With impeachment looming over the 45th president, Trump is shielding himself by inviting far-right propagandists and meme-makers to come to his protection. Their strategy: shitposting a new truth in the place of damning evidence. PowerTie, a media group that crafts content to support Trump, recently accepted the invitation with a video called “Keep America Great.”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2019
“Keep America Great” features a sketched animation style that mirrors Aha!’s “Take On Me,” a six-time award-winning music video from 1984. The use of Aha! may seem odd, but it “still averages 480,000 views per day on YouTube.” That traffic makes it an ideal form of memetic propaganda, since heavy circulation allows memes and videos to move fast. In fact, on the same day PowerTie released the video, Buzzfeed’s Brandon Wall got into the act by mixing the two videos together.
Trump has long used memes and other digital content to promote himself. His use of videos is part of a feedback loop that has made YouTube a space where Trump fans generate truth-alternatives that favor the president. By retweeting PowerTie’s “Keep America Great” video, Trump participates with his fans and encourages them to accelerate their efforts.
“Keep America Great” asks viewers to see their own power in crafting the national narrative on Trump. It features a simple black and white scheme that opens up the possibility of re-coding Trump’s public persona. As he himself would have it, the white space on the screen compels the viewer to focus solely on the Chief Executive. Finer details are wiped away, and what remains is a simple sketch that lets viewers use their own imagination to complete what’s missing from a Trump cartoon.
At the same time, the video routes viewing audiences through a series of familiar memes and symbols. Viewers first see an animated Trump hugging the American flag, which is already a well-known gif. Trump’s groping of the flag has been widely criticized, but his devotees memed this moment to demonstrate Trump’s reverence for the country. The image paints in broad strokes by erasing the CPAC background of the original scene. It renders Trump not as a man prone to grabbing what he thinks rightfully belongs to him, but instead as a flag-loving nationalist who loves his country so much.
Another moment in the video shows Trump placing a service hat on an invisible marine, whose uniform fills in under the president’s protection. The image refers to memes that contrast Trump’s military loyalty to Obama’s. And at a moment when the president’s offer of a quid pro quo threatens a nation that depends on U.S. aid, this scene reminds viewers to see him as a dedicated figure with strong ties to our fighting men and women.
Or, when an off-camera Jimmy Fallon tousled his shaggy comb-over. Centering these sparse video clips on Trump’s lighter moments highlights his fun-loving personality. Surely, this dancing, playful man should be treated like a mischievous child, incapable of plotting high crimes and misdemeanors.
Trump’s invitation is gilded for the far-right. One moment in the PowerTie video, for instance, depicts Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senator from New York, as a clown.
Since February, clown imagery has been associated with the Alt-right and white supremacy. Right Wing Watch reports that 4chan’s “politically incorrect” forum circulates memes showing clowns “lynching black people…operating gas chambers, and deploying racial slurs.” If a viewer blinks during the “Keep America Great” video, however, they will miss the clown nose, white face, and scribbled red wig on Sen. Schumer. In this way, PowerTie’s video winks at white supremacists and rewards those who know the symbols. They get to see Trump as the elder statesman who must confront the anti-semitic caricature, a “scheming Jew” in clown garb.
Calling Democrats clowns has long amused Trump, even if some viewers don’t quite catch the racist dog whistle in the video.
The video references many other current memes. It’s symbolism and animation style, marked by recurrent blank space around the animated figure of Trump, encourage viewers to supply their own vision of the president. The video invites supporters to meme out their new vision in ways that redirect public attention and assist in redrawing the boundaries of acceptable political behavior. “Keep America Great” is a siren call for Trump fans to respond to the incredible odds against him by generating content that amplifies his playful, non-criminal nature — to shitpost a new truth against all that evidence to the contrary.
— Heather Suzanne Woods & Leslie A. Hahner
Images: Video stills from PowerTie’s “Keep America Great.”