The Politics of Images

Official White House photos from the Battle of Lafayette Square.

“President Trump Visits St. John’s Episcopal Church” by The White House is in the Public Domain, CC0

Rather obviously to regular readers, I have an interest in photography. As such, I was struck by the following images on the White House’s official Flickr page, all from what Robert Kagan aptly (and cheekily) called the “Battle of Lafeyette Square.”

I do not know how that page is curated, but I know that without a doubt someone is making specific choices about what is posted. Even in Trump’s relatively brief excursion into the square, it is likely that hundreds of shots were taken, and so choices were made about which ones to keep, process and then post to the account. Somebody, therefore, is making some kind of point with these choices.

And it should not be forgotten that there was a conscious choice to engage in this event and to have it photographed in the first place. Indeed, these images are a combination of the choices to stage the event, to have the event photographed, and to post specific images to the Flickr page.

I am not, by the way, saying with any certainty as to what the actual reasons for these choices were, but rather these are my interpretations.

Note that all of these are in the public domain, and I have linked directly from Flickr–so you can click through on each image to get a larger shot or to look at others that I did not include.

First, we have Trump leaving the White House, clearly to show him to be a Man of Action:

President Trump Visits St. John's Episcopal Church

We then have several shots of the walk into the square. Trump is in the lead, with his subordinates a few paces behind.

President Trump Visits St. John's Episcopal Church
President Trump Visits St. John's Episcopal Church

The image of General Milley, the CJCS, in his BDUs is also jarring.

The shot that I used in my previous post is especially telling, as it has massively authoritarian vibes. This is not just law enforcement being respectful of POTUS, this is law enforcement in riot gear after they have used the power of the state to clear the park of peaceful protests so that Trump could take a stroll. And this image is clearly intended to project Trump’s authority and power. Further, these LEOs are all props for Trump’s ego–after all, the whole clearing of the park was not necessary and was done so Trump could get his photo taken.

President Trump Visits St. John's Episcopal Church

Speaking of the photo that was taken, it is striking to me that these are the ones posted, as by definition it means they are the ones that were considered the best by whomever it is that curates the page. Trump looks dour and uncomfortable to me in these shots:

President Trump Visits St. John's Episcopal Church
President Trump Visits St. John's Episcopal Church

As the cliche goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and it is always worth thinking about which thousand words the choices behind a given image may be trying to convey. This is especially true with official government images.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Photography, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Mister Bluster says:

    …Trump looks dour and uncomfortable…

    I think he looks better here.

    4
  2. mattbernius says:

    For all of the staging of this as an event to create these artifacts, it’s telling that there isn’t a single black member of the Trump administration in any of those pictures as far as I can see.

    7
  3. CSK says:

    With respect to Trump’s facial expression: He’s probably striving for a look of stern resolve. As usual, all he can muster up is juvenile petulance.

    15
  4. Kit says:

    As the saying goes, you can’t polish a turd. But what do Evangelicals think about these photos? Weren’t they the reason Trump went through the trouble of picking up a Bible in the first place?

    2
  5. Raoul says:

    Graf 3 “And it should not be forgotten …”

    The good news, as it were, is that Trump’s popularity with Catholics has plummeted 23 points in about two months. I have issues with the whole ‘pro-life’ framing, but I’ll give lay Catholics credit: many of them see his indifference to Covid deaths and have his number.

    The bible tomfoolery, including infuriating the Archbishop of D.C. is likely not even reflected all that much in that poll, though it was in the field as unrest spread.

    5
  6. CSK says:

    @Kit:
    Yeah, but apparently he picked the wrong edition: Fundies adhere to the King James. Trump was waving around a revised version from 1989. Not that many of the culties noticed.

    1
  7. charon says:

    At the top of this link is a GIF of Trump with the Bible, apparently puzzled at what he should be doing with it, eventually just holds it up.

    http://yastreblyansky.blogspot.com/2020/06/foundering.html

    4
  8. charon says:

    @Kit:

    People like Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress are cheering it as expression/confirmation of support for their issues. Of course, those guys are so publicly all-in on Trump they can’t back off now, locked in.

  9. CSK says:

    @charon:
    It’s hard to figure out exactly what Trump’s intent was, other than to show himself in public and thereby prove he wasn’t hiding in the bunker. I suppose he figured he couldn’t just stand in the WH doorway, and there was a church nearby, so he grabbed a Bible from someone and, with his entourage of lickspittles, lumbered over to the church to…do what? Didn’t think that part through. So he just stood there looking surly and holding up the Bible.

    He may have thought: Bible. Church. Me. Stand in front of church. Wave Bible. Look like good Christian. Make Cult45 happy.

    7
  10. de stijl says:

    Trump looks like the woman in “The Summer Of George” episode of Seinfeld who doesn’t move her arms when she walks.

    He’s carrying two invisible suitcases.

    It’s really unnatural.

    3
  11. charon says:

    @CSK: The Bible came out of Ivanka’s purse, but there seems to have been no other thought what to do at the church. The church was the pretext for the dominance display of the walk through Lafayette Park.

    From one of the comments at my earlier linky:

    Here we are five years later, nearly at the other end of the hellish journey (God willing) and he’s doing the same kind of thing: standing in a spot and mutely holding up a prop. What is he trying to convey? “This is my church”? “This is my bible?” (No.) “I am now allowed to walk here”? “The bible is my rebuttal to the protests — it’s so obvious and clear why, that I don’t have to say anything”? (When it’s obvious that the spot was chosen because it was feasibly close to the White House; he could have made the same “point” about how fearless he is by walking to a waffle house.)

    Nobody had written anything; he had no move once he was standing there. What was he expecting would happen? In his mind, what would be the nation’s and the world’s adulatory response?

    5
  12. de stijl says:

    @charon:

    Spot on for “dominance display”

    Performative Bible wielding.

    4
  13. charon says:

    Here is another comment excerpt from my link.

    ” … But then he got to the church, holding the bible and you can see it in the photos, he suddenly realizes that his thinking never got any further than that and he looks for something else to do but he has nothing ….”

    Right, like he had dementia-induced “short term memory loss” and recovered “how did I get here?” situational awareness with this strange oblong object in his hands that he started playing with and brandishing like a new toy. Then he saw the cameras and put on his patented “strong face” for them, and walked back to the WH triumphantly.

    Note the odd way he walks: dementia symptoms.

    2
  14. reid says:

    @CSK: Or plain ol’ constipation.

    1
  15. MarkedMan says:

    @charon:

    Note the odd way he walks: dementia symptoms.

    Trump may or may not have dementia but I think his walk, as well as the way he stands, can be explained more simply by a combination of two things.

    First, Trump wears lifts. For those who don’t know, these are shoes that nominally look like normal mens dress shoes but are actually high heels, with a slightly more generous regular heel (men’s are normally about 1 inch, a thicker sole, and then another 1-2″ hidden inside the rear of the shoe. You can buy them off the shelf for small men’s shoe sizes but in Trump’s size they must be custom made. This is how 6′ tall Trump sometimes, but by no means always, has looked to be 6′ 3″. Just google “How tall is Trump” for interesting photos and comparisons.

    Second, I’m pretty sure Trump is wearing a pretty brutal men’s corset. There doesn’t seem to be any other way to explain the dramatic shifts in waistline we see when he is garbed up in a suit and when he is photographed at a distance on his golf course. Essentially, a corset uses the spine as an anchor post to compress dozens of pounds of fat into a more flattering shape. He’s probably cranking 30-50 pounds of waist, stomach and chest blubber into some serious compression.

    We are used to seeing men of all sizes and physique in normal dress shoes walking, and we mentally accommodate the different physics involved. But if the rhythm and stance doesn’t match what we are seeing, something appears off. Now, imagine Trump in high heels, with his middle cranked so tight he can hardly bend at the waist, and an unnatural distribution of his excess pounds. Doesn’t that make a lot of sense in how he stands and walks?

    7
  16. de stijl says:

    From how the St. John’s pics are staged, it is unclear he is in front of a church until the last one. He is standing in front of some stairs before.

    He apparently shuffled over to get the St. John’s sign in the shot later. As did the photographer shuffle as both shots are head on.

    This not gospel, but Trump is reportedly afraid of stairs.

    Barr is now claiming he did not give the “tactical order” to clear Lafayette Square although WH Press Secretary said he had done so. “Tactical” seems a very specific denial.

    It was a half hour before curfew and it a peaceful protest of people with signs.

  17. de stijl says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Golfing Trump is markedly more rotund.

    Not definitive, but very strongly suggestive.

    Actually, I really don’t care if he’s wearing a girdle or about his hair or the obvious tanning: he is a shitty person and a horrible President.

    Thankfully, we have an election in November.

    3
  18. JohnMcC says:

    @MarkedMan: Back during the ’16 campaign, I came to a similar conclusion about his ‘lifts’. Watching him descend stairs for his airplane made it pretty obvious that he has to hold a bannister to avoid being pitched forward.

    1
  19. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    The image of General Milley, the CJCS, in his BDUs is also jarring.

    Maybe in more ways than you realize. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and surmise that he must be wearing a flak vest or something underneath because he looks very much like any morbidly obese cosplayer that I’d be likely to see at one of the divier taverns in my neighborhood or at Gator’s Guns–the gunsmith about a block away from my apartment. Striking resemblance. Almost eerie.

  20. An Interested Party says:

    …Trump’s popularity with Catholics has plummeted 23 points in about two months.

    Of course…Catholics are more reasonable and sensible than evangelicals–God’s Chosen Hypocrites…

    Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress

    Charlatans…if it exists, a special place in hell will be reserved for them…

    1
  21. charon says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    because he looks very much like any morbidly obese cosplayer that I’d be likely to see at one of the divier taverns in my neighborhood or at Gator’s Guns–the gunsmith about a block away from my apartment.

    Mattis is reportedly very hostile and contemptuous of him, and that is one of the issues- Mattis thinks it’s undisciplined and unseemly.

  22. gVOR08 says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: According to WIKI this is an ACU (Army Combat Uniform) which replaces the BDU (Battle Dress Uniform) around 2000. But this is what he wears to meetings in the WH with the President? Was it like business casual day? Is this what the Army wears in the office now?

    3
  23. de stijl says:

    @gVOR08:

    Do not know WH protocol, but I assume standard dress would be Class As for desk duty.

    This strikes me cosplay for effect.

    Unless my assumption is flat out incorrect it looks and feels banana republic bullshit.

    1
  24. de stijl says:

    @gVOR08:

    A lot old school folks disdain them as “ripstop jammies”.

    I like the the look, myself. Especially the Marine pattern.

    Afaik, BDU is still common parlance.

  25. de stijl says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Lifts would explain Trump’s rumored aversion to stairs.

    Probably took a hard tumble one time and got spooked.

    Even if that all is untrue, he is still a laughably insecure overcompensating man.

    3
  26. Gustopher says:

    @de stijl:

    Barr is now claiming he did not give the “tactical order” to clear Lafayette Square although WH Press Secretary said he had done so. “Tactical” seems a very specific denial.

    He just said he wanted the protesters to leave in tears. He didn’t order tear gas.

    2
  27. Kylopod says:
  28. Joe says:

    It is interesting to me how much farther ahead Trump has gotten (or been allowed to get) in the 3rd of your images. It makes it feel that much more staged that everybody in his entourage has fallen back to give him that space with the phalanx of armed officers. It also makes his entourage look that much more obsequious.