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News >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Trump Baby brings blast of hot air to Spokane

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 2, 2018

It was, all in all, an easy delivery.

Yes, there were wind issues. And a relocation. And it took a team of about 20 people to bring it to life.

In the end, though, the infant was just fine – big and orange and yellow-haired and open-mouthed and 20 feet tall, every bit as much the enormous gaseous windsack as the man who inspired him, tethered in the Spokane breeze at the corner of Division Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

The Trump Baby was one of two internationally famous political figures who visited us Tuesday, and it did just what it was meant to do: parody the demeanor and behavior of the president; attract cameras by the score; serve as ground zero for lefty protests against the visit from Vice President Mike Pence, who was here to rattle the cash bucket for U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and in favor of Democratic challenger Lisa Brown; and give activists a chance to meet, have fun and raise their voices as Americans.

“I think it’s really a chance to show that we don’t live in a monarchy – that we are free to mock our political leaders,” said Annemarie Frohnhoefer, one of a small crowd of volunteers and supporters who turned out to watch the balloon rise.

For Bill Moyer, the activist who brought Trump Baby to Spokane from the Vashon Island headquarters of his group, the Backbone Campaign, political ridicule is especially important now, given the president’s tendencies toward authoritarianism, toward coddling racism and misogyny, and toward exploring unforeseen reaches of dishonesty and corruption.

“Liberty must be exercised,” Moyer said. “Liberty is something – you utilize it or you lose it. Whenever you have a demagogue or a step toward authoritarianism … the best way to react to that is to laugh at it. To mock it.”

The Trump Baby is far from the only comedic representation of the president as a child or an infant – or a chicken – but it has become among the best-known since it first took to the air in London in July.

It drew a lot of interest from activists in America, where a few replicas have been made. The art-activist group Backbone Campaign, of which Moyer is the leader, got its hands on one via a donor. The Spokane appearance was the second time they used it; about a month ago the Trump Baby went to the Bumbershoot festival in Seattle.

Moyer drove the partially-inflated balloon to Spokane on Monday and met with volunteers to discuss plans that night. By midday Tuesday, with winds forecast at 18 mph and overcast skies, they decided to move from a park to the street corner at Division and MLK Jr. Way.

Moyer and the volunteers drove there in the group’s delivery truck, with two inflatables stuffed in the back – the Trump Baby and an inflatable Trident missile. (The Backbone Campaign has a wide variety of inflatables for demonstrations, including an orca, a salmon, a Death Star and a Statue of Liberty.)

The idea was to put the Trump Baby on the back of the missile, a figure reminiscent of Major T.J. “King” Kong riding a missile earthward at the end of the movie “Dr. Strangelove.”

Just after noon, Moyer led the group of volunteers trying to get the balloon out of the truck.

“You’re like a midwife,” he shouted out from inside.

“It’s such an ugly baby, though!” replied Cam Zorrozua, a Spokane attorney and one of the volunteers.

Out it popped, a large shape that didn’t resemble a Trump Baby yet at all, bound up in a blue tarp. About 10 volunteers carried it, like pallbearers, toward the southeast corner of the intersection. Across the street, campaign signs for Al French, Jeff Holy and other Republican candidates hung on chain-link fences.

The volunteers plopped the balloon onto the ground and began unwrapping and inflating it. Moyer said that winds were too strong to fly Trump Baby up high – it would have been in the trees, tangled in the power lines, a big mess. So they used a lot of air in addition to helium, and assigned volunteers to hold onto tethers to keep it firmly grounded.

As the balloon slowly began to swell, its resemblances began to clarify and come into focus. The diaper began to rise and tighten, a helium hose plugged right into the center. A volunteer used a bike pump to drive air into a port behind the right ear.

Before long, Trump Baby looked like an infant set loose on a blanket – balanced on his belly, raising his head and arching his back, not quite ready to crawl.

The air pressure intensified. An arm popped out, tight with air, phone in hand, and a leg slowly followed. A breeze tipped it aside and there it was – a scowling, raccoon-eyed visage, topped with a soft-cone swirl of cornflower yellow hair. By 1 p.m., Trump Baby was astride the inflatable missile, completing what Moyer saw as a comic representation of a frightening possibility: Trump with his finger on the nuclear button.

Protesters gathered at the feet of Trump Baby and at every corner of the intersection. Their signs and chants raised the many issues the president has ignited, from the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to women’s rights to immigration to the general, overall sense of daily exhaustion and unending offense that Trump critics feel so acutely.

A few Trump supporters showed up, too, and there was a little shouting – one man, face as red as his hat, simply hollered into a bullhorn, “Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!” repeatedly – but it was, all in all, not a terribly contentious situation, given the state of things in the country now.

It stood in stark contrast with the scene just a couple blocks away at the Convention Center, where flags and campaign signs and luncheon tables and patriotic songs were the order of the day, and local GOP royalty dressed up to shake hands with a hero – or at least a famous person who could help them raise money.

Trump Baby presided over another kind of scene – unruly, defiant, resistant, disrespectful. It’s comic, that baby, but for the people who raised it, it’s no laughing matter.

For Terry Lawhead, a former Spokane resident who helped raise that baby Tuesday, such demonstrations are a chance to engage the body politic, the good and the bad.

“When a person does an action like this, the interaction with other citizens is so uplifting,” he said, as the Division Street traffic flowed by and the occasional car honked in support. “Even if they’re flipping you off or shouting – even that is enlivening.”