The 2016 presidential election was a political caricature goldmine. With a large cast of candidates and the heated debates, the election sometimes felt more like a reality show than a political race. And like all good reality shows, inside jokes grow and spread, becoming a part of the public consciousness.
While there are many great caricatures that we can draw from, I want to talk about one in particular: Donald Trump’s tiny hand memes. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, please use the below graphic to educate yourself before we get started. If you’re familiar with the meme, just enjoy this picture and chuckle to yourself.
I chose this meme because it is rich with potential analytical topics, including the magic of how it started. This meme was borne from a comment by Republican candidate Marco Rubio in early 2016, supposedly in response to being called “Little Marco” by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. In his rebuttal, Rubio said that Trump, though a large man, has disproportionately small hands. “You know what they say about men with small hands?”, Rubio said. “You can’t trust them.”
This is, of course, not what people say about small hands. Middle school boys do not joke with their friends that “the bigger the hands, the more you can trust them.” Instead, middle school boys joke that there’s a correlation between sizable hands and sizable penises.
In thinly-veiled language, Rubio was questioning Trump’s masculinity.
Trump, in return, responded with similarly thinly-veiled language about his hands — and all parts of his body — being normal-sized. He placed emphasis on the comment because it offended his masculinity.
Trump’s clear annoyance with the comment fueled the fire, creating a meme that would last throughout the campaign and into his presidency, all featuring Trump with tiny hands.
This brings us to the second important consideration: accessibility. Before the advent of computers, political commentary in symbolic form was limited to the Thomas Nasts and Pat Oliphants of the world. The cartoonists were the ones with the ability and the outlets. Memes have made parody much more accessible, combining relatively simple technology — digital photo editing — and ubiquitous outlets with social media platforms. Memes like this one, where the main point is simple, are easier to make than ever before. This aspect, combined with the fact that Trump was clearly concerned about maintaining his masculinity, made the meme an instant hit.
One of the main points that we’ll touch on with memes is the fact that they exist in a public space, and often have public ownership. They are created by individuals, but often are attributed to a forum or group, like 4chan contributors or Redditors. This meme is a prime example of that, and a great way to understand how memes can be brought into the collective memory as a derivative from a public moment. The moment has mostly been forgotten, even a year later, but the Trump tiny hands memes are remembered still.
Feature image by Flickr user Karl Ludwig Poggemann. License information at: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode.