Trump parody accounts link political patterns to famous film

Wednesday, January 18, 2017 - 5:05pm

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President-elect Donald Trump’s unique penchant for tweeting — and his distinct, brash style on that platform — has proven to be ripe for parody. But unlike that of Alec Baldwin on “Saturday Night Live,” which requires excellent acting in real time, plus all the production that accompanies it, Trumpian parodies on Twitter are essentially democratic; they only require an Internet connection and a working knowledge of pithy exclamations.

During and after the election, when it seemed Trump’s tweets alone gained as much media attention as all his opponents combined, Trump parodies and complements became something of a cottage industry.

Not all parody accounts, though, are created equal. Many that have spread virally are steeped in pop culture, and film in particular.

For Jimmy Lynch, a 32-year-old cycle courier from London, Trump’s tweet this past December attacking the magazine Vanity Fair after it negatively reviewed a restaurant in one of his towers spawned the creation of @Trump_Is_Hip. The account has over 5,000 followers and has provided Trump-esque criticism of various facets of pop culture.

“I think parody accounts help people laugh at the absurdity and hypocrisy of politics,” wrote Lynch in a private message on Twitter.

The most popular tweet to date from @Trump_Is_Hip was posted on January 4: “People say the movie E.T. is a classic but he entered the country ILLEGALLY and also wore a child’s dress! Not good!”

Lynch uses his Twitter account to project an image of an “uncultured” Trump. He revealed, “I thought tweeting about pop culture as Trump would be funny because he's soon to be president, he's mad as fuck, and I thought it would be funny if all he did was tweet about films and books and bands, mostly because I don't imagine he has any interest in that stuff.”

Twitter parodies serve as a potentially powerful form of modern political discourse. The details of politicians’ personal lives used to be concealed behind front-facing policies. Now, they’re not only widely discussed, but often used by voters to make their choices as well. Lynch embraces the role his account may play. 

“Copying Trump's style of tweeting means that it is hard for people to tell which account is actually him when they're scanning through their timeline,” Lynch wrote.

That conflation of parody and truth — and its accompanying power — is troubling for Tom Hunt, a 25-year-old aspiring lawyer who created Emperor Trumpatine (@RealTrumpatine) with his friend, Daniel Bogre Udell, also 25, and director at Wikitongues, which serves as a platform for global languages. The account depicts the arch-villain in the “Star Wars” anthology, Emperor Palpatine, as a Trump-like figure. One was visiting the other during the primary season last spring when they began recognizing similarities between the candidate and the character.

“I don’t think parody accounts should play any role in shaping anyone’s politics,” Hunt wrote in a private message over Twitter. “The parody account is just that — parody — and anyone who uses it to inform themselves of actual news I think is doing themselves and the country a disservice.”

Bogre Udell disagrees. The type of parody the two create “can play a role in political discourse — in pointing out hypocrisies, highlighting the absurd, and speaking truth to power,” he wrote. “As the saying goes, ‘good satire punches up.’”

For Hunt, his parody is less political than his peers.

“Some people might read into it that we’re trying to deliver some subliminal message that Trump is going to be an emperor or dictator,” he wrote. “That’s not how I see it at all.”

Hunt and Bogre Udell believe that mimicking Trump’s defining brash tone is key. According to Hunt, Trump’s “brashness and constant need to respond to critics add to the absurdity and humor of this evil Star Wars villain acting similarly brash and ‘sensitive’ if you will.”

The duo is particularly adept at copying that style. When Trump started to appropriate the term “fake news” (see his January 12 tweet: “.@CNN is in a total meltdown with their FAKE NEWS because their ratings are tanking since election and their credibility will soon be gone!”), their account tweeted later that day: “Jedi Council is in total meltdown with their FAKE PROPHECIES because their powers are tanking (clouded)&their credibility will soon be gone!”

The mass appeal of the “Star Wars” franchise, Hunt and Bogre Udell wrote, is what makes their form of parody so popular. Its followership is bipartisan and its world-construction is “sprawling,” allowing an endless supply of material so long as Trump keeps being Trump.

Ironically, one of the most popular of the Trump parody accounts is @ArtHouseTrump, with over 24,000 followers, in which Donald Trump participates in rather niche film discussion. The account is run by David Johnston, who after starting in March has since ceased tweeting. @ArtHouseTrump, which didn’t respond to a request for an interview, gained traction during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival last September.

It’s unambiguously entertaining for film fans, perhaps because of a jarring juxtaposition between the populist brand that Trump exuded during the campaign and the elite circles that typically enjoy the films in question. In fact, when other similar parodies began to appear, modeled on other candidates like Jill Stein and Hillary Clinton, they didn’t have the same bite or familiarity. In other words, Ted Cruz’s Twitter cadence isn’t particularly distinctive; Trump’s is.

Take, for instance, a criticism of the Democratic Party’s donkey logo rooted in a reference to Robert Bresson’s 1966 French drama “Au Hasard Balthazar:” “What does it say about the Democratic Party that they would steal Balthazar for their main symbol? I don’t know, folks! But it’s not right!”

Like the “Star Wars” account, @ArtHouseTrump is particularly at successful at translating Trump’s own talking points into thematic tweets. For instance, Trump’s criticism of coastal media elites is transformed into disdain for high-minded critics who are disconnected from the common filmgoer.

The parody Trump even replicates its namesake’s tendency to respond over Twitter to criticism. When actress Jessica Chastain tweeted negatively about Trump’s tax policy history, in which the then-Republican candidate for president said in a debate that he was smart to avoid paying taxes, @ArtHouseTrump responded by tweeting, “To be fair, you owe the American people for Interstellar!”

These three parody accounts are engaged in a sort of blurring of popular fiction and populist free thought. By juxtaposing Trumpian rhetoric with a niche topic like film, the parodies equalize the president-elect with more familiar faces: the critical co-worker, the space opera super villain or that one annoying guy in your friend circle. Sad!