Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author with Peter Eisner of “The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Somewhere in Donald Trump’s chest beats a wounded heart. It is the part of him that can’t stand it when an unflattering photo of him is shared all over the internet. This happened to him last week when a photo proliferated on social media in which it appears that the wind blew the President’s cover, or rather his hair, exposing a white boundary where an orange-y tan meets his hairline.
Other images of the same hair-blown moment show a less distinct color contrast in the President’s hairline, causing speculation that the viral photo had been edited. Confirming this speculation, the account that posted the photo, claimed to be controlled by a photographer named William Moon, said that the coloring of the photo had been altered using the Apple smartphone photo app.
“…photoshopped obviously,” huffed Trump as the photo whirled around the internet. “Anything to demean!”
He is right that some nasty folks will do anything to demean others. But since Trump has done more than anyone to bring us the dreadful media environment we now must endure – with nonstop mockery, deception and insults – it’s hard to think anything other than he’s gotten a little bit of his own medicine. But on a deeper level, this incident both explains politics in the Trump era, and suggests how his own method of mass communication might be turned against him.
Trump, we must recall, rose to power and fame by calling other people ugly (and worse) and demeaning them with nasty nicknames. As a publicity-seeking businessman, and then in his work as a reality TV host, Trump regularly criticized others as fat, unattractive or insufficiently sexy. Women received most of these barbs, but some men, especially short ones, became his targets too.
As puerile as Trump’s nasty comments have been, they were delivered in a style that resembled the shock jock banter found on some radio shows and podcasts. The method allowed him to create the illusion that perhaps he was only joking, like an insult comic who creates an exciting kind of tension by behaving in a way that might earn a punch in the nose in any other setting. The “jokes” bonded Trump to his audience who, safely situated out of the line of fire, reveled in the spectacle.
With the rise of social media, Trump could send out attacks all day long, hoping one might catch fire. His followers became part of the action, amplifying and spreading the attacks. In this way the awful nicknames Trump pasted on his opponents, and photos with nasty captions, become “memes,” which spread like viruses.
The most powerful memes tap into the baser human emotions including fear, disgust and hatred. They also make his followers feel like they belong to a community of like-minded, or perhaps, like-hating souls. In this way the insults function like wartime propaganda, making people feel like they are part of an urgent battle against an enemy who, let’s face it, isn’t really human in the same way as us.
As President, Trump has replaced the political consultant James Carville’s old maxim – “It’s the economy stupid” – with “It’s the memes, stupid.” Whether he’s posting a fake video that shows him punching a man with the CNN logo in place of a face or a picture doctored (ridiculously) to make him look like the movie hero Rocky, Trump is ever busy sending out visceral messages that bypass chunks of language to hit our emotional sensors.
When Trump recently re- tweeted a fake image of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer in Muslim garb he leaned on bigoted tropes to provoke hatred against them and Muslims. In classic meme fashion, a simple image delivered a complex message that would bypass thought and go straight to a viewers’ emotion.
Trump has far outstripped his rivals in the use of memes, and he has done it with the help of supporters who busily create new content, ostensibly hoping the President will post it. This phenomenon has been studied by social media expert James Cohen, at Long Island’s Molloy College.
Trump has often posted the work of a “memesmith.” According to Cohen, many memesmiths seek to have their memes tweeted by the President. As they pursue this goal, they become a form of free creative labor for the Trump campaign.
As Cohen noted, Trump and the right have overtaken the opposition in the war of memes, and many on this side of the political divide “believe that the left can’t meme.” Cohen has found evidence that Democrats are catching up, noting that Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang are supported by their own memesmiths who are starting to push back in the social media universe.
Meme dynamics are subject to several wild card factors that no one can control, Cohen told me. One is that internet jokes grow stale, which leaves openings for newcomers who might, for example, attack Trump as a symbol of power rather than support him as a renegade. The other is the power of spontaneity.
Although it doesn’t seem that the Sanders or Yang campaigns played it up, the Trump-tan-hairline picture showed how he could be hurt by a gust of wind and the meme dynamic. He who lives by the meme, can also be wounded by it.