The clothes were a symbolic flourish to underscore the message: The border itself is the disaster.
Trump is a creature of sartorial habits. He likes his suits baggy and his red ties extra long. And when he has traveled to sites where nature has wreaked havoc, he typically arrives wearing khaki trousers, an open-collar white shirt, a navy windbreaker with the presidential seal on the chest and a baseball cap. Mostly, he wears boots.
He has worn this look when he’s been on the ground in the aftermath of hurricanes Florence, Harvey and Irma. (Often, the first lady has been with him — she in her own version of disaster gear, which typically includes a safari-style jacket and a baseball cap.)
There have been a few variations on this theme, such as when he visited the border in Laredo, Tex., as a presidential candidate in July 2015. He wore a navy blazer — as he didn’t yet have a presidential anorak. Typically, his baseball cap is white in these cases, although he wore a camouflage one to visit Paradise, Calif., in November 2018 — perhaps because he was concerned that all the ash and smoke from the deadly fires would ruin its pristine appearance.
The baseball hats have been emblazoned with “USA” or with his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” It’s particularly striking when he chooses a white version of the so-called MAGA hat, because it’s the red iteration that’s better known; it’s the one that he made famous. But the white hat suggests that he sees himself arriving as a bit of a white knight — the president swooping benevolently, or self-righteously, onto the scene. The characterization all depends upon one’s leanings.
Trump’s disaster ensemble bears a striking resemblance to his golfing togs. But that’s not surprising. Trump has a limited imagination when it comes to clothes, so any foray from behind a desk or a lectern has him pulling from a particularly small array of self-edited choices. In that regard — the self-editing part — Trump isn’t unlike his predecessor, Barack Obama, who once told Vanity Fair that he only wore gray or navy suits to cut down on the number of decisions he had to make on a given day.
But when Trump looked into his closet for Thursday’s uniform, he didn’t choose the suit and tie that speaks of white-collar management or the sport jacket that remains a favorite of the business casual set. Trump selected the uniform that announces: Unplanned mayhem, danger and destruction ahead!
In Trump’s battle over the border, facts have disappeared, been misstated or been so mangled that they’ve been rendered unrecognizable. His concrete border wall has been rebranded as steel slats, see-through barricades, a fancy fence or simply border security. Mexico will pay for it; Mexico is already paying for it. The families seeking asylum have been transformed into violent hordes toting drugs and scaling the barriers that already exist. The story of the border has become a made-up drama with real-life consequences. And Trump was costumed as the hero in the narrative that he has studiously crafted.
When Trump arrived in McAllen, he was followed off Air Force One by a supporting cast that included Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who looked as though his wardrobe was inspired by “Walker, Texas Ranger,” along with Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, both of whom had the jaunty urban outbacker look of people who maintain an account at REI. (Sen. John Cornyn [R-Tex.], dressed for an entirely different adventure, was in a navy blazer with gold buttons.)
All presidential trips to disaster zones are meant to be symbolic, even as they provide the commander in chief with a glimpse of the situation in real time. They’re an opportunity for the public to see the president get hands-on with a town’s recovery. They give the president a few moments to reassure those in dire straits that their government, at its highest level, sees and hears them. And the importance of each word of his and each handshake is freighted with meaning. Tossing paper towels into a crowd of displaced U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, which the president did in October 2017, reads like an inhumane nose-thumbing at their plight. Arriving at the U.S. border with Mexico dressed like he’s headed to the periphery of a raging firestorm is in itself a form of heated rhetoric.
The president chose not to wear a suit jacket, which would have suggested that this is not a situation that requires a declaration of national emergency — that no great waves of terrorists and pestilence are crashing over the border. Instead, it would have been a nod toward the faintest possibility of civil discourse. A suit would have suggested that perhaps now, he was getting down to business.
Instead, his attire blared that he had come to inspect the damage. And certainly there is damage. Widespread wreckage. But there’s nothing natural about it.