Deconstructing the Meme, Volume 2: Trump as the Mad Tyrant?
There’s this thing we do as people, something we’ve probably done our whole lives but become slightly more nuanced at when we get older: we compare. We compare foods to other foods and animals to other animals — eating rabbit, I’m told, is similar to eating chicken, and apparently owning a Labrador Retriever is similar to owning an Irish Setter. We compare one vacation spot with another we’ve been to when describing it to our friends, or summarize the plot of a book or movie by mentioning what other book or movie it’s similar too. Nowhere is this greater evidenced than how we compare people. She looks just like her mother, he is nothing like his brother, this young and upcoming actor is the New [insert name of actor who was once young and upcoming as well].
Having that basis of comparison helps us relate to something that may be new to us; it’s comforting to look at the unknown as something kind of sort like something you’ve already experienced. It helps us understand something we’re just trying to process for the first time; at the very least, it gives us a starting point.
That’s why it should come as no surprise that the internet is rife with memes comparing our elected officials to other historical figures, celebrities, even cartoons and animals — and no one seems to be caricatured more these days than Donald Trump. On the base level, it seems almost too easy — the hair that looks like it was grafted on from a Dr. Seuss character , the constant “I just ate a surprise lemon” purse of his lips, the orange-y sheen of his skin — they lend themselves to parody a la Alec Baldwin and Jimmy Fallon.
Beyond that though, the policies and perceived governing ability of the president open up a whole new world of correlation — some of it unfair, but others perhaps illustrate a cautionary tale as we finish up the first four months in the brave new world of the 45th Administration.
Lately I’ve seen a lot of fodder comparing Trump to “Mad” King George III, the monarch who ruled England during the American Revolution. After making his way back into our social lexicon in the mid-90s with a play and movie detailing his mental instability, his name recognition is at an all-time high thanks to Hamilton. In addition to being really happy that pop-culture is trending towards a greater understanding of our country’s history (you’re the best, Lin-Manuel Miranda!), I also have a lot of mixed feelings about this one, and I’ll get to why in a moment.
It’s obvious why the comparison is made, although it’s not entirely unique. People have been using revolutionary-era monarchs as a stand in for their political foes for ages. Although most of us are taught that George was a tyrant and despot who was singlehandedly responsible for the excessive taxation and political oppression of the colonists, the real history (like all real history) is a bit more nuanced and complex than that. Nonetheless, he’s come to symbolize a dangerous and autonomous ruler whom the people could no longer be compelled to live under.
George III suffered from periods of mental instability and was given to hallucinating and rambling when it struck. Many modern day historians believe he had porphyria, a genetically inherited disease that caused, among other maladies, a tendency to go through such phases of “madness.” It may have been that the treatment itself worsened the symptoms, but whatever the case, it almost cost him his throne and has also earned him a distinct spot in history; a king known for and recused because of something beyond his control.
You can see then why the Donald to George comparison is a compelling one for those who believe them both equal parts tyrant and madman. And there have been some compelling arguments that he is both — or at least that he is suffering from a mental or emotional instability evidenced in some of the more puzzling actions and reactions that have plagued him since Day 1, as he tantrumed over the size of his inauguration crowd and sent his spokesperson Sean Spicer out in a bizarre, needlessly aggressive, take-no-questions display of New Regime.
But there are two really concerning problems with this comparison: for starters, it trivializes mental illness and equates it with inexcusable behavior, despite the fact an estimated 18% of the population lives with an mental illness and a large majority of them don’t exhibit the abhorrent behavior and questionable policy making that we’ve seen in this administration. And although it’s tempting to point out attributes of Trump’s character or to analyze his Tweets and put some sort of label on it that’s APA approved, the truth is that we don’t know what’s going on. It’s all just conjecture, and even those with industry knowhow are just making educated guesses.
Secondly, it attempts to excuse a certain kind of behavior that is, frankly, inexcusable. If we attribute all of Trump’s poor decision making, name calling, bullying, impulsivity, and immaturity to a mental illness, we’re essentially saying that these actions are coming from a place that he has little or no control over. Why does that have to be the case? Can’t Trump be a megalomanic — not clinically ill, but in the way that one is obsessed with their ego and power, hellbent on establishing a regime that serves his self-interests through his complex networks of money and power?
This is not a man who has been suddenly overtaken by a madness he can’t control and laments on during his times of lucidity, like George did. This is a man who has been planning his political coup for decades. He started planting seeds back in the early 80s, but claimed he was “too busy” to take politics seriously. That changed in the later part of the decade with his now infamous full-page ad that criticized the Reagan era foreign policy, specifically in relation to countries like Japan and Saudi Arabia. In an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show, he seemed to solidify an interest in holding public office.
Then, like a patient gardener, he spent the next several decades cultivating those planted seeds into public interest in Donald Trump: The Politician. He made statements, like this one, on Larry King Live in 1999, where he talked about forming a political exploration committee. He have interviews where he described his conservative fiscal beliefs and liberal social agenda, including on health care and abortion rights. He made donations to both Republican and Democrat politicians and schmoozed with the Clintons.
And then, he announced his candidacy for President. Then he withdrew, amidst low support and accusations of it all being a big publicity stunt. It may have ended there, with Trump looking at this proverbial, half grown but overtaken by politicians with more experience and clout — if it wasn’t for his forray into social media, specifically Twitter.
His Tweets allowed his cult of personality to truly blossom, it enabled him to find exactly the right base to appeal to, so that when the time was right, he could pounce. He appealed to the fringes; the birthers , the global warming deniers, the anti-vaxxers. Then he turned to the middle-class, convincing those who felt ignored and represented that he, a billionaire New Yorker so rich he didn’t even need a presidential salary, was one of them. He logged in prolific criticisms of the Obama administration for years.
And then, he ran again. This time, his base was solidified. With little more than that, he waged a campaign full of grandiose promises, marred by scandals, and predicated by a glaring lack of concrete planning on how his platform would become reality. And 63 million Americans voted him into office.
As Richard Cohen described today in his op-ed in the Washington Post, when we equate Trump with the madness of a King George, we’re risking history viewing him as a man not who whom punishment isn’t appropriate. This is not that type of man. He is a man who carefully calculated, over the course of decades, a strategy to be exactly where he is today. Undoubtedly, he planned for a much more favorable outcome after he took office; he miscalculated in that regard.
So, to compare him to King George III - a tyrant possibly, but a man who was occasionally in the grips of a condition he couldn’t control, isn’t entirely accurate. He lacks the true madness of George III that may excuse him from some accountability. He lacks the moral acumen of political leaders whose rules were rote with inexperience like Louis XVI. He lacks the brilliance of someone like Napoleon and the popularity of — well, nearly everyone. And, truly, although I strongly dislike him, he lacks the brutality of a Hitler or Stalin.
He’s just Donald J. Trump, our 45th President. He’s a new kind of leader that is painted from a brush dipped into the madness of George, the inexperience of Louis XVI, the brash megalomania of Napoleon, and the tired jingosim turned nationalism of some of the worst dictators we’ve ever seen.