One of the things I’ve long admired about the United States of America, is how it documents itself. For better or worse, the USA keeps all its photos and home movies, and it’s as close to an indigenous folk art as it has outside of jazz.
TV, movies, long-form journalism, sports montages, rolling news, podcasts with low vibrations about razor tense subjects, vlogs, streams, records — there’s not a feeling America hasn’t had that hasn’t been turned into something the rest of us can gawp at.
One of America’s high watermarks is its photojournalism — no-one does it quite like those guys, capturing the nation’s grief, celebrations, bizarre weather, falls from grace, and all the horror of that wide open space in a country too large for itself.
When it comes to politics, the USA is the greatest nation on the planet when it comes to capturing its subjects through a lens. Politicians, naturally, have learned how to try and turn this to their advantage, getting photographers to make them look more human when privately, they may well be grey-skinned blood-thirsty ghouls.
The attempt to make politicians more relatable is nothing new — from kissing babies at state fairs, to hamming up their regional accents, to cracking open a beer with the boys down in the yard, to holding some grieving widow’s hand outside a church — politicians know that an image can do more than a thousand words ever could. Over the last decade, with the slew of news and opinion hitting us from all angles, a striking image and a punchy headline is king in a world where people feel like they just don’t have the time to read. Clickbait, echo chambers, whatever it is — something short and sharp is what’s ruling the roost.
So with that, it’s so remarkable that for the past four years, we’ve seen an American president that is absolutely devoid of any kind of humanity. We’re not talking about political decisions or anything like that here (no president is clean as they’ve all washed their hands in the muddy water), but rather, the person they want to project.
When we see Donald J. Trump, it’s difficult to imagine him relaxed. Can you imagine him with a cardigan draped over his shoulders, sat at a modest dinner table surrounded by the people he loves, quietly informing them that he’d like a night off from talking about current affairs, stock markets and polls, because he wants some good, simple food and a laugh with good people who want nothing more than his company?
Even Nixon liked a drink and even played piano at the Grand Ol’ Opry. JFK, a thoroughly modern Prez, allowed for candid photos showing himself off as a family man (when we know that he was prone to a roving eye).
Not Trump. There’s an Excel Spreadsheet where a person is meant to be.
The man is always on. He’s always in those awful suits that flap like a tent in a rainstorm. He might loosen his tie once in a while, or even clamber into his golfing gear, but there’s still no comfort in him. With every American president that has existed in the TV age at least, we can picture the person away from the Oval Office. Some look like they prefer a quiet calm, while others look like they’d have a couple of wines too many with their inner circle and let their shoulders unwind.
George Bush Sr may have had a night off, contentedly sat beside Barb with a good book and NPR murmuring in the background. Clinton, you expect, would have had some Coltrane on and a cigarette. Jimmy Carter probably made model planes. There’s no need to fact-check these things — you can just imagine their interests because they allowed us to remind ourselves that, behind the podium stood an actual person who happened to have a tough and often shitty job.
While other figures extolled the virtue of their support group, their families, their friends — Trump cuts such a lonely figure. It seems he is only ever energised by wheeling and dealing, backed up with grotesque displays of authority, vanity, and demands of loyalty. That’s not to say previous presidents didn’t have those characteristics — but they certainly weren’t their only traits.
It seems like Trump has been in a bad suit since he was born. The midwife must have pulled him out lapels first, and asked his father if he wanted to cut the chain on the new baby’s pocket watch. Look at a scholarly president like Barack Obama and you get the sense of a popular, smart young man who definitely inhaled and shot hoops, because a man cannot live on books alone.
Every world leader has a story to tell about why they wanted to shape their nation — and Trump? It’s just another vain grab at something he’d not conquered before, devoid of any personable qualities.
One was a toker and the other one’s always been a broker (sorry).
It might seem trivial, but this matters — being President of the United States (or leader of any other country for that matter) is more than just piling up spreadsheets and poll numbers. You’re a figurehead — it says something about your country, culture, you as people.
Look at New Zealand currently — a country that no-one really took notice of outside of rugby and Lord of the Rings — in Jacinda Ardern, they’re bright and plucky — a minnow sure, but still to be taken seriously and with good ideas to at least be heard.
In England, Tony Blair was an estate agent who played guitar — sure, phony as hell, but there was a can-do optimism mixed into the cringeworthy careerist too. For the pure bumbling and downright sinister incompetence of Boris Johnson, you can’t say that he’s not a man who couldn’t give you a half decent tip-off for a restaurant.
In the States, we’re looking at a President that lacks all sensible humanity. He’s gaudy at best, which a personality doesn’t make. What’s his favourite sitcom? What’s he reading at the minute? What family recipe makes him feel like he’s home? What’s his top 5 albums? Who is his favourite painter? What cute cooking trick has he got that he picked up from a friend? Which bit of the countryside could he retreat to, take a deep breath, and feel at peace?
There’s absolutely nothing about the man that isn’t bluster and bile. The things he likes are to be enjoyed solely by their financial value. The places he enjoys are only to show his successes — beautiful mountains are little more than potential sites for private ski resorts, and architecture is a cost saving exercise rather than an artform.
When you think of Trump at home, he’s not listening to soul music or surrounded by anything approaching comfort — it’s a just a large wall-mounted flat-screen TV playing rolling news, shrieking away, with a pile of printer paper and lousy pie-charts in primary colours. It’s the empty calorie of a Big Mac fart. It’s a third unfinished can of Diet Coke drank through a straw (which is only ever not sinister if you’re 5 years old or wearing lipstick).
There’s no joyful chaos of pets either. American presidents are famed for having dogs, but you can imagine Trump only ever taking an interest in an animal if it’s either mounted on a wall or in a sterile fish-tank — in both cases, nature a thing to be tamed rather than embraced.
Nothing pricks your pretention and pomposity like having to stare directly at the fresh shit your dog has just done on your rug, before you scrape it up and wonder if you can dispose of it before doing a loud, hilarious wretch.
That’s not to say that his family aren’t warm to each other — of course, they’re bizarre ogres passing themselves off as Hamptons preppy — but away from their parents, there’s a sense that Trump’s children enjoy each other’s company.
Again, we’re not talking about the offspring in a professional or moral sense, but look at them, horsing around and razzing on the youngest one — they clearly have a relationship, and you invariably have to credit some lovely nanny who actually raised them while dad and his wife were off squinting at some gala (what is that squinting all about? Chronic indigestion? Some Dark Side Smizing thing?).
Romantically speaking, presidents have long shown their love for the women who were instrumental in not only their sanity, but their successes. Barack and Michelle’s relationship has been crucial in people’s affections for them, but more conservatively, even Ronald and Nancy Reagan were clearly crazy about each other.
Away from the nukes and posturing, popular presidents have stood beside women who you absolutely know would tear strips off them if they were being out of order.
Trump’s relationship, like his personal life, feels like an arrangement; a deal. Of course, we’ve seen Donald and Melania walking hand-in-hand — and she’s clearly not a woman trapped in a marriage to a man she fundamentally disagrees with — she’s complicit, make no mistake about that.
However, like no modern First Couple before, there’s an intense iciness between the two, which is almost impressive given that both will know every eye in the world is scrutinising their every micro-move.
We’ve seen her snatching her hand away from her husband on numerous occasions, and Trump and Melania’s peculiar looking relationship was thrown into sharp relief during the presidential debates, when (now President Elect) Joe Biden and Dr Jill embraced comfortably and warmly, while The First Couple stood side-by-side a local theatre group’s recreation of Hugh Grant and Divine Brown’s mugshots.
Not that we should picture a political couple bumping uglies under the White House duvet (Trump, for the record, definitely has a duvet cover that has an American eagle, backed by Stars ’n’ Stripes, probably driving an SUV over some hippies skulls or something), but can you even picture Donald and Melania standing in the same bedroom while they get ready for a cuddle and a sleep?
Imagining that orange faced blowhard bearing down on that mannequin of a woman feels transactional, as he hauls himself off her still body, fake tan on the Egyptian cotton pillow cases, she’s invariably still hair-immaculate, in lace, coldly lobbing a box of Kleenex at his head, weird haybale hair stuck to his shoulder, while she goes to smoke thin cigarettes and a cleansing straight shot of vodka, before sleeping it off in the spare room.
Mildly related request — Putin, release the piss tapes.
Somehow, a country that’s as obsessed with being down-on-the-farm as the United States is, there’s nothing of that hokey ol’ fun America in their President. He’s not a good slice of pie at a truck stop. He’s not the music of the Appalachian Mountains. He’s not someone cooking a huge rack of ribs in a smoker. He’s not the wise-ass yellow cab driver who met Sinatra that one time. He’s not invited to the cook-out.
He’s a corporate tent of a man. He’s that awkward wait between the wedding service and the reception. He’s the bogus handshake of a job interview. He’s Guinness in a Heineken glass.
American journalists have always been great at capturing the essence of a president, and 2016–2020 showed us that they’ve not lost their touch. We waited to see who would reveal themselves from behind the posturing and posing, and it turned out that we were right all along — there was nothing there to begin with.
What’s so sad about that, is that huge number of Americans identified with that, when the rest of world thought very differently.
Trump’s retirement will no doubt continue like his presidency, firing off unhinged missives while he sits constipated on some heated golden toilet and calling in on news networks with that bizarre, fractured English of his. Even Nixon redeemed himself in public in his later years. Dubya has taken up oil painting. Jimmy Carter is building houses, and Barry and Michelle have gone the linen trousers route.
We know Trump is a maniac with absolutely nothing culturally to nurture and distract him, so hopefully, he’ll be disregarded as a crank in a tinfoil hat. Hell, once he’s not allowed near the nuclear codes, it might even be perversely funny.
It’s Biden’s turn now, so hopefully, he’ll put some Beach Boys on, get his photo taken pouring a pint in a pub in Ireland, laugh with Kamala, dance with his wife at a gala, and most of all, remind us that there’s a person stood in those shoes that understands the gravity of the job he’s had bestowed on him by the American people.
His dog has already tripped him up and broken his foot, and he’s wearing aviator shades, so that’s as good a start as any.