Talk about political hot air: A 20-foot-tall inflatable baby in President Trump’s likeness made the whole world look up as it flew over London last week during his visit. Now, after a crowdfunding campaign to bring it to the United States met its goal more than three times over, it’s coming to the land of the free.
The baby blimp, clad in a diaper and by all appearances on the verge of a temper tantrum, isn’t subtle. Neither is the Trump rat that single-clawedly infested the streets of Midtown Manhattan last summer, which is scheduled to return later this week, or the Trump chicken that pecked at the president’s ego outside the White House about the same time.
But who needs subtlety? Obviousness is precisely what makes the inflatables work so well.
Trump, of course, takes everything personally — especially insults intended to be personal. The baby blimp’s organizers said they hoped to play to that vulnerability, and it seems they succeeded: “I guess when they put out blimps to make me feel unwelcome, no reason for me to go to London,” a petulant Trump, who helicoptered from place to place on his English stopover, told the Sun.
Yet there’s more to the inflatables than the effect they have on Trump. There’s also the effect they have on those who disdain him.
For all of the substantive ways in which Trump terrifies his critics — the nuanced explanations we could provide for his overwhelming offensiveness — he galls them on a visceral level, too. Anti-Trump sentiment comes not only from the head, but also from the heart.
The heart isn’t the first place you’re supposed to look when mounting political opposition. We’re a country of laws, and effectively criticizing a leader requires criticizing his policies. It’s laudable, even essential, to take to the streets with signs protesting the rollback of environmental regulations, or an assault on reproductive rights, or an ethno-nationalism that sees immigrants as nonhuman.
Yet politicians don’t listen as often as protesters would like, and the president doesn’t listen at all. Trump prefers to cater to people’s baser instincts, and to lob insults at perceived enemies that come from an equally low place.
In London with the baby blimp, protesters finally got on even ground, by flying their flag a few dozen feet above it. Casting the president as an incontinent infant won’t accomplish anything concrete, but it can offer the catharsis that yelling and yelling about substance without receiving any substantive answer does not. It meets Trump where he is, and establishes an equilibrium.
It’s also no coincidence that the inflatables that have caught the most attention haven’t been puffed-up depictions of the septuagenarian commander in chief as he actually exists, but animals and an infant instead. Animals in allegory are reduced to their core characteristics, from the dog’s loyalty to the rat’s revolting self-interest. “Crybaby,” too, is a universal concept. These traits inspire the same reflexive reaction in all of us, divorced from reason or context or the nuance of human (at least, adult) interaction. They speak instead to some fundamental truth.
These massive balloons in all their disturbing bloat reduce the president to the essentials. They confirm the feeling of Trump’s critics that there is some flaw in him that needs no explanation, even if there are plenty of explanations to give. And they reassure those people that what seems obvious to them is obvious to thousands of others, too — so obvious it’s practically written in the sky.