The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Liberal activists loved the Trump Baby blimp. Then they started fighting over it.

Time lapse footage of Trump protesters from New Jersey practicing how to blow up Baby Trump blimp. (Video: Bryan Anselm, Photo: Bryan Anselm/Bryan Anselm)

Last Christmas, Leo Murray, 41, a handsome, scruffy British environmental campaigner living in London, was in the bath brooding about President Trump's plans to visit the United Kingdom, when he had an idea. He leaped from the tub, and, with pencil and paper, scribbled an image of the president as a giant infant.

After the holiday, Murray recruited colleagues and friends to help turn his drawing into a 20-foot-tall helium blimp. A friend, graphic designer Matt Bonner, made a computerized image of an orange, inflatable baby Trump — his nappy secured with a safety pin and an iPhone in his tiny right hand. The idea was to fly the balloon above London’s Parliament Square during Trump’s first presidential visit to Britain. “You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him,” Bonner told art magazine Frieze. A manufacturer in central England agreed to make it for the equivalent of $4,600, and an anonymous benefactor put up the cash.

After London officials denied the necessary permits to fly the blimp — saying it wasn’t really protest, but “art” — the fate of Trump Baby’s debut landed with Mayor Sadiq Khan, who had been feuding with Trump about his anti-Muslim rhetoric since 2016. Khan decided to let Trump Baby fly — and the president decided to keep his distance, telling the Sun, “When they put out blimps to make me feel unwelcome, no reason for me to go to London.”

During Trump’s visit on July 13, the Trump Babysitters, clad in red jumpsuits, were jubilant while their creation floated above thousands of protesters in Westminster. As they boarded a sleeper train to get to an Edinburgh protest the following day, no one had time to answer a New Jersey activist’s email asking to collaborate.

The day before the blimp's London flight, Didier Jimenez-Castro, a 29-year-old political activist in Hillsborough, N.J., saw a video about it online. Jimenez-Castro got in touch with Jim Girvan, a retired local government worker and Democratic activist, who he'd heard was also eager to procure a blimp. The two decided to get their own and organize a U.S. tour. Within days, they'd raised more than $23,000 through crowdfunding, and set up an @babytrumptour Twitter account, announcing "coast-to-coast" exhibitions for multiple Trump babies.

Their haste rankled the U.K. Babysitters. Knackered from the protest and eager to go on summer holiday, they asked Girvan to hold off until they decided what to do next. They had already envisioned a “world tour,” in which Trump Baby would troll the president on his international trips. To keep the protest unique, they wanted control of a limited number of replicas that would go only to places where Trump was present. The genius of their idea had been validated by art magazines; the British Museum and the Museum of London had talked to them about displaying the blimp. If just anyone could have a Trump Baby, Babysitter Max Wakefield told me, the blimp’s identity would be, “for want of a better metaphor, kind of deflated.”

So, when the U.K. Trump Babysitters saw Girvan’s announcement of a tour on Twitter, they sent him an angry email, dated July 18. “Dear Jim and others,” it read: “You do not have permission to create a copy of Trump Baby or to tour him independently from us, neither do any inflatables companies you may be in contact with.” It continued: “We will work with as many groups as possible to have him appear around the world but you have to let us manage this process, what you are currently doing is rude, fraudulent and very Trump like. ... Please respect our desire to control our idea and the results of our hard work, as well as our copyright.”

But Girvan and Jimenez-Castro weren’t willing to wait. With control of the House and possibly the Senate at stake, they wanted to use the blimp to get out the vote and to defeat Republicans. Girvan admired the Trump Babysitters’ ingenuity. But he also felt they couldn’t understand his pain. Trump’s golf club in Bedminster is just six miles from Girvan’s house. He was so distraught after the election, he’d started the People’s Motorcade — a caravan of cars that would go to the golf course every Saturday to honk, a wooden effigy of Trump in the back of his pickup. It was personal for Jimenez-Castro, too: When news surfaced of his effort to import Trump Baby, Trump supporters tried and failed to get him fired from his job at a homeless shelter. “It’s a much more intense atmosphere [here] than it is there,” Girvan explained. They went ahead with their plans and ordered blimps from a U.S. manufacturer.

When the U.K. Babysitters read news reports in mid-August that Girvan and Jimenez-Castro had received the first two of six nearly identical blimps, they were forced, unhappily, to let go of their exclusive control over the concept. “We had a vision,” Murray told me, but when “Jim was in the paper with two blimps, it all became academic.”

Girvan has since set up an online Baby Trump Adoption Service, where groups can apply to bring one of the six Baby Trumps to their city. The site recommends groups raise $1,500 for shipping, insurance and helium. (Girvan estimates that it requires 2 1 / 2 tanks, at about $200 a tank, to fill the roughly 45-pound blimp; it takes as little as 45 minutes to inflate and an hour to deflate it.) Girvan has been working 18-hour days to organize the tour. Their first flight was in Palm Beach, Fla., late last month.

Other interpretations are proliferating: Claude Taylor, a former Clinton White House staffer and anti-Trump Twitter-personality, who has pushed false information about the president, is selling a $20 baby Trump balloon with the Russian flag tattooed on one arm. The Backbone Campaign, a Seattle group engaged in “artful activism,” test-inflated a blimp on Vashon Island in August. A Detroit seller on Etsy advertises 18-by-29-inch foil balloons. “Whether you love him or hate him!” the ad reads. “These balloons are perfect for any special event and make amazing giveaways at Rallies.” USA Outdoor Media, an inflatables advertising company in Texas, offers Trump blimps at 15 to 30 feet, for as little as $1,325, while cheap-looking substitutes, from Guangdong, China, sell on for 60 cents.

“It’s amazing. He’s a global meme. He’s captured something about the way people feel about the president,” Murray says of Trump Baby. Meanwhile, the other ideological side has poached their idea: In September, a group promising to “Make London Safe Again” flew a 29-foot balloon of Sadiq Khan in a yellow bikini over Parliament Square to protest London’s spike in knife crime.

At the end of the day, even as their original vision has been somewhat corrupted by others, the U.K. Babysitters are still going ahead with their plans. In November, their Trump Baby will follow the U.S. president to Paris. “Everywhere Trump goes for a high-level diplomatic meeting, Trump Baby will be high in the sky over the venue,” Murray explains. The baby, he hopes, will serve as “a constant reminder” that “this is how the world sees him.”

Eliza Gray is a writer in New York.

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