If we could rip Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. out of all political context and speak of them simply as two men with smartphones, their story might be one of a father and son learning to meme together.
Witness their accomplishments in the past week.
Step 1. The father advances an idea:
Step 2. The son follows up:
One of the best I've seen. https://t.co/rqCplijJ57
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) July 8, 2017
Of course, that’s simplistic; the Trumps’ memes can’t be separated from politics any more than the men.
When Trump tweeted a clip of himself pummeling a CNN avatar a week ago, he did so as president of the United States — one who frequently attacks the press as an enemy.
When Trump Jr. spent the following days advancing variations of his father’s meme — culminating in Trump as Tom Cruise chasing CNN in “Top Gun” — he did so as the son of an embattled politician, and one of the president’s fiercest defenders.
Father and son have long been prolific online. And their week-long WrestleMania-to-“Top Gun” assault on CNN is not the first time they ganged up on a rival.
You might remember the final weeks of the 2016 election, when Trump jumped on his Democratic opponent for calling his supporters a “basket of deplorables.”
“Wow. Hillary Clinton was SO INSULTING to my supporters, millions of amazing, hard working people,” Trump wrote on Twitter, which he had been using for years, favoring the written word over GIFs.
“I think it will cost her at the Polls!” Trump concluded in his tweet in September.
Clinton’s “deplorables” label did, in fact, turn into a symbol of pride for many Trump fans. Its evolution into a full-blown meme got a strong assist from Trump Jr. a few days after his father tweeted.
A friend sent me this. Apparently I made the cut as one of the Deplorables All kidding aside I am honored to be grouped with the hard working men and women of this great nation that have supported @realdonaldtrump and know that he can fix the mess created by politicians in Washington. He's fighting for you and won't ever quit. Thanks for your trust! #trump2016 #maga #makeamericagreatagain #basketofdeplorables
That was nearly a year ago, and Trump Jr. claimed ignorance of the image he’d promoted.
“I’ve never even heard of Pepe the Frog,” he told an ABC host who called the cartoon a “white supremacist” symbol. “I thought it was a frog in a wig. I thought it was funny.”
But if Trump Jr. was a meme novice then, he would learn much.
So would his father.
Toward the end of 2016, many reporters began to write about a phenomenon they called fake news. As outlets such as Politico and NPR reported, these were manufactured news articles, originating on shady websites, designed to trick people into sharing fictions as fact on social media.
Trump, at least as much as anyone, helped invert the term’s meaning — at first simply typing “FAKE NEWS” in all caps when someone ran a story he didn’t like, but eventually applying it to virtually every major news outlet in the United States.
Sorry folks, but if I would have relied on the Fake News of CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, washpost or nytimes, I would have had ZERO chance winning WH
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017
And Trump Jr. followed up by extending fake news to hashtag form.
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) March 15, 2017
Trump supporters picked up on the trend, too, and inevitably, “fake news” became one of the political right’s favorite memes.
Which bring us up to the present day, and the Trumps’ cooperative meme war on CNN.
No one is quite sure how a clip of Trump pummeling an anthropomorphized news network at WrestleMania traveled from Reddit to the president’s Twitter feed last weekend, where Trump adorned it with the hashtag: #FraudNewsCNN.
But travel it did, and became one of the president’s most popular tweets ever.
It also provided his son with memetic inspiration for a full week.
A day after Trump tweeted the CNN-Wrestlemania clip, Trump Jr. retweeted one of countless variations that sprang up: CNN as Charlie Brown failing to kick a football held by Trump as Lucy.
Trump Jr. also went back to the ancient hold-my-beer meme, retweeting an updated version that mocked CNN.
And he repeatedly tweeted the #CNNBlackmail hashtag — accusing the network of coercing an apology out of the Reddit user who created the WrestleMania meme.
A meme about a meme, yes. Trump Jr. had learned much since his first foray into the world of Pepe the Frog.
Journalistic integrity question of the week. Which is worse? #CNNBackmail
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) July 5, 2017
Then, on Saturday, he shared “one of the best I’ve seen.”
Best memes, that is. It was his father’s face pasted over Tom Cruise’s fighter pilot in the climactic scene of “Top Gun” — Trump chasing a CNN logo pasted on what in the movie was a Russian-made MiG jet.
There may have been some unintended irony in Trump Jr.’s selection. The same day, the New York Times reported that he had met with a lawyer tied to the Kremlin during his father’s campaign.
But never mind. Trump and Trump Jr. have both downplayed investigations into the campaign’s possible collusion with Russian hackers as “fake news.”
In the latest iteration of the intergenerational cycle of memes, the father blasts CNN out of the sky, and the son shares it with the world.