Over the weekend of October 10 through 12, a group of about a thousand Donald Trump supporters convened in Miami for the American Priority Festival and Conference. The purpose was ostensibly to “support free speech” and “highlight American culture.” This would be accomplished, at least in part, through speeches by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Dinesh D’Souza, and Donald Trump Jr. It turned out to also involve watching garish depictions of the president stabbing, shooting, pistol-whipping, and choking his political enemies.
Sometime during the span of the conference (which, naturally, was held at a Trump property, the Miami Doral Hotel), a screen in a side room played a selection of video clips on a loop. One of these videos depicted President Trump in an edited version of a scene from the 2014 film Kingsman: The Secret Service. In it, secret agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) travels to Kentucky to investigate a hate group that is being used as an unwitting test subject by a villainous tech billionaire. Using a subliminal signal, the villain “triggers” the entire church to go into a murderous frenzy. Harry, being armed and much more competent than the parishioners, kills them all to the tune of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” In the edited version which played at American Priority, Trump’s face is superimposed over Firth’s, and his victims are his various avowed nemeses, from a bobblehead labeled “Vice News” to a flattened photographic portrait of Mitt Romney. Notably, most of the enemies are news organizations or members of the press.
According to the event’s organizers, this video was not pre-screened or sanctioned by the staff, but was instead part of a “meme exhibit” that participants could pop by to watch. I tend to buy this explanation, if only because in such an absurd setting, the presence of a meme exhibit is about the only thing that makes sense. Of course there was a meme exhibit. If Trump supporters have anything in common, it is their well-documented love of memes.
This video, titled “The Trumpsman,” was originally posted to YouTube at least a year ago. (Variations on the same idea had previously been made.) While it may have been unsanctioned by American Priority, this sort of visual is par for the course for Trump supporters. So-called “spicy” memes are the equivalent of scribbled notes passed through closed hands between classes, an identifying language that members of an in-group can use to find and speak to one another in a crowd. If you don’t get it, that’s part of the point. Nobody else is supposed to get it. These memes depict Trump as an avenging knight, a rippled superhuman, a Jesus-like figure, or a Revolutionary War hero. It is telling that the masculine, martyr, and revolutionary archetypes all converge to mean the same thing: savior. In “The “Trumpsman,” Trump is ridding the country of the scourge of “fake news,” along with entities like Black Lives Matter. In the context of the plot of the original Knightsman source material, he is only acting in self-defense. This plays into another idea that the online right tends to subscribe to, which is that they are not so much bad actors but reactors in a system where they are under attack.
Spokesperson Stephanie Grisham said that Trump condemned the video “based on what he had heard” about its content. But this condemnation seemed incongruous with an administration that has done nothing but encourage a contemptuous view of the press. That’s part of why the White House Correspondents’ Association took umbrage at the video. Data analysis conducted by the Committee to Protect Journalists demonstrates that Trump’s Twitter referendums on the press have escalated during his time in office, beginning with his accusations of “fake news” and now ringing with more sinister overtones as he directly refers to the press as “the enemy of the people.” As news outlets report on Trump in ways his base doesn’t like, he weaponizes their backlash, fueling their confirmation bias at the expense of the credibility and personal safety of journalists. A single tweet from the president belittling the press can birth tens of thousands of memes in its wake.
The MAGA meme community seizes particularly on the image of Trump as a medieval crusader, which implies him as a divinely appointed magistrate ridding sacred lands of strangers, liars, and apostates. It makes perfect sense to cast a narcissistic xenophobic leader in this type of role. Except Trump the Crusader is targeting the press as his heretical entity, pointing them out as a source of harmful misinformation that must be destroyed (even as he himself proves to be a frequent source of harmful misinformation). He becomes their stand-in, acting upon this group’s desire for revenge against their perceived foes. Such sentiments are an electric current crackling under the discourse in forums like r/DrainTheSwamp and r/The_Donald, burning when exposed to light. (Worth noting: r/The_Donald has been held in “quarantine” by Reddit after members repeatedly called for violence against public officials and made other threatening comments, such as implying that anti-Trump dissenters should get “free helicopter rides,” alluding to how Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime would murder dissidents.)
Memes often carry a sense of ironic detachment. It’s just a joke, except when it’s not. Nobody’s meant to take it seriously, except for the people who do. For Trump, a meme is a comprehensive and direct way to cut out the middleman of the media. (Remember last year, when he retweeted a meme of his political rivals behind bars?) His denial of any violent intent suggests a complete lack of understanding of how memes blur the lines between humor and reality — and that’s the most charitable reading. At worst, it suggests a man who understands how “irony” can be a thin fig leaf for spreading hate and activating real violence.