On Jan. 16, three days before the Women’s March, approximately 10,000 copies of a fake Washington Post print edition were distributed at select locations in Washington, including Union Station and the White House. With the headline, “Unpresidented,” the paper, post-dated May 1, 2019, announced the departure of the embattled president. The report, also online, said Trump fled the White House and left his resignation on a napkin in the Oval Office.
The fake eight-page newspaper depicts the rise of political support for progressive legislation. The media activist group, the Yes Men, as well as writers Onnesha Roychoudhuri and L.A. Kauffman, took credit for the action hours after the paper surfaced.
Roychoudhuri and Kauffman say they are channelling a growing collective resistance and desire to move beyond the harmful and regressive policies enacted by the Trump administration. Kauffman said: “This paper offers a blueprint to help us reclaim our democracy.”
Official accounts from the Yes Men say that Trump’s imagined resignation is the result of a “women-led, multi-racial grassroots resistance.”
A new creative resistance
The protest parody of the Post is part of a recent wave of creative activism.
Far from wanting to occupy the spotlight alone, the Yes Men have increasingly worked as a facilitator for various groups already creating inroads to bring about change. When planning for their fake Washington Post issue, “Bye Bye 45: A Guide to Bringing Him Down,” they extended a wide invitation to anyone wanting to participate in Trump’s removal from office.
Although the news is fake, the paper includes an action guide that highlights proven tactics from real events of non-violent protest, modelling best practices for civic engagement.
Some of the imagined efforts to remove Trump from office include large-scale actions, such as a “sippy-cup sit-in” (where mothers with young children occupy elected officials’ offices until they agree to stop cooperating with Trump); others mirror recent publicized actions, such as a government building blockade in Austin, Tex., by young women wearing quinceañera gowns to create a spellbinding “wall of floof.”
The general idea is for activist groups to create attention-getting or “media-genic” actions to attract news media coverage on important civic issues. The use of a hook or spectacular arc is usually enough to set the ball in motion.
Networks of change
The Yes Men have refined this approach over the past 20 years, creating opportunities to entice journalists to report on marginalized causes and generate attention for pressing contemporary issues like climate change. They have impersonated powerful entities and people like former president George W. Bush, the World Trade Organization, Dow Chemical and Environment Canada, among others.
Since 2012, the group has inspired more than 43 mediated campaigns by mentoring and collaborating with a wide range of activist organizations, including Greenpeace, Occupy and Idle No More.
This isn’t the first time the Yes Men and their collaborators have published a fake newspaper. Almost 10 years ago, they circulated a fake New York Times (2008) and a fake New York Post (2009). The spirit of the critique levelled in each iteration remains both timely and relevant.
Their parody of the New York Times announced the end of the Iraq War and the beginnings of universal health care — all just after Barack Obama’s historic presidential win. Their New York Post delivered sober warnings on the impacts of climate change in New York City and globally.
What ties these three projects together is the desire to move past the regressive politics of the present to create and implement new policies and legislation that will benefit citizens and deepen democracy.
Imagining a better future
The writers and editors of the May 1, 2019 fake Post don’t stop at merely critiquing Trump’s actions, rhetoric or policies. They create an alternative vision of life in the United States after Trump, with a breakdown of progressive legislation already in the works.
Possible ideas include: “The Bundle,” a cluster of 64 bills centring on the Green New Deal, “Medicare for All,” and “H.R. 1” election reform. These are ideals to shape a new political agenda that will rival the Great Society and the New Deal.
In a political moment characterized by government dysfunction and propelled by polarization and division, the fake Post offers a brief reprieve from the escalating chaos. It envisions new directions for activist protest, civic engagement and political leadership.
In the past, the Yes Men have called this practice “creating headlines we’d like to see.”
It only takes 3.5 per cent of the population
Trump has been openly hostile towards what he has called “the fake news media.” It is a term he uses to disparage all journalists and news organizations that are critical of him.
This, coupled with the actual circulation of fake news to manipulate public opinion, creates an erosion of credibility and trust in news media.
But activist media hoaxes should not be so readily dismissed. A cursory glance of the Yes Men paper quickly reveals that it is designed to be a parody and not to trick audiences. The Yes Men have patented a “fool and reveal” method to announce their hoaxes with the greatest degree of transparency possible.
The Washington Post hoax was created to express a public desire for Trump to be held accountable, and ultimately for him to be impeached or removed. The ultimate success of this hoax may lie in its ability to place women as the central actors in activist and social movements today.
In this regard, the hoax is intimately connected to the political stakes tied to the recent Women’s March. The Yes Men explain that none of the projects in “Bye Bye 45” are possible without meaningful action by everyday citizens. Recall the false lead story reported that Trump’s departure was prompted by “massive women-led protests” around the country.
“Bye Bye 45” alludes to the findings of political scientist Erica Chenoweth, who found it may take only 3.5 per cent of the population to topple a dictator with civil resistance.
Globally, more than four million people attended the first Women’s March in 2017, soon after Trump’s inauguration. If women (alongside their numerous allies) are able to continue to lead, organize, protest, mobilize and pressure political decision-makers, the political and legislative changes described in “Bye Bye 45” may come to fruition.