Today, the FBI arrested Cesar Sayoc, a man from Florida who is suspected of having mailed bombs to a number of prominent critics of President Donald Trump, including Democratic politicians and former officials. Footage from the site of the arrest — an auto parts store, according to The Guardian — shows Sayoc’s van under a tarp. As a news helicopter followed the covered vehicle, the wind blew the tarp off, revealing windows packed with decals of Donald Trump and other Republican figures.
Soon thereafter, several Twitter users tweeted photos of what appeared to be close-ups of the same van, taken prior to Sayoc’s arrest. Many of the decals were memes that had circulated in right-wing social media spaces. The most recognizable of them: an elaborate portrait of Donald Trump riding a tank with gold-plated treads out of the ocean, holding what appears to be a Barrett M821A rifle, while $ 100 bills float breezily behind him.
The image has become a popular one in conservative spaces online, having circulated virally around places like Reddit’s r/The_Donald since its creator, Jason Heuser, uploaded it to DeviantArt in 2016. He’s a freelance illustrator who worked in the video game industry for seven years, according to the biography section of his website, but he’s mostly a political satirist.
“The Trump thing, with as with most all the paintings I do is just… they’re painted because they’re kind of relevant at the time,” Heuser tells The Verge in a phone interview. A lot of people at the time had been clamoring for him to paint a picture of the then-candidate, because they thought it made sense with his art style, and Heuser painted it because he thought it would be fun. “I’m apolitical,” he says. “I look at politics like a giant reality show,” which is where he says his art comes from. The Trump tank painting, he adds, wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously.
“It was supposed to be a joke, and I think people are taking it seriously, which is a little nerve-wracking to me,” Heuser says. “In my mind it’s so obviously a joke.” The point, for Heuser, is to walk the line between sincerity and mockery. “Every time I create a piece of art, I want people to think, ‘Wait, is he… is he joking on this? Is this real? I don’t know.’”
What Heuser has created here is a meme, sure, but it’s more than that. To Trump supporters, who enjoy the president’s grinning face stuck to all manner of pictures and gifs — and shirts — Heuser’s image represents how they see the president every day: as an unimaginably wealthy man, casually steamrolling the world on impossibly expensive tank treads. It’s why, on r/The_Donald, you’ll see Redditors refer to Trump as GEOTUS — or God Emperor of The United States. It is a morbid, morally vacant joke.
American leaders have always been mythologized; throughout the country’s history, there’s been a concerted effort by supporters to whitewash political leaders — presidents especially — and minimize the worst actions they took in the course of their stewardship of the country.
This goes back as far as George Washington, who is lionized more for winning the Revolutionary War than for his ownership of human beings, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose leadership through the Second World War overshadows his creation of internment camps for Japanese people living in America. Today, George W. Bush, the architect of the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which claimed the lives of millions of innocent people, is a jolly, elderly painter. On social media, he’s retweeted by liberals when he poses for pictures with Michelle Obama.
With Trump, as Heuser’s picture shows, the impulse manifests slightly differently. His supporters don’t just want him to be leader of the country — they want him to dominate the world. Heuser’s image featured prominently on Sayoc’s van; the rest of it was covered in slogans attesting to Trump’s greatness, as well as images of Democratic figures with cross-hairs stamped over their faces.
What’s funny about Heuser’s image, however, is that it’s not straightforwardly laudatory. Upon closer examination, it pokes as much fun at Trump as possible: Heuser left a “69” joke on the back of the tank; he added a Big Gulp logo on its side near some Trump steaks and Trump vodka, two of the president’s failed businesses; the bumper stickers near the front include the Howard Stern show logo, a New World Order pro-wrestling decal, and a sticker that says “don’t you know who I am?” On the license plate, the frame says, “Taxation without representation,” a phrase that can be read as a dig at Trump’s allergy to releasing his tax returns.
These days, political satire is more difficult than ever, because both the pace of the news is increasing — in part due to the ease of disseminating information across the globe — and because there’s so much ridiculous headlines coming out of the White House itself, every day. It often feels as though The Onion is writing the storylines that happen every week.
The fact that all of this is so ridiculous — the fact that Sayoc unironically loved the image of Trump rising out of the ocean on a gold-plated tank enough to put it on his van, which other people on the road also had to see — obscures a lot of the active harm the Trump administration is doing to the people in this country and to its environment, political and actual. Heuser sees it a little differently: “Donald Trump is doing exactly what he did on The Apprentice, just now at a bigger scale as the president.” President Trump is out to grab ratings and get memed in the process.
A meme is a social virus. Each spreads through a population according to its peculiar viral dynamics — some ricochet through a population and then burn out, while others come and go with the seasons. Every meme is similarly mindlessly replicative. The point of a virus is to replicate, and the point of a meme is to convey a unit of meaning, one that can be easily remixed by anyone.
On the forums and message boards that cater to people who lean politically conservative, though, memes also function as metonyms: Pepe the Frog, a character created by the cartoonist Matt Furie, was claimed by 4chan and has, over the years, gradually morphed into a stand-in for “Trump supporter.” In these spaces, memes also indicate belonging.
But memes don’t hide the children separated permanently from their parents on the whim of a racist deportation policy — in fact, they often suggest it. The title God Emperor is a joke; the people the president’s policies hurt are not. Trump on a tank implies there are ideas, and people, that require running over.
“People love reality TV, but I don’t know that policy should be on the same level as reality TV,” Heuser says. “I mean, like I said earlier, I look at it that way, because that’s how I kind of just laugh it off, and go, ‘All right, well, we haven’t got blown up today.’”
Correction, 6:35PM EST: Jason Heuser is an illustrator. An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated he was also a game designer.