A Look Back at the Trump Era

On the morning of January 20, 2021, I found myself watching Joe Biden’s inauguration on the CNN livestream. I recall the distinct feeling of reemerging from some subterranean enclave in which I had spent the past four years of my life, along with many of my fellow Americans, like a nation of mole people coming to the surface to squint up into the sunlight. And with a vague sense, too, of having been through something together, some ordeal, whatever it was. It’s probably too early to say what historians will make of the Trump era, but they will likely be guided by the same artifacts that we ourselves, the People Who Live Online, have created to shepherd us through this time in our history. I speak now of what we have entered, wittingly or not, into the historical record for posterity. I speak now of the memes.

By now the meme has become the internet’s primary vehicle for discourse. Typically a simple image overlaid with text, a meme is ideally suited for viral spread across social networks. Taken together, they form a near-perfect conduit for understanding our life and times, like a weird mosaic reconstructed from pieces of the cultural subconscious. Our memes will tell our stories, whatever they are, whether we want them to or not. Our memes will outlast us.

A few of the highlights from the past four years, in no particular order:

The split-screen photo featuring Trump’s windblown hair on the left panel, and a tasselled corncob on the right, with the caption, “Who wore it best?” straddling the divide.

The entire President Supervillain Twitter account, which superimposed Trump’s actual words, many lifted directly from his tweets, into speech bubbles uttered by Red Skull, the villain of the Captain America comics. There was always a certain uncanny element to this one that struck me as both hilarious and uncomfortable at the same time, not unlike being hit in the funny bone.

The Trump Draws Twitter account taking GIF images of Trump holding up newly signed executive orders for the camera, with the order itself replaced by a childish drawing that often referenced something in the recent news that Trump had been going off about on Twitter.

A Twitter thread begun by history professor Kevin Kruse, matching each member of Trump’s cabinet with a corresponding Bond villain, with a few too-close-for-comfort parallels (admittedly not a meme in the singular, but rather a multipart, semicollaborative meme running over the course of several posts).

And the list goes on…

There were also the vice presidential debates on October 7, 2020, which proved notable not for anything said by either of the candidates but rather for the fly that landed on Mike Pence’s head, inspiring a flurry of memes across social media. These ranged from the puerile (“Flies love BS,” “Actual footage of a fly on shit,” etc.) to the fairly obvious (all of those “pretty fly for a white guy” memes making the rounds on Facebook) to the uncomfortably topical (a photo of Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a caption reading, “I sent the fly.”) The one meme that managed to stay with me, however, was one I saw on Twitter, retweeted by someone in my feed. It featured a screenshot from an online reference page, reading: “The Hidden Symbolism of Insects in Western Painting: Fly – symbol of rot, wasting away, decay, death, melancholia. A fly hovering over a church official or nobleman indicates disfavour with the king or corruption and dereliction of duty.” It was paired with a frozen frame of the Pence photo from that night’s debate replacing the original photo. It struck me as clever at the time, the sort of uncanny parallel that hints at something deeper running beneath the surface. I scrolled on and didn’t really think much about it. Then, three months later, a crowd of angry Trump supporters gathered outside of the US Capitol building in an attempt to halt the official vote count, chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” Disfavour indeed.


While no meme can predict the future, memes can, perhaps, tell us something about our present moment. The relentless, almost feverish pace of meme activity during the Trump years suggests a kind of collective discomfort with the administration, what I have come to think of as our “crisis of narrative.” Since Trump took office – indeed, since he announced his candidacy for the presidency in the first place – there has been a collective sense of discomfort at what this means for the way we understand ourselves and the country we live in. The memes, in this sense, can perhaps be read as our attempt – consciously or otherwise – to grapple with the meaning of a world we thought we knew. Many of the most effective and haunting memes have been those – like the Pence/fly art symbolism meme, or President Supervillain, or the Bond villain/cabinet official Twitter thread – that grapple with the symbolic meaning of the American presidency since 2016.

And it is no secret that the Trump administration itself had been plagued by a crisis of narrative from the very beginning. In short, nobody – from the press secretary to cabinet officials to President Trump himself – knew how to explain its actions to the rest of us in a way that made sense. This crisis of narrative was further compounded by a revolving door of press secretaries, i.e., the people hired to create a coherent public narrative for the White House. And it was further compounded by the way that the Trump administration seemed to embody, to an uncomfortable degree, the dystopian narrative arc of Back to the Future II, with President Trump standing in for Biff Tannen after altering the past to accumulate wealth and power.

This crisis of narrative surfaced in the traditional media, too, as noted by countless hand-wringing op-eds about “the new normal.” The memes responded in kind, filling the narrative void with whatever materials lay at hand. And as we bid farewell to an era that the noted historian Ron Chernow once called “a surreal interlude in American life,” I do wonder if the golden age of the meme is behind us. This combination of surrealism and collective, existential discomfort on a mass scale seems to have been a unique by-product of the Trump years. It is not likely to occur again in the same potency, at least while Biden occupies the Oval Office.

If nothing else, these memes remind us of a time when many of us required a sort of narrative prosthesis to make sense of the world, in the form of images merged with text replicated endlessly through the internet like a hall of mirrors. Though the presidency has returned more or less to “normal,” there is something that still feels not quite real about the past four years, something about the Trump administration that we still seem to be trying to wrap our heads around. I think of the press conference debacle at Four Seasons Total Landscaping, a moment in itself that launched a thousand memes. The incident – in which Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s then-attorney, hosted a press conference at Four Seasons Total Landscaping about the campaign’s legal challenges to the Pennsylvania ballot count – seemed to mark the end of the Trump era in some vaguely symbolic way. Perhaps in retrospect, this was the only way the Trump’s era could have ended: with a press conference at a landscaping company on the outskirts of Philadelphia, located between a sex shop and a crematorium, with Rudy Giuliani yelling into the void about the media and phantom voter fraud. It was as if some fourth wall had finally broken and we were at last able to see ourselves watching the whole thing play out in real time: a real-life meme containing ourselves and everyone we knew, live on TV. The symbolic resonance alone provided a certain novelistic sweep to the whole scene. Who among us, after all, is not tending to their own garden, in the imperfect and slightly sketchy liminal space between our biological urges and the shadow of death?

As an English teacher, I can assure you that this is top-shelf symbolism, a metaphor for the ages. That the establishment itself shares its name with a famed luxury hotel called the Four Seasons – located just five blocks away from where the ballots were being counted and which we all just sort of assumed would be the location – somehow makes it all the more poignant. This moment, now immortalized in the annals of cyberspace, will be with us forever. It is now up to the historians of the future to piece these events together and make sense of it all. Who knows – they might one day find a satisfying narrative arc for the Age of Trump. It may even provide us with something like closure.

Kevin Hadsell

Kevin Hadsell

Kevin Hadsell is a writer and teacher living near Portland, Oregon, teaching dual-credit English and social studies at Metro East Web Academy. He has published with McSweeneys Internet Tendency, The Portland State Vanguard, and Euphemism, an online literary journal, and holds an MA in English from Portland State University.

Kevin Hadsell is a writer and teacher living near Portland, Oregon, teaching dual-credit English and social studies at Metro East Web Academy. He has published with McSweeneys Internet Tendency, The Portland State Vanguard, and Euphemism, an online literary journal, and holds an MA in English from Portland State University.

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