Politicians and media figures are starting to let their roots show, and this meme is about them
Every era gets the art it deserves. So Reaganism got Top Gun, in all its shallow, flashy and unexpectedly enduring glory. The Clinton era produced Jerry Maguire, a movie that seemed so smart in its time, but now just looks platitudinous, yet I find myself falling for its shallow charms again every time its on TV. Similarly, Blair had Damien Hirst and Oasis, all of whom seemed seminal in their time, but now just look embarrassingly of their time. The Bush era produced the first of Michael Bays Transformers, a crazy mess, the reverberations from which American cinema is still suffering.
Clearly Obama, the sui generis politician, produced the sui generis show, Hamilton, a glorious celebration of multicultural America, and one so good that the first thing Trump did after being elected president was attempt to go to war with it: soon after the 2016 election, the audience at the Broadway show booed the newly elected vice-president, who was in the audience. Apologize! tweeted the enraged president. Spoiler: the show did not apologise. I always enjoy it when Trump talks about how hes going to triumph over this foreign or that far-flung country. Its like, dude, you couldnt even get the better of a musical in your own hometown.
Which leads us, inexorably, to the Trump era. Only a year and a half in, and something has emerged that is so clearly the zeitgeist made real, the mood made into matter. Its not a movie, nor a book, nor a play. No, its a medium far more fitting for our ADHD, 280 characters or fewer, I only read the headlines era: its the 12-year-old Are We The Baddies? meme from That Mitchell And Webb Look.
This comes from a sketch in which Robert Webb and David Mitchell play SS officers, fighting loyally on the field. Except Mitchell suddenly has an epiphany: Hans, he asks Webb, are we the baddies? Despite its age, this meme has had an online resurgence in the past two years, so clearly does it relate to the present day. So, given Trump is himself a throwback that some of us had thought had been consigned to the dustbin of pop culture history, it feels appropriate that his time is represented by a 12-year-old meme.
Everyone in the UK and US today has grown up with the certainty that, whatever our countries flaws, we are, broadly speaking, the good guys. We are the ones who fought the Nazis, who bring democracy to fascism, light to darkness. But now we look around, post-Trump, post-Brexit, and we are suddenly living in countries led by mantras spouted by Nigel Farage and Fox News. Are we the baddies?
But this meme is not just about our own self-realisation. Now that we are almost halfway through this presidency, our politicians and media figures are starting to let their roots show, and this meme is about them. The Trump administrations sadistic family separation policy may have been suspended on 20 June, but reports continue to emerge of families torn up, of thousands of toddlers and children still separated from their parents. But then, as Fox News host Brian Kilmeade pointed out last week, Like it or not, these arent our kids. Show them compassion, but its not like he is doing this to the people of Idaho or Texas. I mean, if it were Texan kids in cages, that would be bad but Guatemalan five-year-olds: who cares? After a public backlash, Kilmeade insisted he has compassion for all children. All children are equal, its just that children from Idaho or Texas are more equal than others.
It reminds me of when cut-price Bond villain Arron Banks was asked about the spike in racist crimes post-Brexit, and replied with the timeless quote, Yawn.
Its easy to be blase and say that the Republicans, far-right Tories, Fox News and Daily Mail have always been awful, but only someone with no knowledge of the early 20th century could fail to see the parallels between then and now: the dehumanisation of immigrants, the casual cruelties against the most vulnerable members of society, the nationalism promoted by politicians and their mouthpieces as being for the people, when it only benefits the wealthy members of the far right.
In 1940, Nazi propaganda described concentration camps as being like youth camps; today, Fox News presenter Laura Ingraham describes migrant juvenile detention centres as being essentially summer camps. In 1942, Jews were led into showers and gassed to death; in 2018, migrant toddlers are taken away from their parents by US officials who say they need a bath, only to ship them out to a summer camp thousands of miles away. Trump himself famously described a neo-Nazi rally in 2017 as being full of very fine people, yet we continue to be surprised by what he does.
He once looked like a joke: a reality TV presenter who couldnt even get the better of a musical. But the hate he encourages is easier to spread than butter, and we dont even notice it until its too late. Are we the baddies?.