Must have been a hell of a learning curve for Joyce Boghosian, the official White House photographer. Pretty much a starting-from-scratch sort of thing. Pete Souza, Obama’s snapper, had perfected a sort of high-sheen Vanity Fair approach, using the One’s leanness as a sort of organising principle — alternating between composed and funky, big grinning. Boghosian’s boss is a man who likes standing in front of a gold elevator.
She’s got the hang of it by now, but two days ago, she must have been changing lenses, thinking “what the fuck now?”, as White House staff loaded in plates of hundreds of Wendy’s and McDonald’s hamburgers, apple pies, and grudgingly, a half dozen or so salads.
The feast was for the Clemson University, South Carolina, football team, whose visit to the White House occurred during day 23 of the government shutdown, with the full catering complement stood down. Boghosian did both her boss and the world proud, with an overcoated, red-tied Trump, hands raised, between two wall lamps flaring in overexposure, and behind a groaning table of rapidly cooling, congealing grease-burgers.
The president got his populist shot, sticking it to the snobs with good ol’ American food, and the world got a photo you could smell, like someone had thrown up in a Volkswagen on a hot day. “This looks like something Batman would do to catch the Hamburgler,” someone tweeted, and that’s exactly what it looked like.
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Through the ’90s and 2000s, left-wing publishers raided the stock libraries of the world for pictures of paradoxical excess (a giant champagne glass made of thousands of champagne glasses for Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Empire of Capital was my favourite). Now, everyone will want this photo, and no one can use it. People have already Wiki-designed new editions of Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism with it. Boghosian, simply by doing her job, is part of the Resistance.
There were a few souls, who haven’t yet heard the news, who said “Trump must surely be finished with this”. Still? The president who discussed methods of sexual assault, and urged the Russian state to hack his opponent for missing emails? That Trump, finished? No, of course not. But equally, the image didn’t gather the joyous right-wing anti-elitism it might once have done. There wasn’t much garrumphing about what Hillary would have served, or how Obama would have had the arugula salad out, while wearing his tan suit, blah blah.
A photo of congealing fast food dished up, stone cold, to boys who probably eat better burgers by choice, may not do anything to Trump, but it sure symbolises where his presidency is at. Quite rapidly, with the turn into the third year, the shutdown starting to really bite on about 5 million people, federal workers and their families, the chaotic nature of his foreign policy and the tightening circle of the Mueller investigation, the presidency ain’t the sugar rush it used to be.
The memory of Obama is gone now, of the way those who hated him saw his era — rule by an un-American, know-it-all elite, giving away American power — and there is nothing left to rub Trump up against, as it were. In the absence of such, even those initially sympathetic to Trump — all but the hard core — cannot but be disconcerted by the chaos of his leadership, now too obvious to miss.
Shutting down the government to demand “The Wall” is to choose, as a rallying point, something that was never a major cause for many in his broader base. Trump voters voted to disrupt the system, to reaffirm economic nationalism, to smack political correctness in the mouth, and to put a can-do businessman among the politicians. Now he’s can’t-doing for something they themselves saw as a symbol of anti-systemic politics (as did Trump’s advisers; they wanted a concrete image he could focus on, to crystalise an anti-immigration stance).
The rule of US shutdowns seems to be that whoever is holding out for the more specific and programmatic demand gets the blame. Obama refused to ratify continuation bills (getting an actual budget through would be beyond anyone’s wildest dreams) which proposed to entirely defund the Planned Parenthood organisation, among other things. He won that one. The Democrat House appears to be winning this one.
This is in parallel with a foreign policy that is now shambolic: simultaneously appointing arch hawk John Bolton, then withdrawing from northern Syria at the behest of Turkish President Recep Erdoğan, then threatening Turkey, a NATO ally and Russia-buffer, with economic destruction if they attacked the Syrian Kurds. Possibly the object is to clear the decks for an attack on Iran, but it seems far less thought-out than that.
Finally, there’s the Trump-Russia stuff: the allegation that Trump demanded the translator’s notes from his private meeting with Putin, that the FBI had opened an investigation of Russian influence on him, that someone espied him eating documents. The multiplicity of such news prompted Trump’s handlers to have FOX News uber-Trumpista Jeanine Pirro — a TV lawyer spoken of as a possible Supreme Court candidate — to ask whether he had ever worked for Russia, so that Trump could categorically deny it.
By now, Trump’s Russia links are deep into what I have called “the Hollywood effect” — what people will accept in films and TV (“Of course the syndicate ran him off the road! He had the Potrezebie papers!”) they cannot believe in real life. Until a threshold is reached and the whole thing — a businessman in hock to Russian banks with a hefty bit of kompromat attached, running to damage the presumed victor, and then becoming president himself — becomes visible all at once.
It seemed to me that the Trump presidency would run into trouble either in an actual disaster — a 9/11 type scenario where it became obvious that someone else was running the joint as Trump flaked out — or that it would simply go stale, as the resistant thrill of his anti-elitism faded, the longer he was actually President. You wouldn’t want to underestimate his playing out of the shutdown — the one thing he’s good at is this sort of brinkmanship stand-off — but otherwise, it may be that the official record captured the moment when the Trump presidency went stale.