possibly one-up his 2012 success? For 2016, he wants to do something even crazier and more brazen than anything he's attempted before: Go legit — at least sort of.
Supreme is running for president again in 2016, but this time he hopes to earn enough support to secure potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in matching funds from the Federal Election Commission, courtesy of taxpayers who choose to chip in $3 on their annual tax return.
To meet the federal requirements for the money, Supreme will need to raise at least $5,000 in small donations from at least 20 states, for a minimum total of $100,000. If he succeeds, the government will match every contribution under $250 dollar-for-dollar, meaning the man whose platform includes a zombie-based energy plan would suddenly have more than $200,000 to spend on psychedelic ads like this. (He would not qualify for matching funds in a general election).
For 2016, he wants to do something even crazier and more brazen than anything he's attempted before: Go legit — at least sort of.
"It would be a real mark of legitimacy," he tells me.
It would also be a tall order for someone whose previous presidential campaigns have been narrowly focused on New Hampshire, and who has never raised more than a few thousands dollars, meaning he didn't even have to file a report with the FEC.
But Supreme is confident he can turn his Internet fame and growing grassroots fandom into something resembling a national campaign. He recently embarked on a 20-city tour to build support, where he found willing volunteers in far-flung locales. He's already lined up potential state directors in Oklahoma, North Carolina, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, New Hampshire, and his home state of Massachusetts, and says there are many more to come soon.
He realizes how this might look to some and worries that, if he is successful, he'll be used by opponents of public campaign financing as Exhibit A for why the system should be shut down. "That's something I have to think about," he says.
Nonetheless, at least among the 200 or 300 people who chose to spend a weekend afternoon rampaging through downtown Boston dressed as zombies, Supreme found plenty of support. As we marched west from South Station, Supreme could hardly walk more than a dozen yards without someone — whether a zombie or innocent bystander — stopping him to take a picture, shake his hand, or offer a word of encouragement.
These admirers are almost exclusively young — many not even old enough to vote yet — and thoroughly steeped in online culture. "I recognize you from the Internet!" one eager college student exclaimed in a typical interaction.
Al Gore may have invented the Internet, Howard Dean may have pioneered its use in political campaigns, and Barack Obama may have perfected it, but Vermin Supreme is the only presidential candidate whose entire public existence was born, lives, and could die thanks to the World Wide Web. Its denizens are his base, and without them he would just be a crazy guy with a boot on his head. "So go the geeks, so go the country," he said.
Supreme can pinpoint the exact moment when he went from "man to meme," as he likes to say. It was December 19, 2011, at the Lesser Known Presidential Candidates Forum hosted by the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College. With the famed boot atop his head and a ludicrous number of ties around his neck, Supreme sprinkled glitter on social conservative activist Randall Terry, who was also running as a Democratic presidential candidate, explaining that Jesus told him to turn Terry gay.
Videos of the glitter bombing garnered millions of views, and Supreme quickly became a favorite on Internet forums. "This man has my vote. Vermin Supreme 2012!" read one post that made it to the front page of Reddit.
"If there aren't more pictures of me on the Internet, I'll cease to exist."
But Supreme gives special credit to the Bronies, a online subculture of adult men who are fans of "My Little Pony," for sustaining his Internet fame. A key plank in Supreme's platform is to give every American a pony, so the Bronies were a natural source of support.
Did Supreme set out to achieve Internet greatness? "Hell no," he said with a laugh. "If I had seen it coming, I would have gotten my merch line up and running sooner." Then, he and the horde of zombies who were following him like a demonic Pied Piper marched past the boutiques in the upscale Copley Place shopping mall.
It's difficult to gauge how earnest his support is here. Most admirers just seem delighted to see this weird person from the Internet "IRL" — In Real Life, in online parlance. And Supreme himself has his tongue planted firmly in cheek. As a favorite slogan of his goes, "A vote for Vermin Supreme is a vote completely wasted."
But he does seem to tap into a growing discontent among young people with President Obama, mainstream political parties, and politics in general. I asked a zombie high school senior from the area if he would really cast the very first presidential ballot of his life for Supreme, instead of a more serious politician. "Why not? They're all jokes anyway," he replied.
And Supreme, the antiestablishmentarian prankster, is happy to be an avatar of millennial dissatisfaction.
But in order to carry out his big plans for 2016, he'll have to continue to capture the attention of the fickle Reddit user. It's why he rode the train an hour from his home to participate in the zombie march.
"Meme maintenance," he explained. "If there aren't more pictures of me on the Internet, I'll cease to exist."