Trump, in reality, is not ripped, as far as we know, but “there are large online communities where people are constantly sharing their art/edits of Trump in this manner,” Meredith Conroy, an associate professor of political science at California State University at San Bernardino, wrote in an email to The Washington Post. Conroy, who has studied depictions of masculinity in American presidents, added that “depictions of masculinity in presidents reflect insecurities and values of the time.”
Swole Trump is the opposite of the #Resistance’s depiction of Trump as a giant baby or an extremely unhealthy man. It is as much about making liberals mad as it is about memeing the president into a visual representation of what Trump’s biggest fans believe he is.
His paintings have a vibe of Warner Sallman, the American painter whose bearded, strong-jawed “Head of Christ” painting became the default portrayal of Jesus in American Christianity. Like Sallman, McNaughton is trying to canonize Trump as a physically imposing figure.
Big-and-strong Trump is what you see in those memes of Trump body-slamming CNN in a wrestling ring. (Trump once said that a politician who body slammed a reporter in real life was “my kind of guy.”) And as much as Swole Trump is a pro-Trump Internet thing, the tendency to valorize leaders for their physical strength is often reinforced by the media broadly.
“This simplistic view of strength, or leadership, is why gender scholars are critical of news coverage that speaks about politics in athletic/sports metaphoric terms,” Conroy says. “It signals that the competition is about something where women tend to be at a disadvantage.”
Swole Trump doesn’t just suggest that Trump is strong; it also suggests that people who don’t like Trump are weak. Ben Garrison, a cartoonist whose depictions of a muscular, large Trump physically besting his enemies are popular in pro-Trump spaces has said that his depiction of Trump as a “handsome alpha male” is enjoyable because it “really triggers the left.”
The president has appeared to embrace the Swole Trump meme even before he tweeted out the Stallone version. At a Florida rally Tuesday he told supporters that the media was falsely reporting that he went to the doctor over the weekend because of an “unbelievable heart attack,” and that the doctor actually told him to “take off your shirt, sir, and show us that gorgeous chest.” Trump has defended the size of his hands for similar reasons. In one of the 2016 debates, the then-candidate said there was “no problem” with the size of his hands — and, he seemed to imply, another body part.
“It is no coincidence that Trump is sharing this image after a week where people are publicly speculating about his physical health,” Conroy said. “I think Trump sees himself as his supporters see him — a strong patriot. Trump is an actor/performer, and his persona at rallies is a performance that tries to live up to this vision his supporters have of him.”
Swole Trump is representative of the perfection of the Internet’s ability to host and amplify multiple realities — in this case, a world in which the president is an Adonis-like man and, simultaneously, an overgrown infant. But hypermasculine depictions of presidents predate the Internet.
It’s not even the first time Stallone’s specific physique has been used; there was also “Ronbo,” the 1985 poster of President Ronald Reagan as a shirtless Rambo. And other presidents have attempted to project physically flattering images. Robert A. Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson describes the future president’s days in Congress, when he would refer to his genitals as “Jumbo.” And Teddy Roosevelt famously posed for photos dressed as a super-macho hunter.
It’s an attention-grabbing genre, and Swole Trump is no exception. And since startling the public to attention is the main goal of so many pro-Trump memes, it appears to have served its purpose.