AT FIRST glance, you might not notice. There’s the tangerine-tinted skin. The buttercream half-bouffante. The long red tie. Everything looks like standard-issue Trump caricature — till you get to the teeth. They jut out like a rodent’s, as if for chewing up opponents or gnawing on one’s own political tail.
This, standing 15 feet tall and puffed out by hot air, is Trump Rat. And he is set to make his Washington debut come lunchtime Tuesday on the green of Dupont Circle, for a two-day engagement a short hop north of the White House.
This political cartoon in balloon form might look like one of those oversized, inflatable rats that unions bring to protests, but “Trump Rat was custom made,” the artwork’s co-creator says, “from the ground up.”
That creator, John Post Lee, is a New York gallery owner who was moved to help manufacture Trump Rat shortly after the president’s victory last November. “Probably,” Lee says of the timing, “when my Ambien prescription ran out.”
Politically, Lee identifies as “a humanist” — he wants his federal government to protect people’s rights, infrastructure and environment, and he’s a capitalist business owner who’s critical of war profiteering. He emphasizes: “My values are those that many people share.”
Lee is a Philadelphia native who’s been a New Yorker for 35 years — long enough to be especially familiar with Trump as a public figure. “For those of us who lived through New York in the ’80s,” he says, “Trump was no more than a sleazy, mean-spirited real estate developer that we were all wise [to] . … He represented a vulgar, tawdry opulence, stylewise — the-Gilded Age dictator-in-exile eclectic modernism.”
But that was before Trump won the presidency and, to a man like Lee, became a “toxic existential” threat.
In the quarter-century that he has run the BravinLee Programs gallery in Chelsea, Lee and his wife have mostly steered clear of mounting overtly political art content. Yet he has always been interested in politics, he says, and after “this debacle of an election,” he asked himself: “What can I do?”
“I wanted to do something meaningful, and also something cathartic to help myself,” Lee says. “This is what I know — I know how to help artists make things.” And he believes that artists can take on “a meaningful role in dark times.”
So Lee reached out to Jeffrey Beebe, a New York-based artist whose work he had shown, and together they worked up a sketch for a rodent-faced Trump — “like an early Walt Disney character but more snouty,” Lee says, noting that he has long been fascinated by “how effective rats are at being grotesque.”
Character sketch complete, Team Trump Rat launched a Kickstarter last March, seeking $10,000. Once fully funded by hundreds of backers, the team hired Inflatable Images, an Ohio-based provider of giant plastic mascots, to build Trump Rat to spec. The sketch “became 3-D renderings,” Lee says, noting that the vision changed over 12 weeks, prompting such ongoing directives as: “Make the tie longer!”
Two weeks ago, he made his debut near Trump Tower, drawing much vocal support, Lee says, as well as some colorful personal insults.
That event led to a New York chapter of the ACLU putting Lee in touch with the National Park Service, and the gallery owner soon had permission to inflate Trump Rat on a patch of green at Dupont Circle.
Lee underscores that Trump Rat is not intended to be a symbol of anger or hate, like some inflatable effigy. Actual Trump effigies have popped up around the globe, including in New Zealand, Spain, Germany and Thailand. Trump Rat seems closer to the giant, golden-coiffed Trump Chicken that was inflated near the White House on Aug. 9, just several months after an activist projected the words “Pay Trump Bribes Here” onto the nearby Trump International Hotel.
Lee says that Trump Rat arrives strictly as tall satirical commentary of a president whom the gallery owner calls “the ridiculer in chief” — a man he believes exploits racism and science denial for self-serving political gain.
“I’m trying to hold a mirror up to how this person behaves,” Lee says, “as a character portrait of the man.”
And what if a member of the Trump White House were to wander by? What message might Lee have for that person?
“I would ask a member of his administration, ‘Have you no decency sir?’ ” Lee replies. “Because this is not about partisanship, but it is about decency.”
So just how long might this inflatable editorial travel about?
“As long as Trump is in office,” Lee says, “Trump Rat lives.”