The story behind those ultrapatriotic USA memes going viral this World Cup
If you’re following the United States’ World Cup matches on Twitter, chances are you’ve seen these viral memes: Artistic renderings of ex-American presidents depicted as superhuman war heroes in outlandish scenes — usually wielding guns and riding dinosaurs, or bears, or sharks, with explosions or fire in the background.
The uber-patriotic memes frequently circulate when the U.S. competes on the world stage, and they've resurfaced this World Cup.
The artist behind the designs, however, is "very apolitical" and not a big sports fan, he told Semafor in an interview.
"I'm kind of in it for the memes at this point," he said.
Jason Heuser, a Michigan-based digital artist, has been making the absurdist presidential portraits on Photoshop since late 2010. One day, while working a boring security guard job, he sketched Abraham Lincoln holding a machine gun on the back of a roaring bear. The piece went viral overnight, and he's "just been riding the wave ever since."
He drew George Washington standing atop rubble as dollar bills swirl around him, a Vickers machine gun in his right hand and a bald eagle perched on his left arm:
An especially popular piece shows an armed George W. Bush riding a shark in the sky, the American flag billowing behind him like a cape:
Heuser's Bill Clinton portrait, titled The Lady Killer, has several Easter eggs, including a saxophone strapped to Clinton's back and Ronald McDonald firing a gun in the background.
Heuser said he was inspired by the aesthetics of wrestling and old action movies. The pieces poke fun at the ultra-macho, flashy nature of American politics today, he said.
"I feel like people are watching politics like it’s wrestling," he said. "It’s all like wrestling to me. It's all a show anyway."
Heuser said he hates that he has to spell out for people that his work is in fact satire. Many of the World Cup tweets seem to be aware of the irony, but some have taken his art literally before.
His portrait of Donald Trump — showing the former president riding a Trump-branded tank in front of a giant American flag as a bald eagle shoots a machine gun — has become a popular meme in pro-Trump corners of the internet. The image was seen plastered on the van of a man who was arrested for mailing bombs to some of Trump's enemies in 2018.
"I've considered not really doing this anymore because some people take it so seriously. But I’m not gonna stop," Heuser said.
In one surreal moment in 2019, Republican Utah Sen. Mike Lee displayed a blowup of one of Heuser's pieces — Ronald Reagan firing a gun atop a velociraptor — on the U.S. Senate floor to argue against Democrats' Green New Deal climate proposal, saying both are equally unrealistic.
(Heuser looked up his recent sales and found Lee's office hadn't purchased an official print of the poster.)
Heuser plans to continue making the presidential art, working as a freelance designer for companies. Anyone who wants a custom, commissioned piece can contact him through his website — he's gotten requests like "a family portrait for Christmas of me and the kids riding dinosaurs fighting elves."
The U.S. plays Netherlands in the World Cup knockout stage Saturday — expect to see Heuser's art make the rounds once again.
"I guess that I’m happy that my art has become synonymous with America now, especially if it's in this little, brief moment when people search for 'USA,'" he said. "It's like I’ve branded America."