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.
Out of context, the photo looks like a portrait of a family, with proud parents or grandparents awkwardly posing next to a new baby. In all such photos, the baby participates unwittingly. But in this one, his conscription is grotesque, and his lack of expression nauseating to behold. The vacancy of his stare is somehow more crushing than if he were bawling, and thereby showing some awareness of his loss. Does he know that his parents will never come back? Does he know that these plastic people, grinning in his parents’ place, will hand him to relatives and never come back either? Does he know that one of them called people who looked like his parents “invaders,” the same word used by the killer who shot them dead at a Walmart?
And then there is the bow tie. According to the El Paso Times, the boy’s father supported Trump, and the family wanted Trump to visit them. They dressed their little orphan up for the occasion, and I judge them for neither their support nor the resulting photograph. (Tito, the boy’s uncle, stands next to Trump in the photo.) What the bow tie shows, I think, is respect: This is how you dress up your little ones when heading to a wedding or a meeting with someone important. Contributing to the peculiarity of the image is the Trumps’ failure to match that respect, to modulate their smiles to suit the gravity of the occasion.
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. This is never truer than for a man like Trump, who cannot speak without giving offense and enjoying it. The photograph was released by Melania and could have been taken in the spirit of mourning that the occasion deserved, or it could have been taken not at all. It is one of the most twisted things I have seen in a long time.