This past October I wrote an article for AIGA about how designers are working to fight voter apathy, and many of the designs featured were satirical in nature. Navajo designer Vanessa Bowen parodied Trump’s campaign hats with “Make America Native Again” as a way to start “a conversation about the problematic history behind Donald Trump’s presidential campaign slogan, and to raise awareness for marginalized indigenous peoples in the U.S.” Sagmeister + Walsh’s project Pins Won’t Save the World encouraged young voters to support Hillary Clinton through humorous enamel pins and patches. Satire has always played a crucial role during times of political crisis, but in light of recent events, I can’t help but wonder whether the power of parody has diminished (and if so, how much) now that the line between what’s real and what’s a joke has blurred.
Remember when fake news was just a funny contradiction in The Daily Show’s tagline: America’s Most Trusted Fake News Team? Those were good times. But now that we officially live in the Upside Down, I don’t think it’s alarmist to say that what we once considered fiction has become a dangerous reality. And while we can’t rely on enamel pins to sway political policy or election results, it’s now more apparent than ever that democracy needs satirists to challenge the status quo and the current spread of disinformation, nationalism, populism, and fear.
Some of the best political parodies exist online in Reddit threads and Twitter handles or animated GIFs. You may have seen the press video of Trump signing a slew of executive orders just days into his presidency, and the way he showed the signed documents to the cameras was an open invitation for parody. Soon the twitter handle @TrumpDraws was born, and citizen satirists began creating GIFs where the contents of the executive orders were replaced by poorly drawn doodles of dinosaurs, cats, or stick figure self-portraits.
One of my favorite iterations of the footage was created by SNL digital editor Adam Epstein, who the swapped the drawings out for stark, typographic messages that strike just the right balance between humor and brutal honesty. Epstein says, “I love the other takes on the footage—@TrumpDraws especially, which is so simple and silly—but I find Trump’s election and the first (christ) month of the presidency to be more darkly surreal and absurd than straight-ahead humorous. To me, in the midst of all this depressing weirdness, clean, simple truths or statements cut through better.”
He explains his ongoing fascination with the clip. “Everything about it is insane to me. It’s beyond parody; it’s hilarious without being funny, if that makes any sense. I find it quite dark. The expression on his face—the way he’s showing his signature to everyone like a proud 4th grader (“Look what I did!”)—I’ve watched it hundreds of times now and it never gets any less bizarre. He’s so matter of fact about the action, but in a way that feels like someone trying to mirror what they saw in a movie about being the president. Surreal.”
@TrumpDraws isn’t the only parody Twitter account to emerge since Trump took office. There’s the Reddit meme Tiny Trumps that recently joined Twitter as @rTinyTrumps, which is a photo collection of various heads of state interacting with Trump, who’s been expertly Photoshopped down to less than half the size of anyone else in the photos.
In contrast to the diminutive man-child memes are parodies that focus on the language of Trump, pairing quotes with the repurposed images of Captain America’s Nazi adversary Red Skull, now cast as @PresidentSupervillain or @DeepDrumpf, an AI bot developed by MIT researcher Brad Hayes that uses the Neural Network to craft surreal tweets based on the transcripts from Trump’s past speeches.
Then there are the many “rogue” twitter accounts that have formed an online resistance inside government agencies ranging from the Department of Agriculture to the White House itself. The rogue accounts emerged after the new administration issued a media blackout for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), barring the organization from all social media activity and press statements. In defiance of both the president’s gag order and U.S. trademark and copyright laws, renegade members of the National Parks Department, the EPA, and NASA donned their official government logos as avatars and created a series of alternative handles, stating “You can take our official Twitter, but you’ll never take our free time!”
What’s interesting about the rogue Twitter phenomenon is that unlike @TrumpDraws or @PresidentSupervillain, which are clearly satirical, their position as alternative authorities leaves them vulnerable to criminal prosecution, not because of their opposition to Trump, but because of their unauthorized use of official government logos. To avoid any potential litigation, the rogue Twitter accounts revised their logos and handed over control from government workers to environmental activists (though @RoguePOTUSStaff is still operating as the unofficial resistance team inside the White House).
Censorship on social media is an ongoing issue for artists and designers, including those that use parody as a form of protest. Indie publisher Badlands Unlimited dealt with Facebook and Instagram’s restrictions when they uploaded the satirical poster series New Proverbs to both sites for distribution at the Women’s March on Washington and New York City. Using the notorious design vernacular of the Westboro Baptist Church, Badlands subverted the hate speech of the original signs with phrases like, “FAGS HATE TRUMP,” “PENCE LOVES FAGS,” or “GOD HATES IVANKA.” Both social media platforms removed the images for violating “community standards,” but later restored them after being accused of stifling political dissent.
Because satire and parody are protected under the First Amendment, if you’re a public figure, the constitution says you’re basically fair game regardless of whether you think the joke is funny. Industrial designer Tucker Viemeister says aside from the president’s constant attack on civil liberties, “the second biggest problem with the Trump administration is that no one in the White House has any kind of sense of humor.” He says with a chuckle, “At least Nixon could tell a joke. A dirty one, but at least a joke.”
Viemeister recently produced a satirical Trump identity system that mimics the Nazi insignia to reflect the “correlation between Trump’s racist hate mongering and the Nazis.” He actually designed the logo in 2016 before Trump became president, and he now worries that members of the alt-right movement will not realize the social criticism in the design and adopt it for their own extremist ideology.
This disturbing wave of nationalism that Viemeister addressed isn’t isolated to the U.S., it’s spreading throughout Europe as well. We spoke with British graphic designer and typographer Jonathan Barnbrook, who’s made a career of creating social commentary through design; he’s worked extensively with the culture jamming publication Adbusters, as well as Brandalism, a UK organization that “hijacks” public spaces with anti-corporate advertising.
“We’ve entered a real dark age of humanity,” he says. “I think the 21st century really started last year. The years before were just holdovers from 20th-century history, but with Brexit and Trump being elected, this is the start of something else and we don’t know where it’s going.”
In 2015 Barnbrook teamed up with Banksy to create Cruel Designs, a museum display that surveys the role of design for social control (you may have caught it at the theme park/art exhibit Dismaland). The display graphics borrowed the normcore aesthetics of state-produced documents and Powerpoint presentations, “blurring the line between fact and fiction, prompting visitors to ask ‘is this even real?’” The museum was constructed inside a bus with blacked-out windows, creating a claustrophobic environment that plays with the construct of the white gallery space.
Barnbrook explains that “the museum included items that were specifically designed to control, hurt, or even kill you, and the top of the bus was lined with fake adverts addressing some of the objects on display as well as wider themes of injustice, consumerism, and cruelty.” He notes that satire is important not only because it serves as a form of catharsis, but because it “highlights how ridiculous normality is. We have people trying to normalize the Trump situation, and it isn’t normal, and satire can open your eyes to that.”
NYC-based graphic designer Erik Carter illustrates satirical GIFs for the New York Times. Lately, he says he’s been thinking a lot about the role of graphic design and visual parody in the current political climate and questions its effectiveness. “Calling a representative can be more directly effective than coming up with a clever visual metaphor that will end up being shared amongst people with the same political views.”
He adds that “a handwritten sign on cardboard will always feel more powerful than a designed logo, because the very execution of a personal protest sign points to its authenticity. Memes, with their poor typography and digital artifacts, have that same perceived authenticity, which can allow for greater impact than something that’s professionally designed. Hillary’s logo was designed by Pentagram, and I have no idea who designed her opponent’s, and through red hats and memes he infiltrated the visual space. Graphic design plays a very small role in these things, but it’s a role nonetheless.”
While it feels like we may never wake up from the perpetual fever dream that is the Trump presidency, people continue to find creative ways to make their voices heard. Combining the DIY spirit of protest signs with the viral nature of memes, citizens are using the parody hashtag #PresidentBannon and sending postcards directly to the White House addressed to the man pulling the strings, Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon.
The campaign has also inspired another call to action with the hashtag #IdesOfTrump that asked people around world to flood the White House with postcards of their grievances on March 15th, the day Julius Caesar was assassinated by his own senate. The only rule is postcards can’t include any threats of violence; other than that, the organizers say to “Sharpen your wit, unsheathe your writing implements, and write from the heart. All of our issues—DAPL, women’s rights, racial discrimination, religious freedom, immigration, economic security, education, the environment, conflicts of interest, the existence of facts—can and should find common cause.”
Whether or not this will make a significant impact in changing policy is yet to be seen, but if parody hashtags can inspire people to become more politically active, maybe satire can help to swing the pendulum the other way for the 2020 election.