US president Donald Trump met with the trucking industry Thursday to discuss the future of health care. But what everyone on the internet will remember from this meeting is not what was said, but the bizarre photo-op afterward. Photographers captured Trump sitting in an 18-wheeler, honking the horn, baby fists raised in glee.
This is the latest in a long list of memes that infantilize Trump. In the satirical world of Twitter account @TrumpDraws, Trump spends his time in the White House coloring childish drawings of cats and scribbles of oval-shaped “pickels.”
The account is absurd—and it never fails to make me laugh. Infantilizing Trump is a way to expose the truth of a man who, like a baby, cannot control his impulses, and to disempower a president who desperately wants to be seen as strong, authoritative, and hyper-masculine. And since it’s been widely reported that president Trump cannot take a joke at his own expense, laughing at him can also feel like a way of fighting back.
But as the world grapples with very serious issues regarding Trump’s presidency—from his immigration bans to his potential ties to Russia and efforts to replace Obamacare—it’s worth examining the impulse to poke fun at Trump. When we joke about him being a child, are we engaging in effective political critique, or just making ourselves feel better?
With over 432,000 followers, @TrumpDraws is part of a growing genre of political satire that infantilizes the US president. The Daily Show made a Google Chrome extension called “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again,” which changes the appearance of Trump’s tweets into a child’s bad handwriting. Matt Bors at The Nib published a cartoon of Trump as a baby being fed “num nums” by his counselor Kellyanne Conway, while his chief strategist Steve Bannon did the real work behind the Oval Office desk. The New Yorker’s Instagram recently published a cartoon of Trump sucking a pacifier as he sits in the Oval Office. Two officials watching baby Trump observe: “We fixed the main leak that was destabilizing our government.”
But the drawback of satirical memes that reverberate across the internet is that they can propagate a liberal echo chamber—giving the false impression that satire is having a much bigger impact than it actually is. McSweeney’s “This Is The Political Satire That Finally Stops Trump,” a piece on the limits of Trump memes, features a narrator with a misguided sense of the importance of Twitter humor. “I tweet my ‘Jabba the Trump’ meme for the world to see,” the narrator declares. “The knife of satire twists deep. In a moment, I am flooded by dozens of retweets, ranging from friends who share my political opinions to strangers on the internet who also share my political opinions—the chorus of America itself. My tweet lights the spark, and the fires of rebellion burn bright.”
Memes, after all, have a limited travel capacity. They’re designed to provoke an immediate emotional response that you’ll want to share with the world, along with the caption “that feeling when,” “it me,” or “this.” But a meme that makes fun of Trump will only spread as far as the liberals who endorse and share it. And on self-curating platforms like Twitter and Facebook, where users’ preferences are often filtered into red feeds and blue feeds, this reach isn’t very far. Trump memes can rack up thousands of retweets and follows, but it’s not a sign of “rebellion”—it’s a chorus of the same voices agreeing with each other.
At its worst, using satire to reaffirm our beliefs becomes liberal fanfiction—a term that Ezekiel Kweku, writing for MTV, uses to argue that indulging in too many memes will rot liberals’ brains by letting them use fantasies to avoid political realities. It’s comforting to take conservatives’ fear of trans people and Muslims and twist it around with ever-more-ridiculous photos matching the caption “this is the future that liberals want.” And it’s nice to imagine worlds in which Legally Blonde‘s smart, sassy heroine is ready and waiting for Trump when he promises, “SEE YOU IN COURT.” But it’s important to remember that these are still liberal daydreams, in which the world is divided into easy winners and losers—with Trump and his administration falling firmly into the latter category. Trump’s detractors needs to be vigilant about memes that lull them into a false sense of security by suggesting that he is a buffoon who has no idea what he’s doing. Underestimating Trump, after all, led many Americans to a rude awakening on election night.
And it’s here that the goals of satire and political action clash. Exaggerating Trump’s words and behaviors to their absurd limit creates sharp satire. But fully engaging in politics means learning to take Trump at his word. It is laughable to see a US president claiming that his predecessor wiretapped him with zero evidence, but it’s also a reality we need to take seriously. As Masha Gessen warns in “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” “Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that [Trump] is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization. This will happen often: humans seem to have evolved to practice denial when confronted publicly with the unacceptable.” In the face of an endless cycle of preposterous news stories, it’s easy to understand the temptation to laugh until you’re immunized to shock and nothing can hurt you. But the danger is that you can cynically begin to believe democracy is one big joke. When nothing shocks you, nothing can reach you either, and there is no space for change.
None of this is to say that we should avoid making fun of Trump. Humor can certainly help shape public opinion. In 2014, for example, John Oliver’s comedy segment on net neutrality successfully mobilized Americans to take action to protect to open internet, to the extent that viewers crashed Federal Communications Commission’s online commenting system.
A half-century earlier, before the US entered World War II, Charlie Chaplin wrote and directed The Great Dictator, which ridiculed Hitler’s megalomania and effectively debunked Nazi mythology that had been glorified in the film propaganda of Triumph of the Will. In an era where some countries were still thinking of appeasement, this satirical work stripped away any hint of respectability that Hitler might have until then retained in the public imagination. (That said, recognizing the limits of satire, Chaplin later wrote in his autobiography that he wouldn’t have made the film if he had known about “the actual horrors of the German concentration camps.”)
Such examples are a reminder that the best satire isn’t meant to be comforting. It doesn’t reaffirm our worldview or reassure us that the good guys will win in the end. Good satire makes us question ourselves. It wakes us up.