Politicians are routinely compared to fictional villains, but Donald Trump is one of only a few to actively court these comparisons. Sometimes this is an ordinary act of reclaiming someone else’s insults, but often, it’s more like a quasi-ironic attempt to appropriate the coolness and machismo of villainy. Trump is the presidential version of 4chan denizens adopting Bane and the Joker as patron saints: some men want to watch the world burn, others salivate at the prospect of beating up protestors. This goes a long way toward explaining why Trump might decide to make a policy announcement by tweeting a Game of Thrones meme.
Earlier today, Trump tweeted a steely looking picture of himself overlaid with HBO’s Game of Thrones font, declaring that “Sanctions are coming” on November 5th. The White House Twitter feed explained that this was a reference to Trump reimposing sanctions on Iran, and of course, the announcement is a play on “Winter is Coming” — the motto of the Stark family in Game of Thrones.
The slogan has a multi-layered meaning for the Starks, but it’s better known as Game of Thrones’ tagline, where it’s linked to the arrival of a literal wintry hell and an army of murderous ice zombies. (I’m being imprecise, but my colleague Chaim can explain the details, and Trump isn’t known as a big Game of Thrones fan in any case.) Winter is a terrifying event for characters in every political faction, with the exception of the Night King, who — according to the showrunners — is such an innately destructive monster that he can’t even be considered evil.
There’s a good chance Trump’s social media managers were just casting around for a well-known catchphrase, and you can obviously reference Game of Thrones without endorsing one of Westeros’ villains. Obama himself cracked a joke about getting Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland confirmed through a “Red Wedding”-style political takeover in 2016. What’s notable is how seriously Trump uses his reference. The tweet isn’t consciously hyperbolic or self-deprecating, like a lot of memetic references — it’s pure and deeply unhumorous political amplification, something HBO itself isn’t too happy about. Like a lot of Trump messaging, the Game of Thrones tweet boils down to I’m going to hurt somebody. Isn’t that cool?
How do you say trademark misuse in Dothraki?
— HBO (@HBO) November 2, 2018
This is why a painting of Trump astride a tacky golden tank can appeal to a Trump-obsessed alleged bomber, even while it’s sort of making fun of the president: Trump’s brand is amoral power, and pointing out that he’s playing the villain just makes it stronger. Maybe the only solution is to replace him with a symbol of equal power — like, say, the visage of America’s most unsettling anti-fascist hero:
Or, as series creator George R.R. Martin suggested in a reply tweet, you can just make sure to vote.