On Saturday, Donald Trump sent his press secretary, Sean Spicer, to the White House briefing room to excoriate the media. It was a strange and petty fixation: Spicer dedicated the entirety of his debut press briefing to nitpicking the unofficial crowd estimates at the inauguration, which he lied rather wildly about to advance the preposterous claim that Trump’s ceremony attracted “the largest audience to witness an inauguration — period.” After addressing the press for just five minutes, Spicer stormed out of the briefing room, refusing to field any questions. It was madness.
Trumpland has always been a vicious spectacle. But Spicer’s outburst was especially egregious — his lies so loud, ballsy, and absurd that they made the leap from civic horror to hashtag comedy. The Trump administration’s critics spawned #SeanSpicerSays to spoof the press secretary’s hyperbolic falsehoods. Twitter users also clowned on Spicer’s big-ass suit and compared his bloodshot visage to that of a zombie.
Jokes aside, Spicer’s tantrum was alarming, as it suggested that the Trump administration might indeed be prepared to followed through on earlier threats to drastically curtail press access to the White House. The following Sunday morning, Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd grilled White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway about Spicer’s meltdown. Conway told Todd that Spicer simply meant to provide the news media and its viewers with “alternative facts.”
This sound bite, too, took on a life of its own: Social media users spoofed Conway’s remarks, and news media — Mic, CBS, The Washington Post, the BBC, and many other publications — packaged the best of these tweets as standardized meme roundups. Spicer and Conway, senior propagandists for a strongman, were now the butt of several hashtags and viral-joke formats. Their boss, President Trump, has suffered no shortage of meme-worthy moments himself. Two weeks ago, Trump led his own hotheaded press conference debut as president-elect from a podium situated next to a table of folders presumably stuffed with business documents that looked an awful lot like blank sheets of paper. (Trump never publicly opened one of the folders, and no reporter in attendance bothered to kick the table over, so who knows.) In any case, Saturday Night Live mocked Trump’s bizarre press conference with a cold open aired three days later, thus fulfilling the now-standardized life cycle of all Trump news: from farce to tragedy and then, finally, back to farce.
On Twitter, a critic might set out to ridicule Conway, Spicer, and Trump in the manner that a traditional political cartoon or SNL might spoof a politician. However, in using memes to criticize Trump, and to cope with the sad and humorless realization of his governing agenda, the so-called resistance also risks perpetuating the “normalization” that it otherwise swears itself against — “normalization” being the term that many progressives have adopted to warn against the acceptance of Trump’s upheaval of various, honorable political conventions and social norms.
Even the most widely shared political cartoons don’t have quite this effect on discourse; artists draw them, and publications run them, but they represent one artist’s or publication’s opinion: op-ed columns, effectively. But memes aren’t just commentary or singular works of art; they’re social recreation so broad and captivating that they indeed manage to define entire news cycles.
Given President Trump’s notoriously frail ego — Obama’s roast of him at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner being definitive proof — there’s a sense that derision might play some crucial role in bringing Trump down. I suppose it’s part of a general attempt to detect Trump’s insecurities — about his finances, his masculinity, his self-esteem, or what have you — but I also think it’s clear by now that the president suffers little shame. About anything. And so I doubt even the most savage Twitter roast of Donald Trump or his associates serves much purpose beyond mining each horrific development for some small solace in the form of a laugh or two.
Following Spicer’s supposedly redemptive Monday press briefing, White House correspondents at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal credited Spicer with an honorable “reboot” in his first full and proper press briefing. There, Spicer doubled down on his lies about the Inauguration Day turnout, but at least he took questions and didn’t yell. (Ryan Lizza wrote a sharp dissent from this consensus for The New Yorker. “One of the dangers in covering an abnormal presidency is that journalists will constantly be on the lookout for signs of normalcy, and exaggerate and even celebrate them as proof that things aren’t so unusual, after all,” he writes.)
Meanwhile, news publications followed the weekend meme-ification of Spicer with humanizing fluff. The New York Times chronicled Spicer’s humorous, five-year Twitter feud with Dippin’ Dots. New York magazine recently made a point of rehashing a five-month-old Washington Post profile of Spicer just to highlight the fact that he chews obscene quantities of gum on a daily basis.
These are interesting personal quirks and tidbits, I guess. I can’t really begrudge anyone for spending a minute or two remarking upon the fact that the White House press secretary consumes a truly revolting volume of cinnamon spit per day. But I do worry that the many humorous takes on the current predicament reveal just how hopeless the attempts to resist the normalization of Trump’s administration will ultimately prove to be. More importantly, I worry that it proves how effectively Trump metabolizes all criticism and conflict as pure entertainment.