Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
How do you make light of something that isn’t funny anymore?
Baby Trump may be coming home, and Americans—well, some of them, at least—couldn’t be more delighted about it.
Baby Trump, of course, is the affectionate nickname given to the blimp launched by protesters during President Donald Trump’s visit to London last week. As the adult Trump met with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, Londoners mugged with a 20-foot inflatable balloon caricature floating around Parliament Square. A good time was had by all (except May).
Now activists in New Jersey hope to launch a flotilla of four Baby Trump blimps, so that the president they abhor can be annoyed by them in his homeland. In no time flat, the group known as the People’s Motorcade crowdsourced $24,000 toward a plan to tour the country with les infants terribles. (The blimp’s British creators have raised even more.) But watch out! Trump supporters have pledged to pop the Babies Trump, and even launch some Make America Great Again balloons as countermeasures.
There’s a trio of British museums looking to keep Baby Trump in London, however. The New York Times reports that the British Museum, the Museum of London, and the Bishopsgate Institute are all vying for Trump Baby, the official title for the original yuuge blimp. London might be resolutely #NeverTrump, but they’ve fallen hard for the Muppet Baby version.
And who wouldn’t? Trump Baby depicts a diaper-clad Donald, his orange fulsomeness on full view. This emperor can’t even dress himself. The crabby baby clutches his smart phone like a toy rattle, ready to shake off another noisy tweet if he doesn’t get what he wants. Matthew Bonner, the graphic designer behind Trump Baby, told Dezeen that he used “the language of mockery, because this is the language that [Trump] understands.” He makes a smart point about public protest in London: Fearing that the streets would be shut down, Bonner looked for a statement that could rise above. The blimp didn’t completely dissuade Trump from coming to London—the president was always going to be more comfortable in Brexit country anyway—but it did send a message, one that the president apparently received. “I guess when they put out blimps to make me feel unwelcome, no reason for me to go to London,” he said in an interview with The Sun.
Like those naked Trump statues that activists installed in several U.S. cities during the summer of 2016, Baby Trump belongs to the burgeoning genre of political art designed to shame a man who is known for his shamelessness. But it might be the most visible and enduring effort yet. Baby Trump schwag already comes in all sizes online and could soon be museum bound. Baby Trump memes continue bouncing around social media. The blimp itself is like a floating festival, primed to draw crowds and cameras wherever it goes. The Resistance has escalated, quite literally, into the sky. Whether the blimp elevates the discourse is a different question.
It was a safe bet that this visual would not please a president who famously does not laugh. But Trump isn’t the only audience for an anti-Trump demonstration—and the balloon is a message in and of itself. Why a balloon? Balloons are second only to confetti as markers of pure childlike joy. They’re the street signage that guides a parade, the herald of birthdays and carnivals and county fairs. Stephen King’s It notwithstanding, how does anyone get riled up over a balloon? Novelty-sized floating fun baubles are designed to put smiles on faces; balloons just aren’t the most obvious harbinger of the end of the liberal Western order.
Indeed, in its own not-at-all-small way, the adorably fussy Baby Trump balloon is a sign of the normalization of life under Trump that the president’s foes pledged to avoid. Its message is all-too-plain: The president is a baby, a toddler, full of hot air—above all, he’s a character. But he’s also a commodity. People’s eyes light up at the sight of Baby Trump. If the real Trump campaign has any sense, they’ll lean all the way into it, and find a way to sell Lil’ Trump tchotchkes at rallies on the road to re-election.
And while the blimp is meant to be a critique of Trump’s extravagances, Baby Trump belongs to a category of experience-as-demonstration that deserves scrutiny. It goes beyond saying that it’s an Instagram sensation—like a floating Museum of Ice Cream, one whose biggest expense is helium. (Disturbingly, Baby Trump even looks … kind of delicious.) This is protest scaled for social shares. As a honeypot for influencers, Baby Trump might compete with the Rain Room or the Rubber Duck or Los Angeles’s distressing new diet-themed Cheat Day Land, a “museum” that allows visitors to cavort amid giant junk food. (Seriously? That’s a thing we’re doing?)
From there, it’s easy to imagine Baby Trump taking on a life of its own. Maybe the design will evolve cinematically, with variants like Baby Deadpool Trump or Baby Minion Trump. Licensing and merch can’t be far behind satire this sensational, although the image of Trump in a diaper doesn’t belong to anyone. (As far as we know.)
Expect this buzzy blimp to deflate in a predictable way. Through endless repetition, the merchants of capitalism will drain the image of its dissent until the only value that remains is overstimulation. There’s even a model for it: the artist who has tried to make the novelty-sized rubber duck his exclusive marketable domain. Once the whole nation has consumed the blimp, don’t be surprised to see Baby Trump join Snoopy and Spider-Man in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
For critics of the administration, there are two arguments to make about this cartoonish protest. One is that the acts of the president—cruelly dividing families at the border, nudging NATO toward collapse, and perhaps actively engaging in what looks to many national security experts like treason—are all gravely real, and an inappropriate target for a helium-filled spoof. The other is to say, hey, why can’t people have a little fun?
They can, and unfortunately, they frequently do. (How many social justice demonstrations have been undone by an overly enthusiastic display of giant puppeteering?) Going into 2020, though, the left needs a new message. Trump-as-figure-of-ridicule didn’t do the trick during the 2016 election. That same tactic is unlikely to be any more convincing a second time around. Especially when it’s so damn cute.