At 3:50 PM on June 21, Donald Trump retweeted a short video that used a Time magazine cover from last October to suggest that he might be staying in office for a while. The story for which the cover was designed was entitled, “How Trumpism Outlasts Trump.” The cover itself shows Trump yard signs receding into the background for every four years starting in 2024 and going through 2044. 2024 is of course the year Trump would by law need to vacate the office, presuming he were to win reelection next year. (In 2044, for those keeping score at home, he would be 98 years old.)
In the video, an additional sign is added in the upper left corner for the year 2048, with a presidentially scowling animated bust of Trump on top of it, as if it were a podium he was standing behind. Over the course of its 30 seconds, we glide past each of the yard signs in turn, gradually coming to rest on the final sign/podium as the year on it scrolls from 2048 to 2052 to 2056, and so on, in increasingly larger time increments, until reaching 90,000, and finally “4EVA.”
In a phone interview for Newsweek published the following day, the maker of the video, Twitter user Carpe Donktum, described it as “clearly a joke”: “To the people who were saying that he would never leave office, I don’t think you can interpret it any other way…Is he really going to be president until the year 10,000?” He was dismissive of the possibility that at least some supporters of the president might interpret his video as legitimizing “a violation of the two-term limit”: “There are lots of people that [believe] lots of things, and I don’t think any of them have any power…Our Democracy is robust enough to be able to handle a situation like that really quickly.”
So (to take its creator at his word): “clearly a joke.” But only a joke?
On his Twitter page, Carpe Donktum describes himself as an “Eternally Sarcastic Memesmith specializing in the creation of memes to support President Donald J. Trump.” A troll, in other words. As such, a straightforward interpretation of the video — or to use his preferred term, meme — is as a bit of trolling, specifically “lib” baiting. That’s how more than one respondent on the right interpreted it. Trump’s son Don Jr., for example, posted as follows:
A user called NewsChute created a thread of angry responses to the president’s retweet with the introductory line, “Let’s track the outrage….” Tyler Cardon, CEO of the conservative media outlet Blaze Media, went so far as to claim that the singularly ahumorous Trump was himself “in on the joke”:
One goal of the troll, then, is sport: making us libs “lose our minds” and look silly is fun. And if a troll who avows his support for the president can do that, then he has presumably advanced POTUS’s cause by lifting him above his silly rivals.
There are other features of the meme that seem to underscore the claim of its creator that it’s first and foremost, if not entirely, “a joke.” First, there’s the bit of teenage-ese with which it climaxes, “4EVA,” which contrasts rather jarringly with the scowling figure of Trump and the fast-paced fortissimo climax of the background music, Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from the opera Peer Gynt. Trump totes 4eva n evahhh, bitches!!! A middle finger to the sentimental cultural elites who appreciate things like Grieg’s music and the rule of law? It’s also notable that the “Mountain King” in the opera is a troll lording it over other trolls and similar creatures. Is the ascent of the frame up the doctored Time cover to Trump meant to imply that POTUS is a master social media troll, as Cardon asserted? That he’s the “mountain king” of right-wing trolls like Carpe Donktum? It’s difficult to know just how far we’re intended to press these parallels. Ibsen’s description of the relevant scene in the opera libretto, for example, notes that the troll king’s “children and nearest relations are ranged on both sides” of him. It’s surely a stretch to suggest that the meme is giving the finger to those who object to the administration’s abuse of nepotism laws, since not that many people could be expected to bring that level of familiarity with the opera to a viewing of the meme — certainly not Trump himself.
All this layered irony notwithstanding, to presume that the meme is nothing but an elaborate jest at the expense of Trump’s political enemies would itself be silly, I think. In the first place, claiming that a bit of snarkiness is just a joke is of course a standard passive-aggressive tactic, but it can also be a diversion intended to mask darker intentions. Trump himself has frequently asserted that he was joking when things he has said have been met with significant pushback. As NYU prof and expert on authoritarianism Ruth Ben-Ghiat points out, though,
everything that he says is a trial balloon — even his, quote, jokes are trial balloons…If you look at what he jokes about, it’s always things like…the extension of his rights…[or] the infringement of liberties…Authoritarians are continually testing the boundaries to see what they can get away with.
The tactic can work in a similar way when employed by, or at least appropriated from trolls. In an article for SPLC posted last September, David Neiwert considers the relationship between trolling and the activities of racists and far-right hate groups in the context of the use of the OK/White Power hand gesture.
Neiwert discusses how the gesture, first emerging as a hoax, has come to assume a number of possible meanings: from an “ironic” equivalent of giving “libs” the finger at Trump rallies to a covert signal to like-minded far-right ideologues, one that because of its apparent ordinariness gives its users plausible deniability should they be called out for it — “It was just an OK sign!” Just a “joke.” As Neiwert points out, this deniability, which is a critical feature of effective trolling, provides “rhetorical protection” for more radical groups whose intentions go beyond triggering people like me. This makes trolls, he argues, at the very least complicit “participant[s] in a toxic subculture,” and potentially more than merely complicit. “Trolling culture,” he observes, “…has proven a direct gateway not just to the alt-right, but also to even more poisonous cultures such as that of woman-hating ‘incels’.” “It’s easy,” in short, for trolling to “morph into” something darker.
Considered in this broader context, the irony that saturates Carpe Donktum’s meme gives it the same sort of semantic indeterminacy as the OK/White Power gesture, enabling it to communicate different things to different people: to be presented to outsiders (“libs” like me) with a measure of plausibility as “clearly a joke” while sending different signals to those who are “in on the joke” — Trump’s enablers and followers. The fact that Trump himself retweeted it underscores this point. Thus for example the meme’s focus on POTUS’s current, frequently floated trial balloon about sticking around past his two-term limit does, as the Newsweek interviewer pointed out, play to an idea that “more than half of Republicans” showed themselves open to in a 2017 poll. In suggesting that Trump might just stick around “4EVA,” moreover, it plays to those among the substantial evangelical wing of his base who have somehow managed to see in him a divinely anointed and Biblically prefigured deliverer, and more broadly to those for whom the prospect of “Trumpism” continuing to pay dividends beyond his time in office is cause for celebration. The layers of irony notwithstanding, these messages are plainly there.
That Trump’s followers would in varying degrees be acclimated to this indirect form of communication — to looking past or under or around the surface matter presented to them — is hardly surprising. Racist dog whistles, which are one common form of such communication, have of course been a staple of POTUS’s repertoire since day one. Embracing him as a candidate, and then as president, moreover, has for many of his followers been an extended exercise in looking past — ignoring his un-Biblical character traits, swimming through his syntactically splintered torrents of logorrhea — to the payback they can expect to receive for their support. Indeed, perhaps the ultimate irony of the relationship between Trump and his base is that it is at its core a brutally unnuanced transactional one. As Joy Reid forcefully characterized it on the July 2 episode of MSNBC’s Deadline: White House, Trump is “selling two things…to White Christian America.” First, “This is your country. I’m giving it back to you, to hell with everybody else. We’re taking it from the brown people, the black people, the immigrants that aren’t your immigrants. It’s not their country, it’s yours…full stop.” And second, “We’ll give you the courts. And then…it won’t matter if [brown and black people are] the majority, it’ll still be yours, because [the courts] will hold this country for you and nobody else.”
“When [Trump] came down the escalator, his speech was good and all that,” Carpe Donktum said in the Newsweek interview. “I’ve been a supporter since then.” When Trump came down the escalator calling Mexicans rapists, drug dealers, etc. etc. etc.
“Jokes are jokes,” he said in the interview.
One of the more unsettling “achievements” of Trump and his enablers has been to raze much of the ground on which our civil discourse has occurred by presenting as jokes things that appear serious, by asserting that “truth isn’t truth,” that there are such things as “alternative facts” — in short, that the meaning of any and everything is always up for grabs. An inevitable implication of this development is to create a situation in which extra-legal power grabs and violence are increasingly likely, even necessary. If everyone is free to ignore anything they’re told and interpret it however they damn well please, then the only arbiter left is the last gunman standing after the bullets stop flying. Voices on the right who warn of an uprising if Trump is removed from office, even by ballot in 2020, are not merely stoking the flames, they’re correctly assessing the path he and his enablers and followers have hastened the nation on.
“I do my due diligence on watching what I’m posting,” Carpe Donktum said in the Newsweek interview, “and making sure, as far as I can tell, nothing I’m doing is inciting violence…That’s not my thing. There are other people that do post things that I do think are too violent. That’s their prerogative.”
Just who is the “joke” on in the end? Us “libs” for our attachment to the rights of all inhabitants within our borders, to the health of our body politic, to the possibility of rational civil discourse — of determinate meaning? Trump followers who are being fleeced of their economic and social safety net, not to mention numbed to that range of feelings, that capacity for curiosity and empathy, that are among our species’ greatest traits? Or is it “eternally sarcastic” right-wing trolls whose heads are so far up their sense of aggrieved privilege that they think they can pass everything they say and do off as not serious, even as kids die in cages (and CBP agents mock them), as brown and black and queer people are harassed, beaten up, murdered — as threats to curtail free speech and other civil rights begin to mount?
When everything is funny, nothing is particularly funny, is it?