I’m a sucker for a good meme, but are they degrading our politics?

A poster from the Women’s March in Los Angeles.

I’ll tell you what I really admire about Donald Trump: he invented a haircut. OK, it doesn’t look good. It looks like someone shaved a golden retriever, then glued half of the hair on to Boss Nass, king of the Gungans. But if you think it’s easy to come up with something new, give it a try. And how about that weird, infantile yet camp phrasing he uses on Twitter? Do you see what an achievement it is to invent your own syntax? Very hard!

Trump’s face, huge tie, baggy suit and narcissistic manner all make him – apologies for this – iconic. Easily recognisable when reduced to a few essential elements, he represents our moment in history. He crops up a lot in the excellent exhibition Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-18 at the Design Museum in London, which demonstrates that good design is an elusive, amoral quantity. Shepard Fairey’s Obama poster struck a chord around the world, becoming a totem for change. When a different demographic saw the same possibility in a red trucker’s cap, we didn’t like it so much. The Make America Great Again slogan is written in Times New Roman, the world’s default font, and was seen as conveying an unaffected, everyman appeal. Genius, or lazy luck?

As the exhibition also shows, the most potent, DIY form of graphic design is the meme, knocked up in seconds, around the world in minutes. I’m a sucker for a political meme. I admire their verbal dexterity and subversive visual content. I laugh out loud at Obama-Biden bromance cartoons and Free Melania gifs. I miss the less-problematic days when Jeremy Corbyn eating a Pringle did big numbers. I loved the handmade Women’s March placards from around the world, shared on Instagram: “We shall overcomb”. “Super callous, fragile, racist, sexist, lying Potus”. The child wearing a sandwich board that reads: “I love naps, but I stay woke”? He really is the absolute boy.

There are a lot of subversive images in Hope to Nope, including a pro-Trump Star Wars parody, Rogue Won, by rightwing street artist Sabo, which was plastered over Hollywood’s bus stops. This was eye-opening because I didn’t realise that a) Hollywood had bus stops, and b) there was such a thing as a rightwing street artist. But there is, and they use the same tools as leftwing ones. A quick search throws up a parallel world of my favourite meme images – Morpheus, Evil Kermit, toasting DiCaprio – all with conservative messages. There’s also a darker, more particular realm that…

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