President Donald Trump is reimposing US sanctions on Iran waived under the nuclear deal on November 5. He decided to publicize this in the traditional way: tweeting a Game of Thrones meme.
The meme repurposes House Stark’s famous words, “Winter is Coming,” by saying that “Sanctions are Coming” — written in the show’s standard font, of course. These sanctions harshly punish key sectors of the Iranian economy, including energy and shipping, and thus could inflict serious hardship in a broad swath of Iranian citizens (not just the leadership). The modified Stark words are superimposed on a photo of Trump looking posing like an action hero. This is a typical trope of right-wing memes, which reimagine Trump as a buff soldier fighting for America against the country’s enemies.
If previewing a policy change that could affect millions of people with a gleeful, braggy pop culture reference feels a bit callous to you, you’re not alone.
But these two things put together — the Game of Thrones reference and the action hero iconography — also point to a largely under-appreciated point about the way politicians and citizens alike approach policy: At least some of the time, narratives derived from pop culture really do shape the way they think.
While it’s easy to think of people as coolly rational, weighing political costs and benefits, the truth is that things are a bit more complicated than that. A complex series of ideological and psychological factor shape the way humans think about themselves and their policy decisions. One of the sources of a person’s ideology, meaning the narratives they use to make sense out of the world, is the lessons they take away from fictional works.
International relations scholars J. Furman Daniel III and Paul Musgrave, for example, have argued that Tom Clancy novels shaped the way that the American elite approached both the latter years of the Cold War and the post-9/11 response to terrorism.
“Unusually direct evidence testifies that many US officials have read and endorsed Clancy’s novels,” they write. “Clancy’s fictions were so embedded in the consciousness of the news media that his fiction leaped to mind as an interpretive frame through which to make meaning of unprecedented events — and made Clancy a well-enough-regarded authority to be promoted as an interpreter of the attacks because he seemed to have foretold an otherwise inexplicable event.”
I’m not suggesting that Trump sees himself as some heroic character from the show — say, Jon Snow fighting Iranian White Walkers. While Trump does watch a lot of TV and tweet a lot, we’ve never heard tell of him watching Game of Thrones. Rather, the show’s iconography superimposed on an action pose suggests that Trump sees himself as a conquering hero in a more generic sense: A man fighting a noble struggle, and justified in inflicting pain if it accomplishes his own goals and just seems kind of awesome.
To be clear, that is just an informed guess. Maybe Trump just thought it was cool-looking, or maybe he really is a Game of Thrones fan who imagines himself in combat on the Wall. Or maybe it was just a lower-level staffer on his account who thought it was cool. But regardless, it shows that there’s at least some purchase for this kind of heroic-fiction narrative in the White House, shaping how they want the public to think of them and quite possibly how the president thinks about himself.
Oh, and one last thing: according to George R.R. Martin, the author of A Game of Thrones, Donald Trump is most definitely Joffrey Baratheon.