A really exceptional work of obscenity, like a really exceptional work of beauty, exceeds the ability of its viewers to fathom what they just saw. Did that just happen? But … how? What sorcery created it? Words don’t arrive, and the stammering gives way to silence.
The latest publicity photograph of the president in El Paso, Texas, knocked me into silence for a good half hour this morning while I tried to figure out the many layers of obscenity on display. The photo features a baby whose parents were killed in El Paso a few days ago. The baby survived because his parents shielded him with their bodies. In the photo, he is cradled by Melania Trump. The president is next to her; both are smiling broadly, and the president is offering a thumbs-up. The child is expressionless and wearing a cute plaid bow tie.
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.