#horsesandbayonets: The Main Meme of the Final Debate, Explained

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Why American foreign policy took a trip to previous centuries during tonight's debate

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If the meme of the first presidential debate was Big Bird, and the meme of the second was binders ... the meme of tonight's third and final debate was bayonets. And battleships. And -- less alliteratively, but just as wackily -- horses.

The whole thing has by now solidified into a phrase: "horses and bayonets," or #horsesandbayonets. What does it mean? And why did a 21st-century debate get so sidetracked by a 17th-century technology

Below, the meme of the night, explained.

Where did it come from?

The line, oddly and fittingly enough, has to do with national defense. It arose during the debate's discussion of the United States's overall military preparedness. Replying to Romney's accusation that the Navy has fewer ships today than it did under past presidents, Obama replied that his rival "hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works." 

Obama then engaged in a bit of sarcasm-dripping commander-in-chief-splaining: "Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we're counting ships. It's -- it's what are our capabilities."

And ... boom. Meme = made. 

Here's how the conversation played out: 

Is #horsesandbayonets really a meme? Did it really go viral, #bindersfullofwomen-style?

Pretty much. Though it may not have had the instant traction -- or rhetorical stickiness -- of #bindersfullofwomen, the #horsesandbayonets hashtag trended on Twitter tonight. And not just in the United States, but worldwide. 

Does the meme have a Tumblr? 

Of course it does

And does it have, you know, memes? The visual kind?

Yep again. There's this one

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And this one

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And this one:

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And this one

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Was the "horses and bayonets" line planned?

It's likely. Romney's charge of the Navy having fewer ships today than under past presidents has been a common one, and -- this being the foreign policy debate -- it's probable the Obama camp would have been prepared for it being used tonight. Plus, as The Washington Post points out, the campaign moved quickly after Obama uttered the line to take out a promoted tweet on the #horsesandbayonets hashtag. Though that nimbleness could have been simple strategic speed on the part of the president's team, the more likely answer is that they were prepared for the tag to go viral. Which would mean that they were prepared for the tag itself.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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