What’s Wrong with this Picture?

Trump's trip to El Paso in one photo and two videos.

Trump in El Paso
“President Trump and the First Lady in El Paso, Texas” by The White House is in the Public Domain, CC0

This week, in the aftermath of two mass shooting, President Trump made trips to both Dayton, OH and El Paso, TX. He did so under a cloud of controversy as many local politicians and citizens (to include a lot of the survivors) were not keen on his presence. A headline in the El Paso Times well illustrates the general atmosphere: President Trump visits to El Paso, Dayton prompt tears, anger, debate.

This is not how we would typically describe a visit by a president of the United States in his role as head of state. Normally, as with George W. Bush immediately after 9/11, a president takes on the role as a point of unity. Yes, our political polarization is part of the problem, but the main problem is that Trump never governs, in any circumstance, like he is President of the entire United States, but rather he governs as President of the Trump Base.

Worse, his rhetoric cannot be ignored in the context of the El Paso event in particular (for example, see my 2018 post, Words Matter, or this clip of him making a joke about shooting immigrants, or this clip of the “send her back” chant, and on and on and on).

The El Paso Times story describes the basics of the visit thusly:

In El Paso, after an earlier trip to Dayton, Ohio, Trump met with two survivors’ families, but none of the eight wounded in the massacre, the El Paso Times learned. He also met with people like Army Pfc. Glendon Oakley, Jr., who is credited with saving children during the attack.

“I just want to thank you,” the president said, addressing a crowd of first responders at the Emergency Operations Center on Threadgill Avenue. Trump called El Paso police Chief Greg Allen a “winner,” and added the shooter, who was arrested, “went out like a coward.”

Much of the visit to El Paso was conducted in private. There was no public apology for rhetoric that many El Pasoans believe fueled the hate that inspired the attack, nor were there any announced plans for any solutions to the country’s recent misery. 

By dinnertime, he was gone, tweeting from the air: “Leaving El Paso for the White House. What GREAT people I met there and in Dayton, Ohio. The Fake News worked overtime trying to disparage me and the two trips, but it just didn’t work. The love, respect & enthusiasm were there for all to see. They have been through so much. Sad!”

For example, note this tepid response to the pending visiting from El Paso Mayor Dee Margo (a Republican):

“I want to clarify for the political spin that this is the office of the mayor of El Paso, in an official capacity, welcoming the office of the president of the United States, which I consider as my formal duty.”

Source: NPR’s Morning Edition: Trump As ‘Consoler-In-Chief’

And this hostile response from Representative (D-TX):

“He is not welcome here. He should not come here while we are in mourning.”

Source: ibid.

It should be noted that most of the survivors did not want to meet with Trump.

There were similar responses from Dayton, such as Mayor Nan Whaley’s (D) comment that Trump’s has “unhelpful” on gun violence.

All of this paints a highly dysfunctional picture of a presidency unable to undertake one of its easiest functions. Easy in the sense of needing no political capital nor not needing anyone else’s help. Easy in the sense that all it should take is some empathy and human compassion. Certainly, it is not easy in the sense of having to deal with the tragedies that spark the need for this role in the first place.

But, let’s get to an actual picture.

This one:

Trump in El Paso
“President Trump and the First Lady in El Paso, Texas” by The White House is in the Public Domain, CC0

The story behind this visit can be found here (via WaPo: Why one family mourning El Paso victims chose to meet with Trump).

Beyond that, let’s look to two video clips.

First, from his visit with hospital staff:

In this clip he goes from praising the medical staff to talking about his crowds at a previous El Paso rally to slamming Beto O’Rourke in less than a minute and a half. He also gets in some digs on the media. The clip is less than two minutes in length.

This is not presidential.

It is not empathy.

This is narcissism.

Then we have this video from Trump’s own twitter feed:

What is that? How could anyone think that appropriate?

All of this is, in a word, grotesque.

One does not grin and “thumbs up” a photo with a mass shooting victim’s family. One does not lapse into talk about crowd sizes and political opponents while visiting with hospital staff who have been helping the victims of mass shootings. And one does not post a self-aggrandizing, campaign-style video after visiting the sites of two mass shootings.

Or, rather, one does if one is Donald Trump.

Writing about the photo in The Atlantic (Trump’s El Paso Photo is Obscene) Graeme Wood said the following which applies to more than just the photo, but the entirety of the topic of this post):

If Trump had failed to visit El Paso, liberals would surely be criticizing him, rightly, for his absence. So it isn’t his presence alone that makes the photograph odious. First there are the smiles, so chipper in the aftermath of mass murder. For some reason, this Trump smile calls to mind the one in his famous tweeted portrait in which he’s eating a taco bowl (“I love Hispanics!”) served by Trump Tower Grill. Then there is the thumbs-up, also present to signal approval of the taco bowl, and in this case to signal approval of what, exactly? The narrow survival of the infant? The heroism of the hospital staff and first responders who cared for the wounded? Somehow neither of these possibilities seems quite right, and contemplation has brought me no closer to a better answer. I do not imagine that Trump is applauding the slaughter. But few gestures are appropriate for both a taco bowl and the death of a baby’s parents.

He’s not wrong about the taco bowl photo:

Wood continues:

The president of the United States is photographed wherever he goes, and of course some of those photos will show him picking his nose or smirking when he should be serious. The optical demands of the job are impossible to appreciate, and we should forgive him for the occasional failure to twist his face into an appropriate expression. But sometimes—and this is one of those times—the optical demands of the office are the only demands. In the immediate bereavement of an infant’s parents, nothing is needed but respectful silence. 

(Emphasis mine).

And I will conclude with: indeed.

FILED UNDER: 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


  1. CSK says:

    It was agony watching those videos for one who suffers from vicarious embarrassment.

  2. Mister Bluster says:

    …respectful silence.

    Not in Trump’s psyche.

  3. Hal_10000 says:

    There’s a pattern here that everyone saw coming:

    1) awful thing happens
    2) Trump acts Presidential (kinda) for ten seconds
    3) Media star commenting on how bad he is at real empathy
    4) Trump watches new, gets angry that no one appreciates the effort he went to.
    5) Trump lashes out.

    Mass shootings, hurricanes, state funerals, doesn’t matter. Always the same. The time-scale is usually a few days. We’re already in phase 5.

  4. Kit says:

    All of this is, in a word, grotesque.

    If that’s true, then what does it say about the 46% of the country who all but worship this pig? We have grown grotesque and no election will change that.

  5. Teve says:

    @Kit: he got elected with 46 but his approval rating has been stuck at around 42% virtually ever since. So the glass is 58% full 🙂

  6. SenyorDave says:

    Actually in some ways the worst thing is bragging about the crowd size. Because that shows what really is important to Trump. The other stuff is all a nuisance, it’s the adulation that he needs that really matters. Fortunately Trump can be expected to screw up any situation, and he didn’t disappoint. And as callous as it sounds, for most presidents disasters are their wheelhouse. Obama, Bush Jr., and Clinton all seemed to be pretty good at empathizing, and really seemed to care about the victims (this does not necessarily translate into being competent – see Bush/Katrina). But Trump not only doesn’t feel empathy, he can’t even fake empathy.
    The shooting in the Pittsburgh synagogue happened 10 days prior to the 2018 midterms.
    That same day this is Trump: “If there was an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop him,” he said to reporters before boarding a flight to a pair of events later in the afternoon.
    After that Pittsburgh didn’t even want him to come. I always wonder if Trump had actually acted presidential might that have made a tiny difference in the midterms. There were a large amount of close races. For the House, in 9 races, the margin of victory was lass than 1% , and in 34 races it was between 1% and 5%.

  7. Scott F. says:

    What’s Wrong with this Picture? That’s easy…

    …this is now normal. Republicans in Congress and the Trumpaloons in bars and comment threads across the Internet will defend Trump against this characterization of him as grotesque.

  8. CSK says:

    “Thumbs up” and jabbing his index finger toward the person next to him seem to be his default gestures.

  9. gVOR08 says:

    @Hal_10000: So his lack of appropriate behavior is the fault of the MSM? Sounds like some sort of corollary to Murc’s law.

  10. Kari Q says:

    It used to be that when someone praised the president (any previous president) for bringing the country together after disaster, I’d give a mental shrug and think “That’s the easiest part of a president’s job. Say a few words in praise of those who died, talk about the nation coming together, strength through unity, and you’re done.” Clinton after the bombing in Oklahoma City, Reagan after the Challenger disaster, any president after any natural disaster, it’s easy approval. Just don’t be awful and people will praise you.

    What you say doesn’t even have to make sense; W’s comments at ground zero after 9/11 didn’t, but people praised him and said he was doing a great job.

    Yet the man cannot successfully manage the easiest part of the job.

    I do not know how we recover from this.

  11. de stijl says:


    I hate Bush 43 as a president. He was super bad at it, but he seemed like a decent enough person.

    In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when he was the mound of debris and put his arm around the fire fighter’s shoulder I cried like a flippin’ baby. He was capable of seeing outside of himself and knew we needed healing and reassurance. I friggin hated that man, but in that moment he did okay, some would say good.

    Bush 43 was a terrible president, but not a bad guy. (Cheney on the other hand was wholy, intentionally evil.)

    Trump is way worse at presidentin’ than Bush 43 was (and that’s saying something – the bar was very, very low) and literally cannot conceive of it or even fake empathy.

    It is always about him forever and ever. Amen.

    That is his concept of an empathy tour. Get a photo op with the infant who lost both parents and had to be transported to the hospital for the photo op, grin and give a thumb’s up. Talk about your crowd size. Dis your rivals.

    In his mind it was perfect. “I nailed it!”

    It is why he is the worst of all possible Presidents.

    At least we can say that we experienced and (hopefully) survived the worst President we can possibly muster up.

    So we’ve got that going for us.

  12. gVOR08 says:

    Dr.T, I have to object to your headline. There’s nothing wrong with that picture. It perfectly captures the subject and the moment. Although one does need a little context to see it.

  13. gVOR08 says:

    @de stijl: I always sort of thought W wanted to do the right thing. He was just too ignorant to have any idea what the right thing was.

  14. Raoul says:

    I wonder what the baby is going to think when he grows up. For more information on the relative who brought the baby to the photo go to the no more mr. nice guy blog. It seems he is trying to monetize the situation.

  15. de stijl says:


    He was really bad at his job, but he always struck me as a decent sort in a vacuum.

    Unfortunately, he chose wrong from the get go in allowing Cheney to evaluate the possible choices for veep and select himself as the best person.

    It was baked in from the start. He pulled away from that his last two years, but the die was cast.

    In no way am I excusing what happened under his watch. He was a supremely shitty President and killed a whole mass of folks that should not have died.

    Trump has not killed nearly as many people yet, but I deem him worse than Dubya because Trump could easily kill all of us – as in every human on the planet – with a stupid tweet because he felt disrespected.

  16. Joe says:

    @de stijl:

    At least we can say that we experienced and (hopefully) survived the worst President we can possibly muster up.

    So we’ve got that going for us.

    We’ll see.

  17. de stijl says:


    Knock wood. I don’t even want to think about what would be worse

  18. Monala says:

    In addition to the points made above, the infant has broken bones from his mother covering him. So he may even have been in pain during this photo op. He’d been released from the hospital, but asked to come back for the photo. An injured baby!

  19. Gustopher says:

    Someone thought it would be a good idea to dress the infant like a young Tucker Carlson. Horror.

  20. Gustopher says:

    @de stijl: I really don’t think W was stupid — just clumsy with words in a Bidenesque way. I think W was lazy and mostly didn’t care. He wanted power, but had no real idea of what he wanted to do with it, and just left it to others.

    Lazy and apathetic, and got a lot of people killed as a result, and destabilized the Middle East, and just didn’t care that much.

    Trump is dumb, but he cares. The things he cares about are also awful.

    I don’t know which is worse. I suspect we will get dumb and apathetic and lazy at some point.

  21. de stijl says:

    Trump cares. About himself and how others perceive him. That’s it.

    That is the breadth of his caring.

    I would take lazy and apathetic in a heartbeat. I want us all to survive until November next year.

    Trump’s best feature as President is that he’s really incompetent at it. Thank whatever deity you hold dear.

  22. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @de stijl:

    At least we can say that we experienced and (hopefully) survived the worst President we can possibly muster up.

    Hold my election, watch this!

  23. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Imagine what this poor kid will think as he gets old enough to understand, and begins to think it over.

    Wait…this guy incited a nut-job to travel 600 miles and seek out people like my parents to kill, and he’s giving it a thumbs-up? WTF? Mission accomplished? My parents were killed and it’s, at least partially, his fault. And what’s with my Aunt and Uncle kissing his fat orange ass? Don’t they care that my parents are dead? How can that be? And WTF is going on with that hair-do? That guy has tiny hands too…look, my hands are bigger and they were broken!!!

  24. Liberal Capitalist says:

    There is nothing wrong with that picture.

    If it was six months from now.

    And if he and Melody Melanomaia Minnie Mouse Melania were adopting this child.

    Then it would be great and a fitting reaction.

    However, today, considering what we know, and the immediacy to the loss, it reminds me more of this:

  25. David S. says:

    Yeah, I think Gustopher nails W: he’s not stupid by any means, he just didn’t have anything he wanted to do. There was no signature issue. He was a figurehead not because of any lack of personal ability, but because of a lack of personal vision. And I mean, he’s the “compassionate conservative” guy: problematic as that is, it beat Trump’s cult of hatred all to hell.

    Which isn’t surprising. Compassion isn’t a differentiator in the political field. It isn’t fucking supposed to be. And now it is. Yang crying; Beto walking; Trump grinning.