A short history of politically-motivated blimps

From Baby Trump to Donald Rumsfeld quotes, there is a long tradition of airborne protest. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The idea of an inflatable “Trump Baby” taking to the skies of London to mock the US president’s visit has proved so popular that some are petitioning for the balloon to continue its service by following Trump up to his Scottish golf resort. Complete with nappy, mobile phone, and furious expression, the balloon has been welcomed by some as a sign of British anger at the president, while others deem it a childish and disrespectful sideshow.

The president’s power tie, intricate comb-over, and hand size-based insecurities leave him easily caricatured by protest artists – at the Rosenmontag carnival in Düsseldorf earlier this year, a parade float featured a naked gurning Trump being mounted by a Russian bear. Indeed, “Trump Baby” isn’t the first time that the president has been mocked in inflatable form. Over the last 18 months, a 33-foot blow-up chicken with an oddly familiar haircut has done the rounds stateside, popping up outside the White House, at a tax march, beside Breitbart financier Robert Mercer’s super-yacht, and most recently on a boat circling San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island – dressed as a convict.

The group behind “The Trump Chicken”, who call themselves “The Chicken Wranglers”, playfully deny that their literal jailbird is a political statement, claiming that “any similarity between Prisoner 00045 and the President of the United States is purely coincidental. Any comparison between the Chicken and Donald Trump is the fakest of Fake News”.

Inflatable protest itself is nothing new. In 2015, artist David Birkin flew a replica military observation balloon over London in protest against the Iraq War. The installation, titled “Evidence of Absence”, referred to the US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld’s claim at the time that, regarding weapons of mass destruction “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Outside the 41st G7 Summit in 2015, world leaders including Angela Merkel and François Hollande were greeted by large balloons bearing their faces and instructions to “be more than hot air”.

Arguably, the masters of the airborne protest are the environmentalist group Greenpeace. In 2014, campaigners floated a 135-foot airship over an NSA data centre in Utah, bearing the message “illegal spying below” complete with a handy downward arrow. The organisation’s A.E. Bates Thermal Airship, named after a loyal volunteer, takes to the skies whenever it wants to “make a big, loud, unmissable point”. A.E. Bates has flown a lot in recent years, carrying messages ranging from “protect out rainforests” to “Hillary, say no to fossil fuel $$$”.

Perhaps political protestors are so interested in the sky because it offers one huge canvas, with obvious potential for largescale statements visible for miles around. During the 2016 US presidential campaign, the words “Trump is disgusting” appeared in the sky above Pasadena, California, written in vapour by a team of five planes. They carried on to write “Trump is delusional” and “Trump is a fascist dictator”. The stunt was widely shared on social media.

Not all airborne protest has been anti-Trump, however. In Australia, sky-high protests are favoured by the right. At the Sydney Women’s March last year, one of many globally co-ordinated protests against the president’s inauguration, a skywriting plane funded by his supporters provocatively drew the word “TRUMP” in the air over the crowds. Ahead of the country’s gay marriage referendum, another plane scrawled the words “VOTE NO” in the sky over Sydney. This latter move was reported to the Australian Electoral Commission as a breach of campaign laws, although no action was taken (vapour trails are apparently not classed as official campaign literature).

The sky is not just the domain of political messages. In 2017, rival factions of Arsenal fans hired two planes from the same company to fly over a match against West Brom. Both referred to the debate about whether manager Arsene Wenger should continue, with one carrying the slogan “NO CONTRACT #WENGER OUT”, while the other declared: “IN ARSENE WE TRUST #RESPECTAW”. Many fans reportedly spent the game watching the skies rather than the football, which West Brom won 3-1.

Lastly, in December US Congressman Derek Kilmer was forced to draft a press release reprimanding two US Navy pilots, who had used their $60m EA-18G Growler fighter jet to draw a monumental penis in the sky over Washington State. It seems Trump has competition in the “airborne cock” stakes.

Whether or not “Trump Baby” makes it to Scotland, the cross-faced balloon has become emblematic of the fractious response to this not-a-state-visit. With tensions heightened by the president’s provocative stance at the NATO summit this week, hopefully the man in the red power tie can remain more grounded than his gas-filled lookalike.