To do the Trump challenge, start as follows: swivel your torso from side to side in the approximate manner of a malfunctioning animatronic figure, while simultaneously making your arms look like little chicken wings. Jerk your elbows back and forth haphazardly, then pump your first and purse your lips like a drunk dad doing their best Mick Jagger at a bar mitzvah. Clap twice. Mumble something unintelligible. Conclude by stretching your arms out, as if to offer benediction to no one, before pointing authoritatively at nothing.
This is the dance President Trump recently did at a Florida rally as the Village People’s “YMCA” blared in the background. There are a lot of questions raised by the video: What is Trump saying? Why does he seem constitutionally incapable of moving his feet? If “YMCA” was playing, why didn’t he just do the dance to “YMCA,” instead of….whatever that was?
But Julia Keith, a 26-year-old video editor based in Los Angeles, was just thinking one thing: She had to learn his dance then duet it before it went viral. It was not easy. “I’ve done 15 years of classical ballet,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I swear, it was so hard to figure out. I truly could not get his movements down.” Still, “I had no really political agenda,” says Keith, a Biden supporter. “I was just making fun of this extremely white dance.”
On October 17th, she posted a duet of her copying Trump’s idiosyncratic gestures down to the letter, adding a mashup of Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” and Savage’s “Swing” on top. Her video has since gone massively viral, racking up 6.5 million views on TikTok but also circulating on platforms like Twitter and Facebook — and she’s watched with horror as the trend has been embraced not by those mocking the president’s lame-o moves, but by his most ardent supporters, including his own daughter, leading Keith to become what she refers to as an “accidental MAGA icon.”
#duet with @crisnate0 This just might be the hardest tik tok dance I’ve ever done
At first, Keith says, the video seemed to be enjoying a fairly straightforward path to virality; the next day, she woke up and saw it had gotten two million views. Then she started noticing something odd about the comments. “Half of the comments were, ‘I can’t believe that’s our president,’” she says. “And half of the comments were, ‘Trump 2020.’”
She watched in real time as the “TikTok For You” algorithm, which feeds users content based on who they follow or what they’ve previously engaged with, started to feed her video to conservative TikTok users, as reflected by the comments on the post skewing further right. To those on the right, Trump’s dad moves weren’t just awkward, but endearing; Keith’s dance didn’t seem like mockery, but homage. Trump-supporting parents started tagging their children in the video, saying they wished their own kids could be more like Keith. It didn’t help that, with her long, tousled blond hair, preppy Vermont sweatshirt and white skin, Keith looks like the stereotypical Trump supporter (or at least, what Trump supporters wished the stereotypical Trump supporter looked like). “Someone was saying, if you weren’t white [the parodic element] would be very clear,” says Keith. “And it made me think, interesting how I fit the mold they wanted to see.”
Then the video started going viral outside of TikTok, further evolving into something of a Rorshach test for one’s political sympathies. Nowhere was that more clear than on Twitter, Keith says, where it goes by one of two names: the “Dementia J. Trump” dance, or the “Trump victory dance.” Then Ivanka Trump shared the video. Keith’s friends started pressuring her to use her new platform to formally make her original intentions known. So she posted a follow-up TikTok, “posts a video mocking Trump. Goes viral and becomes MAGA icon.” “This is not what I intended,” she wrote in the caption, a look of mock horror on her face.
On the NBC show 30 Rock, there’s an episode devoted to Governor Dunston, Mitt Romney’s fictional running mate who is secretly a terrible person, but whose buffoonish portrayal on the fictional sketch show TGS With Tracy Jordan goes viral and ends up humanizing him. In the waning days leading up to the election, Keith’s primary concern is that she has inadvertently Governor Dunston’ed President Trump with her impression.
“At first, it was nice to see people were enjoying it, but then after a little bit I stopped and listened to myself and said, ‘OK, where is this gonna go from here?’” she says. “‘Should I say something? Is this going to influence people’s votes? Will people see this and feel like Trump is humanized? Can a dance make someone vote for a candidate?’ I was contemplating a lot.”
Hyper-conscious of her newfound platform, Keith has decided to harness it for social good. She just posted an instructional voting video, and she plans to do a TikTok where she drops her vote in the ballot box (she is “100%” voting for Biden, she says). But her singular type of fame has given her renewed appreciation for the power of the viral news cycle, and the effect that even a silly dance can have on confirming or even swaying someone’s beliefs. “You never really know how much of your decisions are influenced by social media,” she says. “You can’t be like, ‘Oh, I voted for someone because of this video,’ but I know the internet is pretty powerful. My video could have contributed to some thoughts or feelings people had.”
More than anything else, the success of her dance has proven to her that people on the internet “see what they want to see,” she says. “It’s been mind-boggling to me to watch how divided the reaction was. And the funny thing was, I didn’t get a lot of hate, because each side was totally oblivious to the other.”