This is Galaxy Brain, a column that unpacks all things extremely online.
Last week, the Facebook page for Iowa congressman Steve King posted an especially meme-heavy fundraising message. Before reading it, bear in mind that King—who is known for his frequent racist comments, vehement opposition to immigration, ties to far-right white nationalists, and drinking out of a toilet to own the libs—is 70 years old.
“QUESTION: Do you enjoy our memes??” it read, with ample emojis thrown in. “If so, please click the link below and throw us a few dollars to make sure the memes keep flowing and the Lefties stay triggered. Thank you!!” Attached was the meme “Success Kid,” a photo in which a baby stares into the camera with a look of fierce determination while clutching a handful of sand, along with the text “FUND OUR MEMES!!!”
It’s not exactly surprising that the campaign used the photo: political memes have become increasingly common in the past few years, especially on the right. (Take Pepe the Frog being co-opted by white nationalists or HBO has repeatedly asking Trump to stop using Game of Thrones memes.) But it was upsetting to Florida resident Laney Griner, the mother of the boy in the image. “I was definitely not happy about it,” Griner told GQ. “I’ve known about Steve King for a long time and he’s not someone I care for or agree with in any way.”
Griner condemned the King campaign for using her son’s photo without permission and called him a “vile man” and the Republicans a “disgusting party” on Twitter. Per the Washington Post, her attorneys also sent a cease-and-desist on Monday demanding that King take down the photo and issue a public apology by Wednesday. While the post has since been removed, she told GQ she and her attorney have yet to hear anything from King’s team. (GQ reached out to King’s office for comment and will update this article when we hear back.)
When Griner first posted the photo of her then-11-month-old son Sam to her Flickr account in 2007, she never could have imagined it would explode into a viral phenomenon. Nor was she a fan of the meme’s earliest iterations, like “I Hate Sandcastles,” which included another child doctored into the background, with the implication that her son had destroyed that child’s sandcastle. “It was hard to see it get this negative,” she said. “Making him look like a bully.”
So Griner licensed the photo through Getty in 2009 and then, after attending ROFLCon—a convention for memes and internet celebrities held at MIT—in 2012, hired a brand manager and attorney to handle the official copyright. Since then, the photo has been used in ads for Coca Cola and by the Obama White House. “While I am a liberal, and that is clear, it’s not just about that,” Griner said. “I wouldn’t be completely opposed to a Republican using it, as long as it was a good message, promoting something positive or something we believed it.”
“He’s basically been a meme for as long as he knows. But once he hit 12, 13 it was just like, an embarrassment for him,” Griner said when asked how her son feels about this. “He watches the news with us and he definitely is not a fan of Trump or what this party is about.”
“If they had requested this, I would have never said okay,” Griner added of the King controversy. “No matter how much money.”
Originally Appeared on GQ