Earlier today, FBI authorities arrested Cesar Sayoc, a man from Florida suspected of mailing bombs to various critics of President Donald Trump. This included former President Barack Obama, ex-presidential candidate Hilary Clinton and other Democrat officials. According to The Guardian, footage shows Sayoc’s van beneath a tarp at the auto parts store where he was arrested. A news helicopter followed the vehicle and when the wind blew the tarp off, the van was covered in Trump memes and photos.
Instantly, people started tweeting photos of the same van. These photos quickly turned to memes that had gone viral on right-wing social media. The most noticeable of them was a detailed portrait of Donald Trump driving a gold tank out of the ocean, holding a M821A riddle with USD$100 floating behind him.
What is the background behind the meme?
The picture was originally uploaded to DeviantArt by its creator Jason Heuser in 2016. The image had become popular in conservative forums online, going viral around places such as Reddit’s e/The Donald sub-thread. According to his website, Heuser is a freelance illustrator who worked in the video game business for 7 years, but now mainly concentrates on political satire.
In a phone interview with tech site The Verge, Heuser said he created the Trump painting because it seemed relevant at the time. Many of his fans had been begging him to paint a picture of the Donald since they thought it was suitable for art style. Heuser maintains that he is apolitical and views politics as a giant reality show. He adds that the Trump painting wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.
“It was supposed to be a joke, and I think people are taking it seriously, which is a little nerve-wracking to me. In my mind it’s so obviously a joke”.
Heuser’s creation goes far beyond the viral meme itself. Many of Trump’s supporters love seeing the President’s face on pictures, gifs, shirts, etc. To them, Heuser’s image is a manifestation of how they see the president: an unabashed wealthy badass who blitzes through the world on an expensive tank. On some of these forums, Trump is even referred to as GEOTUS (God of Emperor of the United States).
However, upon closer examination one can see the meme is not explicitly an appraisal of Trump. Heuser left a humorous ‘69’ joke on the back of the tank, a Big Gulp logo near some of Trump’s steaks and vodka, and bumper sticker logos of Trump’s failed businesses (Howard Stern and New World Order pro-wrestling). In addition, the license plate says “Taxation without representation”, a phrase that harkens back to Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns.
Nonetheless, the majority of Trump’s users have interpreted the meme as an ode to Trump and his ‘heroic’ qualities.
Why are political memes so popular?
The meme’s popularity on right-wing forums comes from the nature of meme circulation itself. In many ways, a perfect analogy is a virus. Both spread through a population based on viral dynamics, and either die out overtime or return for different seasons. Similar to a tech virus, a meme’s success is based on replication.
In many of these forums, memes have an added significance, functioning as metonyms for political causes. For example, on forums such as 4chan and Reddit, the famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) ‘Pepe the frog’ became synonymous with Trump supporters. Quite often, people derive a sense of political belonging from associating with memes such as these.
However, these memes do not exist in a bubble and often foster cultural perspectives in the real world. Although many views them as ‘reality tv’, political policy discussions are more than ‘frog’ and ‘tank’ memes.
Heuser himself admits:
“People love reality TV, but I don’t know that policy should be on the same level as reality TV. I mean, like I said earlier, I look at it that way, because that’s how I kind of just laugh it off, and go, ‘All right, well, we haven’t got blown up today.’”